Environmental tests reveal fungi, bacteria, moisture in courthouse

Cleaning a remedy, but more space seen as cure

January 04, 2002|By Lisa Goldberg | Lisa Goldberg,SUN STAFF

Environmental testing at Howard County's Circuit Courthouse has revealed evidence of moisture, fungi and bacteria - but nothing that regular, intensive cleaning couldn't eradicate, according to a recently completed report.

The report was commissioned by the county after a preliminary air sampling showed elevated carbon dioxide and humidity levels in the historic structure. It notes that the air quality is not worrisome, but says the fungi growing in the building could become "cause for concern" if dispersed.

Mold and mildew can spark allergic reactions and respiratory congestion, even at low levels, according to the Dec. 28 report by West Chester, Pa.-based Roy F. Weston Inc.

Weston officials recommend no fixes beyond improved housekeeping, inspections and maintenance and better monitoring of environmental problems in the crowded Ellicott City building.

James M. Irvin, the public works director, said county officials plan to sit down with Weston to make sure they fully understand the 14-page report's findings and conclusions. Some work on the roof has been done as a result of preliminary testing in late October, he said, and while the county already maintains the building, officials will look at ways to better clean the structure.

"We just need to do more housekeeping," he said.

In a few months, the county likely will do some follow-up testing, he said, "to make sure whatever we're doing is working" in the building.

The Weston report comes a few months after Howard County Clerk of the Circuit Court Margaret D. Rappaport - reacting to employees' chronic complaints of headaches, eye irritation and respiratory ailments - hired an environmental testing company to sample air quality in the building.

That survey, done by Compliance Environmental International Inc. of Glen Burnie, recommended that county officials inspect the heating and air conditioning systems in the building and conduct a thorough air study.

Irvin said this week that the Glen Burnie company's sampling triggered a preliminary air study by Weston. That study led to last week's report, the result of more comprehensive testing that added analysis of areas where there was "visible staining" on such items as carpeting, tiles and dry wall.

Yesterday, Rappaport said that while improved housekeeping will be welcome, it does not get to the crux of the building's problems - too-cramped conditions in an old, historic structure.

A recent assessment of courthouse needs called for an immediate fix, estimated to cost $860,000, to add courtroom and jury room space where the state's attorney's offices are now.

The same study also concluded that as the county grows, it will have to build a new circuit courthouse, possibly as early as 2015, to meet judicial and other court-related needs.

"Housekeeping is one of the solutions," Rappaport said. "The main solution is we need more space to breathe, and we don't have it."

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