He's on the scent of a moldy problem

Search: Barney, a dog with a sophisticated sniffer, is called on to solve a vexing courthouse fungus problem.

August 20, 2004|By Lisa Goldberg | Lisa Goldberg,SUN STAFF

With his handler leading the way, Barney, the mold-sniffing mutt, made his way through the damp confines of the Howard Circuit Court clerk's office yesterday and put his nose to the ground.

He checked out the floor, the books, the file cabinets, the chairs, even the stained ceiling tiles that his handler, David Marcelli, laid on the ground. Barney's signal for suspected mold was straightforward and obvious - a whiff of the fungus and the 2-year-old chocolate Labrador-German shepherd shorthaired mix would sit and nod his nose at the source.

Barney sat a lot yesterday.

"He's alerting on everything," Marcelli told Clerk of the Circuit Court Margaret D. Rappaport. "This place is loaded with [mold]."

Just a few weeks after a pervasive locker room stench spawned talk of a possible sick-out among clerk's office employees, Rappaport brought in Marcelli and Barney to check the source of her workers' pervasive health complaints.

There has long been speculation among employees that mold is causing their frequent sinus infections, headaches and sore throats, Rappaport said. Mold growths can aggravate allergies and cause allergic reactions in people with sensitivities to the fungi, according to a U.S. Environmental Protection Agency guide.

With renovations to her office expected to start next month, Rappaport said she needed to know what she was dealing with.

"I want to solve it," she said. "If there's mold here, we'll correct it. If it's not mold, we'll move on."

Marcelli said he expects to have answers quickly. After marking Barney's "hits," Marcelli and his wife, Rondra, took samples, cutting up the rug, taking pieces of ceiling tile and using tape to lift samples off other items.

The samples will be sent to a laboratory in Oregon for testing, and the couple said they expect to get preliminary results within days.

Rappaport, who previously brought in an air-quality expert to analyze her space, said she will "pursue" their findings with county and state officials.

"I just needed proof," she said.

Barney's visit came a week after one of Rappaport's workers, supervisor Sheri German, came across Marcelli's booth at the Howard County Fair. German grabbed a brochure and took the information to Rappaport, who decided to visit the booth.

The Marcellis, who run Mold Trackers LLC in Westminster, said they agreed to do the detection work - for which they normally charge a flat fee of $275 and $75 an hour - at no charge as a "professional courtesy."

The Marcellis said they were doing mold remediation when they locked onto the "mold dog" concept after reading an article about canines who could sniff out 18 varieties of mold.

They bought Barney from a Florida trainer for $15,000 and traveled to the Tampa Bay area for instruction in June last year, they said.

"A lot of people walk by and giggle at first," said David Marcelli, a former Howard County firefighter. "Nobody thinks a bomb dog is funny."

No one was laughing yesterday.

As Barney walked through Rappaport's offices, employees watched closely.

"I don't want this building to be making me sick," said Charlene Nazelrod, a clerk who said she has suffered from sinus and allergy problems, as well as migraines, in her 17 years with the office.

Another clerk, Karin Wilson, who is pregnant, said she worries whether the building environment will affect her unborn child.

"It's an old building. It's humid," said Wilson, who said she filed a complaint about the office with Maryland Occupational Safety and Health last week. "Everyone assumed they would find [mold], but I just wonder, am I breathing in toxins?"

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