A scientist's report has confirmed what a mold-detecting dog sniffed out two weeks ago: There are mold growths on the carpeting, ceiling tiles and books in the Howard County circuit clerk's office.
A laboratory analysis of five samples collected by the dog's handlers, David and Rondra Marcelli of Westminster, found various types of fungi on four, most prominently on a piece of ceiling tile, according to a report from Oregon-based Mould- Works.
The mold found in the tile, Chaetomium globosum, can produce toxins and was the "most prevalent" fungus found in the samples, according to the report. It is usually found in areas that are "very wet," according to the report.
"From what we're seeing here, the real threat is probably in the ceiling tile -- and there is probably more," said Bob Lanier, a principal in the company.
However, whether the findings pose a significant health threat to clerk's office employees, who have complained for years of everything from sinus infections to migraines to aching bones, was unclear. "Conceivably, they could," the report concludes, recommending caution.
While mold growths are known factors in respiratory ailments and can aggravate allergies, their link to other ailments is unclear, according to a May report from the Institute of Medicine, a nonprofit organization that advises the country on health and medicine issues.
While Chaetomium globosum is a "bad actor," the level of the exposure is an important factor in any evaluation, according to a University of Maryland professor who has studied indoor air molds.
"It's the dose that makes the poison. That's a very important element in this," said Bruce B. Jarvis, a professor emeritus in the Department of Chemistry and Biochemistry at the University of Maryland.
The report comes a month after clerk's office employees, fed up with a pervasive musty odor in the office, talked about staging a sickout.
They never followed through, but two weeks later and after learning about so-called mold dogs, Clerk of the Circuit Court Margaret D. Rappaport asked the Marcellis to bring their chocolate Lab mix, Barney, to evaluate her office.
Rappaport said she was not surprised by the report's findings. With renovations to her office looming, Rappaport said that county officials have agreed to changes -- tile instead of carpeting, replacement of ceiling tiles -- to help alleviate the mold problem. The county has also agreed to look at ways of reducing moisture in the office.
"I feel relieved that we're coming to some solution to the problem," she said. "I'm optimistic."
Ultimately, there is a bigger fix on the immediate horizon, said James M. Irvin, the county's public works director: County officials are planning to replace the courthouse's leaky roof this fall.
"Our plan still is to get the roof fixed and renovate," Irvin said, "and hopefully that will take care of [Rappaport's] problem."