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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Thursday, February 28, 2002

Mold is school health risk

 •  What does your school need badly?

By Jennifer Hiller
Advertiser Education Writer

No children can enter the library at Hau'ula Elementary School. It's not safe.

Mold has spiraled out of control, forcing school officials to close the facility as a health risk.

Splotches of yellowish-brown, black and white dot the books' well-worn pages, showing up most prominently on the covers and title pages. Mold crawls up the library door frames, entwined with dust and thick as felt. It infests the air-conditioning ducts and creeps from book spine to book spine. Its musty, dank odor fills the air.

Mold plagues libraries throughout the state, but it is particularly bad at Hau'ula Elementary, across from the beach on Kamehameha Highway. Trade winds blow in daily rainshowers and the constant force of damp ocean air.

As many as half of the 12,000 books at the school library may be lost. Meanwhile, parents have to drive their children five miles to Kahuku to check out books.

After six months without a library, volunteering parents and the librarian are trying to save books and eventually reopen the library.

They are donning what they call "Ghostbusters outfits," vacuuming the books with special filters and taking the collection, box by box, to Brigham Young University-Hawai'i so they can be freeze-dried to stop the mold. The process is expected to take months.

Hawai'i's moderate, humid climate means school libraries are battling an environment that is perfect for breeding mold. The Department of Education's library specialists are trying to put together a team of trainers to teach librarians, custodians and others how to identify and react immediately to mold. And the Hawai'i Association of School Librarians will discuss at its spring conference Saturday how to cope with bugs, mold and mildew, which can cause serious health problems as well as damage library materials.

"Virtually everything here is moldy," said school library services specialist Sally Roggia. "You don't want to give it a strong foothold. Mold is a horrendous problem for everybody."

Nicky Vivas, a parent representative on Hau'ula's School and Community Based Management Committee, drives her five children the 15 minutes to the Kahuku library once a week, but she said it's not a good solution. "Not everyone has a car," Vivas noted. "Not everyone can do that."

Her second-grade daughter, Destani, pokes her head into the school library daily to see if it's all right to come inside and look at the books.

So far, the answer has been no.

Slow process

How you can help

Hau'ula School's library needs children's books to replenish its collection, especially nonfiction and Hawaiiana hardcover titles.

If you'd like to help, call vice principal Winona Enesa at 293-8925.

Vivas now volunteers in the library, suiting up in the "Ghostbusters outfit" that is supposed to protect from asthma attacks and other mold-related respiratory problems: a white hooded suit with goggles, blue latex gloves, a mask that squashes her nose and a special vacuum cleaner that sweeps up tiny spores.

Vivas, Zane and other volunteers vacuum the books and load them into a box lined with plastic. BYUH has offered free use of its library's freeze-dryer to help stop the spread of mold and save the books. Fifteen boxes of books were taken to the university this week to start the process.

It's a saving grace, but could take months to vacuum and sort the entire collection, said school librarian Natalie Zane.

Many of the books are too old and damaged to bother, and several library shelves are down to a third of their original size. "It's so hard to throw (away) a book, but they're so spotted and so damaged that there's nothing that can be done," said Zane. "It's really sad."

Education and health officials have said the higher humidity at Hau'ula needs to be combated with more steady use of air conditioning, dehumidifiers and complete cleaning of the library shelves. But there has been no new state money to help.

Vivas got a sore throat from the work Monday, which she shrugs off. "The faster we do this, the sooner my kids can get back in here," she said.

Rick Williams, librarian at Kainalu Elementary School in Kailua, saw his library closed for the greater part of a year because of mold.

Air tests showed 23 different types of spores. Students had to resort to weekly visits by the Bookmobile. After pressure from former Principal Frances Wong, the Department of Accounting and General Services contracted with a company that came in and cleaned up the library, Williams said.

The carpet was torn out, the air ducts replaced and 4,500 books — about a third of the collection — could not be saved. The state spent $190,000 on the cleanup, but no money was provided to replace the lost books.

Dehumidifiers and air conditioning make the library noisier, but less susceptible to mold and bugs.

Book triage

"The really simple solution is to put dehumidifiers in before there's a problem," Williams said.

State Librarian Virginia Lowell said mold and bugs are a problem for libraries across the state. Because of a budget shortfall that has lasted the better part of a decade, most libraries can spend money either replacing materials or trying to control humidity, but not both, Lowell said.

"You know the old story about bookworms," Lowell said. "They're attracted to the glue in the binding of books. Some of the older books are made from rice paper or rag paper, which is made from animal fibers. It's a combination of the materials used to make the book and the environment."

Mold is a bigger problem for schools than for public libraries, which often change their collections, Lowell said, while universities and schools tend to hold on to their collections longer. "For the great bulk of the regular public libraries, we keep changing them and getting rid of the old things and replacing them with new things."

At the State Library, with its extensive Hawaiiana and Pacific collection, librarians use acid-free paper and boxes to store sensitive materials. They also try to keep dust from collecting, which can become a breeding ground for mold. But the air conditioner is shut off at night and on weekends, Lowell said.

The University of Hawai'i's Hamilton Library is one of several Hawai'i libraries that keeps air conditioning on around the clock, said Lynn Davis, head of the library's preservation department.

"We still have mold problems. I mean, we're in Manoa. It's the wettest place on the island," Davis said.

A group of student workers known as the Pest Team regularly makes the rounds of the library stacks, vacuuming books and checking for evidence of bugs and mold. Anything that isn't a brand-new book from a publisher is freeze-dried before going onto the shelves.

Computers help

Davis does see one sign of hope: With more computer labs going into libraries, school administrators seem more willing to install dehumidifiers and leave air conditioners on to protect terminals. "The books can sort of ride along," Davis said. "I don't ignore any strategy that might work."

When her campus had to cut back on air conditioning in the library a few years ago, the mold flared up. At Kainalu Elementary, an air conditioner that broke down for a time could have been to blame for that campus' sudden severe mold problem, Williams said.

Zane said the discarded books are silent victims of the state's budget cuts. There are 34 piles of them stacked on wooden tables on topics ranging from Leonardo da Vinci to Charles Dickens. Even Newberry medalists, the elite of library collections, have the telltale yellowish spots.

Correction: The University of Hawai'i's Hamilton Library is one of several Hawai'i libraries that keeps air conditioning on around the clock. A Page One story Thursday about mold problems in libraries gave other information.