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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Thursday, July 25, 2002

Mold forcing closure of Hilton's Kalia Tower

By Andrew Gomes
Advertiser Staff Writer

Hilton Hawaiian Village shut down Waikiki's newest hotel yesterday and moved guests and employees after mold was found in guest rooms in the Kalia Tower.

Peter Schall, managing director of Hilton Hawaiian Village, said no guests had experienced any health problems related to exposure to mold and that the 453 rooms were being closed as a precaution while experts try to determine the source of the contamination.

"We want to do the right thing," he said.

He said a housekeeper discovered the mold on furniture in a guest room in early June. The room was closed to guests, but later mold turned up in other guest rooms, he said. The housekeeper who first found the mold reported that her hand was irritated by touching it, but she returned to work the next day, Schall said.

Schall said the source of the mold is unknown, but that spores were not found in air conditioning ducts.

Some mold species cause serious health problems, including chronic fatigue, headaches, sinus infections and respiratory ailments, especially among those who are allergic to it. Mold usually grows in dark places indoors fed by water leaks or condensation from air conditioning pipes, making hotels, apartment buildings and offices especially susceptible.

Schall said no there is no evidence of mold in any other parts of the sprawling Hilton complex, which is Waikiki's largest with 3,432 rooms. He said guests and about 50 employees who are usually assigned to Kalia Tower would be moved to other parts of the hotel.

For the Hilton Hawaiian Village, the mold problem dramatically compounds what had already been a difficult year marked by labor strife and fallout from the Sept. 11 attacks.

With the Kalia Tower closed at the height of the summer guest season, Schall said it is possible the hotel may have to decline some reservations because there are no available rooms. He said no meetings or convention business would be disrupted by the closure of the guest rooms and said other facilities in the tower, including a restaurant and bar, the Mandara Spa and the Holistica Hawai'i Health Center would remain open.

Kalia Tower opened 14 months ago at a cost of $95 million. Schall said the hotel was working with those involved in the construction of the building and its systems to determine the source of the mold and that it was too early to tell how much repairs might cost or who would be responsible for paying.

"Right now, we are all working together to try to find out what is causing the problem," he said.

Attention to the problem of mold contamination has grown rapidly as more medical experts link serious health issues to the microscopic organisms.

Not all mold is harmful, but the Environmental Protection Agency has deemed as unacceptable any mold growth in buildings, according to Ken Beal, executive vice president of MoldPro International, a Kailua-based indoor air quality firm specializing in mold contamination issues in Hawai'i, Texas and California.

In Hawai'i, mold growth responsible for "sick building syndrome" is not widespread, but that the humid climate and the use of air conditioning provides a friendly environment.

"It's not automatic, but it's easier for the indoor humidity to reach the level conducive for mold growth when the outdoor humidity is already at that level," Beal said.

Beal said if the presence of mold inside the Kalia Tower is widespread, it would be the largest case of mold contamination reported in Hawai'i.

A mold known to cause respiratory problems infested a Maui County office last year, and was projected to cost roughly $500,000 to remedy by upgrading air-conditioning and electrical systems and renovating the building's interior.

Hilton employees were told of the Kalia closure early yesterday and Schall said he met privately with Eric Gill, financial secretary-treasurer of Local 5 of the Hotel Employees and Restaurant Employees Union, to brief him on the situation.

Gill said the union will be reviewing absentee records of the employees who worked in Kalia Tower rooms, and comparing them to workers in other buildings to see if mold exposure may have caused a higher rate of sickness.

"We're not going to panic here, but we are going to be very aggressive about getting information on the health issues," Gill said.

Reach Andrew Gomes at agomes@honoluluadvertiser.com or 525-8065.