Mold illnesses spur U to mull destroying building

Currently used for storage, the building has sat otherwise unused by the University since 1999.

Branden Peterson

In what resembles an abandoned mansion, a College of Natural Resources science building on the St. Paul campus stands silent and boarded up.

But life remains in the building.

An unpleasant smell wafts through the air, and mold covers the walls and ceilings – but not just any mold.

Growing in abundance from excessive moisture, the fungus has developed into a health threat that might lead to the demolition of the 64-year-old building.

“It’s in a serious state of disrepair,” said John Grundtner, a Facilities Management departmental director.

In February, four University Facilities Management workers became ill with flu-like symptoms after they were exposed to mold that accumulated from steam moisture or from water seeping through the roof of the building, University officials said.

“We looked at the association between the occupation of the building and their symptoms, and we thought it’s the best guess for their symptoms, and they were consistent with mold exposure,” University public health specialist Neil Carlson said.

Regular activity in the building ended three years ago, but the building has since been used for storage space.

The University ceased use of the building in fall 1999, when it served as office space to student organizations and the University’s Water Resource Center. Heat in the building was turned off the following winter.

From its opening in 1939, the building was home to the St. Paul branch of Boynton Health Service.

Far from promoting health, the building now threatens what it once provided.

All individuals entering the building are urged to wear a filtered mask for breathing.

With several old buildings on campus that have potential to grow mold in hidden locations, Carlson and University colleagues instruct Facilities Management workers about identifying signs of mold in the hope of keeping them safe on the job.

When they find possible evidence, they are told to report it to their supervisor, who may later call for an inspection from the University Department of Environmental Health and Safety.

“If there’s a situation with facilities employees that they consider a problem, they talk with their supervisor, and we do an analysis of the situation,” Carlson said.

Workers involved in the February case were believed to be doing a walkthrough of the building, and “they felt what they were doing was not very invasive,” he said.

Facilities Management regularly inspects the building for security, broken glass and other vandalism issues.

Choosing between restoring the building and demolishing it has spurred debate.

Grundtner believes the University will choose demolition. He expects money for the project will be placed as a “maybe” project on the University’s 2004 capital budget plan.

Grundtner said final figures are still being determined, but early estimates for demolition are around $600,000.

Branden Peterson covers the St. Paul campus and welcomes comments at [email protected]