Within three months of each other, four professors with offices on the same floor of the same building died.
Was it freak happenstance—or was the building to blame?
From 2008 to 2013, the Southern University at New Orleans (SUNO) instructors all worked out of the Multipurpose Building, which had been heavily flooded and damaged during Hurricane Katrina in 2005.
At least two of the four had reported severe respiratory problems, and staff and faculty say at least 10 others had similar symptoms: asthma attacks, migraines, nausea, difficulty breathing, wheezing, and coughing.
Faculty reported the issues to SUNO leaders, but say little to nothing was done about the problem.
"We told them over and over: 'It's not safe in here," says Cynthia Ramirez, a tenured professor and VP of SUNO's Faculty Senate. "But people had to die before anything was done."
Since then, the Louisiana Office of Facility Planning has announced the building will be torn down and replaced.
In an investigative piece, the Times-Picayune looks into the connection between the building, health complaints, state testing, and deaths.
Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans in August 2005. SUNO was flooded for three weeks and all 11 buildings lost power—for more than two years. The storm caused an estimated $600 million in damages at the institution.
Following Katrina, the school moved operations and students to temporary buildings provided by the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), which would later provide only enough money to repair the original campus.
Reconstruction on the Multipurpose Building began three years later, in 2008. Environmental cleanup company Zimmer-Eschette Services was awarded the contract to perform a mold remediation, which was completed within three months.
During that time, state-contracted AIMS Group sampled the air in and around the Multipurpose Building and concluded the remediation was successful.
In August 2008, approximately 40 faculty members were moved back into the facility.
But staff members say the hallways were still boarded up, the elevator was unrepaired, and the building was infested with rats.
Also on Daily Briefing this week
Health issues arise
Nearly immediately, workers in the building began getting sick. Three say they were diagnosed with bronchitis.
"Right after we got there, I started having chest pains, coughing, trouble breathing," says Alfreda Harris, a retired adviser and adjunct instructor at SUNO.
The then-facilities manager Robert Cannon said he performed an indoor air quality test that found mold spores in the air. After cleaning the building again, a company he cannot remember the name of came to test air quality and found no mold.
As repairs to the building continued in 2008 and 2009, more issues arose, so Cannon contacted AIMS Group. In July 2009, the company tested the air quality in four offices—to measure airflow, not presence of mold—and found the rooms needed more air conditioning.
SUNO did not contact AIMS Group for any further testing after that, according to the company. Faculty health complaints continued to roll in.
Testing and regulation issues
The four professors' official causes of death—breast cancer recurrence, heart disease, and pulmonary embolisms—are not linked to mold exposure, according to CDC, and there are no federal guidelines or regulations for what constitutes an unsafe quantity of mold.
But reviewing the indoor air quality tests the state gave to the Times-Picayune, several mold experts declared the multipurpose facility should not have been reoccupied in 2008 and that it may have contributed to the deaths of the professors.
"This was not a building you wanted to have people working or living in," says David Straus, a retired Texas Tech University Health Sciences Center professor who also performed environmental testing for building-related sicknesses.
The original AIMS Group report found in the Multipurpose Building a type of black mold, Stachybotrys, shown to produce toxins that can affect the central nervous system if inhaled.
"It's your duty as an environmental remediator to remove it before people move in," Straus says.
The spores were found in 25 different places, but were determined to be from the exterior air, Kirk Juneau, environmental manager for AIMS Group, told the Times-Picayune.
However, Juneau's claim "is unsupported by any scientific literature at all," says Richie Shoemaker, an expert in biotoxin-related illnesses. "In over 20 years of studying mold, I have never seen air samples like the ones in this report" (Lipinski, NOLA.com/Times-Picayune, 7/22).
Next in Today's Briefing
Extra Credit: Why new higher ed hires need to negotiate