EDITORIAL – Firefighters’ three-alarm mold emergency

People who become professional firefighters expect to encounter certain occupational hazards. Mold, however, isn’t one of them.

The news that — not one, not two, but — all three of Grand Cayman’s fire stations have become infested with mold is intolerable.

According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control, exposure to molds can cause some people to experience nasal stuffiness, eye irritation, wheezing or skin irritation. People with serious mold allergies can have far more serious reactions, including fever or shortness of breath. (According to the Wisconsin Department of Health Services, about 10 percent of people are allergic to one or more types of mold.) In rarer cases, mold infections can also develop in the lungs of people with chronic lung illnesses.

In short, the significant presence of mold in the fire stations across the island (in West Bay, near the George Town airport and in Frank Sound) carries with it significant health risks — and potential liabilities.

Perhaps even more remarkable than the mold itself is its suspected origin: Hurricane Ivan.

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Now, Hurricane Ivan was a truly terrible storm, bringing 155-mile-per hour winds, flooding more than half the island and causing billions of dollars in damage. It is a rare building that made it through Ivan without developing mold problems. But that was 12 years ago!

The near-universality of mold infestation in the wake of Ivan merely serves to compound officials’ failure to detect the mold growing within the fire stations — whose air conditioning units, astonishingly, were never replaced after the storm.

Last year’s review of the Cayman Islands Fire Service (whose personnel are almost all Caymanians) found systemic problems such as low morale, lack of protective equipment and deficiencies in training opportunities among local firefighters. The review led to the hiring of new Chief Fire Officer David Hails, who has decades of experience as a firefighter in the U.K., including eight years with Serco International Fire Training Centre.

As we reported in Monday’s Compass, “West Bay MLA Bernie Bush said the mold situation was another example of the fire service officers being ‘treated disgracefully … for a long time.’”

Here, we may part ways with Mr. Bush somewhat — and the idea that firefighters are regarded as second-class citizens within the civil service. Frankly, we don’t know why that would be the case.

Nevertheless, we can’t help but wonder how pervasive mold may be throughout all of government’s buildings, not just the fire stations. How many other government buildings have been neglected since Ivan? How many still have air-conditioning units that are more than 12 years old? Have any been thoroughly inspected for mold and other issues stemming from the hurricane?

In other words, how many other government employees, and those with whom they come into regular contact, are being exposed to health hazards right now?

Those are questions to which we may not receive answers — unless and until building inspectors begin to peer into vents, and peek behind the walls.

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  1. Duct systems in humid climates are incubators for mold and bacteria. It will spread throughout the house. Any house, not just governmental buildings. Name one landlord who regularly hires professional service to clean the ducts? Once a year is recommended. DIY home 5-minute mold test for Aspergillus, Penicillium, Stachybotrys is available on Amazon. Or may be even somewhere on island.