Two faculty members and a student at Ohio State University have been diagnosed with histoplasmosis, a fungal disease caused by inhaling hisplasmosis spores growing on bird or bat droppings. Originally diagnosed as lung cancer, two hospitalized employees at Hitchcock Hall have had parts of their lungs and lymph nodes removed.
The employees believe they were poisoned during a botched cleaning effort to dry flooding in the hall after a valve on a high-pressure waterline to a coffee maker broke. Soaked ceiling tiles were removed and fans were set up to quickly dry the area. It seems as though the fans only succeeded in blowing dust, debris, and volatile organic compounds into the air the employees were breathing. Within two months, two women working near the flooded kitchen contracted the serious fungal disease. Eight other coworkers also reported sickness.
Of course, the University said that they conducted a “visual” inspection of the area and found no evidence of mold, bacteria, bat droppings, or bird droppings. They have cancelled any further investigation, and determined that it wasn’t necessary to continue testing. President E. Gordon Gee called the cluster of sickness “one of the great mysteries” and “an act of God.” However, they did spend over $130,000 evacuating Hitchcock Hall after the sick employees contacted attorneys.
But there is one obvious theory to this “mystery.” Hypoplasmosis is endemic to the Ohio River Valley. It’s likely that mice living in the ceiling area above Hitchcock Hall, near this kitchen area, had droppings with hypoplasmosis spores. When the water leak opened up ceiling tiles, it released VOCs into the air. The effort to dry the water actually spread these VOCs into the breathing space of the workers. It’s also likely the water triggered any existing mold growth, especially if the spill was partly within the ceiling.
Disturbing old mold can cause it to release spores into the air, making the area a thousand times more volatile. This usually happens when people attempt to clean up mold themselves without using professional advice. It looks like OSU made a mistake here. If that’s the case, they will probably go to great lengths to hide the error in fear of impending lawsuits.