Mold Attacks! Feature: Phoenix News Times

Peter Scanlon Mesquite Junior High in Gilbert. Black mold could've become the school's mascot

Peter Scanlon Mesquite Junior High in Gilbert. Black mold could've become the school's mascot.

If Gilbert school officials had played straight, Mesquite Junior High kids and teachers would've run for their lives.
By Robert Nelson

Published: Thursday, October 13, 2005

Jeff Corn didn't have a doctor before 1988. Never needed one.

He may have been the healthiest health nut in Gilbert. The former collegiate runner coached Gilbert's junior high and high school cross-country teams by running out ahead of his athletes, playing rabbit to make his greyhounds stronger. He ate smart; he was a cauldron of positive energy. In physical-education class, his students loved him because he was a walking runner's high.

In 1987, a new Gilbert High School was built. That year, Corn and the other junior-high teachers moved into the old high school, a collection of 24-year-old buildings just south of Gilbert's downtown.

And all of a sudden, the 40-year-old superhuman needed a doctor.
He began having sinus infections and high blood pressure. He began getting fungus growths on his body. Through the 1990s, he was visiting the doctor almost monthly -- sinus infection, fungal growth, fatigue, pneumonia, eye ulcers, cysts.

In 2000, he was diagnosed with testicular cancer, and 13 lymph nodes were removed. Several months later, new cancer was found, which led to more chemotherapy. Again, he beat the cancer.

Corn kept returning to work, kept coaching. But by 2003, he was barely making it through the school day. When he wasn't at school, he was usually asleep.

In August 2003, Corn returned to school after the summer break. What he found in his office, he says, explained everything:

It was the building that was killing him.

When he arrived, men in hazard suits were tearing out parts of the gymnasium's ceilings and walls. Most of the gym was cordoned off and locked up, but teachers and students could still walk through the girls' and boys' locker rooms.

After one student walked past a worker in a hazard suit, he asked Corn, "How come we don't have to wear those suits, if they do?"

Great question. And Corn had no answer. Like all the teachers, he wasn't told what the workers were doing or why they were treating the gym like a Superfund site.

When teachers asked why parts of the gym were being torn apart, their principal, Marti Farmer, said it was just routine maintenance.

That wasn't true.

The truth was, the gym was full of mold and asbestos. It had been that way for years.
And the wall against which Corn's desk sat for 17 years was one of the worst spots.
What Corn discovered from speaking with other employees, and a New Times investigation seems to confirm, is that Mesquite Junior High had been a breeding ground for black mold since at least the early 1990s.

For years, though, school officials essentially told maintenance crews to just paint over the problem, not fix it. And school officials spent that time ignoring staff concerns that the buildings might be toxic.

Jeff Corn

Jeff Corn

The health effects of their actions on students and teachers can never be fully known.

However, anecdotal evidence, and a review of teacher and student illnesses while in the buildings, would suggest that Mesquite Junior High was -- and, to a lesser extent, continues to be -- a sick complex of buildings.

For his part, Jeff Corn is a broken man.

Jeff Corn says the school building made him deathly ill.

He continues to be plagued with odd ailments, so much so that he felt he could no longer work by autumn 2004. He can't sleep, then he sleeps for days at a time. His memory is hit-and-miss; he has trouble concentrating. He now has no medical insurance and no job. He recently sold his home to free up money for living and medical costs.

Gilbert school officials contend there is no scientific proof that links Corn's illnesses to toxic mold at the school. They say the medical pathologist -- who says Corn is full of mold toxins -- could be wrong and definitely can't prove Corn was exposed at work.

"How do we know he wasn't exposed at home?" the Gilbert Public School District's attorney asked New Times.

Therefore, Corn is on his own.

Over the past few years, officials say, they have removed the swamp coolers and faulty plumbing responsible for any mold problems at Mesquite. Air tests in 1998, 2003 and 2004 show the school is now free of mold, they contend.

In fact, though, this isn't what the tests say.

In addition, a Mesquite custodial employee says the officials' assessment doesn't fit with the reality of the aging buildings involved.

"We're still chasing the problem," he told New Times, on condition of anonymity. "The mold is like a cancer in these buildings."

Now, Corn says, his only interest is in making sure that Mesquite Junior High doesn't destroy anyone else.

"I know that building did this to me," he says. "So how many others have been affected, how many more will be affected? The district administrators don't care about those questions. All they care about is finding a way to avoid liability."

He is concerned that the same game may be being played at schools across the Valley.

"All you need is a leaky old building, a district strapped for money and [school officials] trying to keep things running at all costs," he says. "It's a deadly combination."

But the story of Mesquite Junior High shows how difficult it is to identify an unhealthy building. Here, students come and go in two years; staffers, looking for better jobs in better facilities, leave almost as quickly.

New Times' investigation found that numerous students, teachers and maintenance workers believe they were made ill by the building. The problem is, in the transient society of a large junior high school, nobody stayed long enough to make any solid connection between their illness and the mold.

Nobody except school old-timer Jeff Corn.

Marti Farmer, the longtime Mesquite principal who left the school last year for a new job, didn't return telephone calls from New Times.

Although Farmer was the official with whom school employees dealt, she reported to the school district and presumably the school superintendent, who must have known what was going on at the junior high and sanctioned her actions. Even now, the district's lawyer -- to whom all questions about black mold are referred -- refuses to admit that the mold was a health threat to teachers and children.

Therefore, it becomes difficult to know when Farmer first became aware that her school had a serious problem with black mold.

What is known, though, is that teachers were complaining about black mold outbreaks as far back as the early 1990s.

One of them was Tim Rutt, now a teacher and football coach at Hamilton High School in the Chandler Unified School District.

Rutt taught P.E. and coached basketball and football at Mesquite from 1991 to 1998. Rutt says he was "coughing constantly" through his time at Mesquite. And during that time, he was continually finding mold growing in the gymnasium, locker rooms, P.E. offices and storage rooms.

"It was especially bad at the beginning of the school year," Rutt says. "Every August, you'd come in there and everything would be covered with mold. Every year we'd take the equipment in to Marti [Farmer] and every year she'd just say "clean it up." The walls would be covered so they'd come throw up some new drywall. Like clockwork, after a few months, the mold was back. "

In the fall of 1997, Rutt again arrived at school to a pile of mold-covered sports equipment. Again, he says, he took it in to Farmer complaining that something was "seriously wrong with this building."

Same thing. She again told him to clean it up.

But this time, something strange happened, Rutt says. He left the equipment with her and told her it needed to be tested.

"She calls me at night a little later and asks, 'Tim, you didn't touch any of that equipment, did you?' I said, Of course I touched it. I've been touching it for years.' She said, 'Well, stop."

"She said she was ordering us all new equipment. That led to the obvious question, 'So what were the results of the test?' I can still remember [that she said]: 'I can't tell you.'

"It was crazy. At that point, I knew I had to get out of that environment."
And so, a year later, he did. And once he arrived at Hamilton High School, the wheezing and coughing stopped.

"I know it was that building," he says. "I knew if I taught there long enough, it was really going to destroy my [immune] system."

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Ashlie Perro never had breathing problems in elementary school. But once she reached Mesquite Junior High, she spent much of the next two years carrying inhalers.

She was a runner, but running became increasingly difficult for her in junior high. At cross-country meets, she would run with asthma inhalers in each hand. Her coach, Jeff Corn, joked that he would need to get her holsters for her inhalers.

She was known as "Wheezer" by the other kids.

"It was really scary," says Perro, now 23. "It would just be, all of a sudden, I couldn't breathe."

Once, during a race in Coolidge, Perro had such a severe attack that Corn called 911. Perro spent the night in the emergency room, with Corn at her side, trying to get her breathing stabilized.

During her eighth-grade year, Perro tested positive for an allergy to mold. Mold couldn't be the problem, her mother thought, because they had just moved into a new home with no signs of mold or water damage.

"I never associated it with the school," Perro's mother, Corina Noirfalise says. "That seems stupid now, but I just didn't."

And once Ashlie left Mesquite, the breathing problems slowly disappeared. By her sophomore year, Ashlie and her mom had forgotten about those problems back in junior high.

Another student, Steve Granados, remembers collapsing from an apparent asthma attack in a Mesquite classroom, which was later discovered to have heavy water damage. The teacher, who later died of cancer, had to call 911. Granados had forgotten the incident until last year, when he happened to be over repairing Jeff Corn's air conditioning.

"When your lives are so busy, once a problem ends, you forget about it," says Betty Penn, whose son and daughter both went to Mesquite. "You just move on with your lives. That's what happened with us."

Penn's daughter Danielle started at Mesquite in 1997. Soon after, she began having intense asthma attacks at the school.

Through Danielle's seventh- and eighth-grade years, Penn says, she was frequently called to go pick up her daughter at the nurse's office. Penn says that every time she went to the office, there were "seven or eight other kids wheezing just like her.

"I did say something to the nurse because they were all in there with these croupy coughs," she says. "It was just weird. I've never seen another nurse's office that crowded. But [school officials] said they were just normal colds.

"I guess," she says with a wry smile, "it was always the cold season there or something."

Then Danielle graduated. Then Danielle stopped needing inhalers.

Then Dustin Penn went to Mesquite. Then he suddenly needed an inhaler.

Penn would have breathing attacks that would cause him to miss many days of school at a time. Doctors put him on cortisol steroids that made him bloat.

"He was miserable," Penn says.

Then he left Mesquite. Then he got better.

"You'd think we all would have thought something [was going on]," Penn says. "But you're so busy with your lives. You just never put two and two together."

Mesquite Junior High was run down when Ninfa Gonzales was a student there back in 1991.

By the time she started working at the school as a custodian 10 years later, "it was a disaster," she says.

Gonzales sees the degraded condition of Mesquite in racial colors.

Mesquite serves the old central core of Gilbert, where the majority of the booming city's poorer Hispanics live. As Gilbert has grown, she says, "all the money has gone out to build new schools for the new wealthier suburbanites.

"It was considered the old dump for Hispanic kids back when I went there," she says. "The district just has never given it much attention."

In 1998, after years of mold caking the school's locker rooms, school officials conducted the first "mold remediation."

An industrial hygiene survey by Hutzel and Associates found extremely elevated levels of fungal growth in the gym's locker and equipment rooms. One fresh-air vent showed fungi counts 1,000 times higher than a typical clean wall in the building, while one racquetball racket had a count more than 10,000 times higher than a clean surface.

In November of that year, a company cleaned the locker room and storage room, tested for fungi and, finding none, reported that the problem was solved.

Rutt, then the P.E. Department head, was told that any mold problems the school might have had were gone.

Which was a sick joke.

Within months, the mold was back.

And even if it had been eradicated, research on toxic mold's long-term effects suggests it might have already done damage to the immune systems of teachers and students.

School officials never tested teachers or students for toxins in their bodies. Never have. Indeed, most were never told there was even a problem.

In 2001, Gonzales transferred from her job at Highland High School to take a custodial position at Mesquite Junior High. The school was closer to her home.

"That was a huge mistake," she says. "Highland was a good school."

At Mesquite, she says, she learned how the school's administration dealt with what she called "an epidemic" of toxic mold.

"I'd see mold growing on pipes or whatever, I'd put in a work order and somebody would come wipe the pipe off and tape it," she says. "I started going to [Principal Farmer] saying, 'We've got to do something.' And she made it real clear: Gilbert isn't going to do anything about this school. She just said, 'Clean it up as best you can.'"

Gonzales says she knew it was toxic black mold because the district had given custodians seminars in how to identify it.

"It was sad. We were trained to identify problems and then told to ignore them."

Both summers she worked at the school, she and the other custodians were asked to go into the buildings and clean them before the teachers and students got there.

"In some places, mold covered the walls and the floors; it was amazing," she says. "One of the sinks was just full of it. We literally took pressure washers to some of the areas. That was the only thing that would work."

The sewer would back up often in the buildings, she says. She would try to suck it up with a shop vacuum, then disinfect. Time and time again, it would happen.

She began to have health problems, she says. A nephew who went to school at that time had respiratory problems.

During the 2002 school year, she says, she would ask Farmer to contact district officials to plead with them that something had to be done to fix the school.

"If you saw that place day in and day out, it made you crazy knowing that teachers and students were in there," Gonzales says. "But the principal was more upset that I kept making an issue out of it.

"By the end of that second year, I just had to get out of there," she says. "It was just too much."

A year later, school administrators and district officials apparently decided it was finally time to attempt to clean up the gymnasium again.

Again, though, they didn't tell teachers what they were doing.

For years, in the entry of the gymnasium, water had been seeping through the ceiling, creating two large fetid puddles at the gym's entrance.

When a maintenance employee climbed up into the ceiling, he found a blanket of mold covering a blanket of asbestos.

The school's teachers learned about the mold and asbestos from building and custodial staff. At the time, though, teachers say, Marti Farmer kept telling them the gym would be blocked off during the summer of 2003 for routine maintenance.

The locks on the gymnasium were changed. But when P.E. teachers peeked in the windows, they saw a sign warning of asbestos.

When one P.E. teacher asked the principal about the sign, the teacher says, Farmer told her she was wrong. She hadn't seen an asbestos sign.

The asbestos sign was gone the next day, the teacher says.

Frustrated, the P.E. teachers banded together in September 2003 and wrote a letter to Farmer and other administrators.

"We feel we have gone through the proper channels in trying to resolve our concerns -- with no results. We have two staff members who are continually sick, with one being diagnosed with cancer. Supposedly, our mold situation was taken care of years ago. Yet, on numerous occasions, we have had equipment thrown out due to the mold. This is how the problem is remedied. We had a teacher who mysteriously contracted a rash. The rest of us are continually working through our ailments, which include sinus congestion, chronic colds, dry coughs, eyes, nose and throat irritation, rashes, arthritic pains and aches.

"We believe that our health and that of our students are in jeopardy, if not now, in the future."

The letter was signed by six teachers and coaches, including Jeff Corn.

Following the writing of that letter, Corn began trying to compile a list of other teachers at Mesquite Junior High who had contracted odd ailments since working there.

"That's when it finally started making sense to me what was happening," he says.

He says he found seven other teachers or aides at the school who were suffering from diseases often associated with a failure of the autoimmune system, one of the hallmarks of toxic mold poisoning.

Two teachers had died of lung cancer. Corn says those teachers were non-smokers, a statement that New Times couldn't independently confirm.

Then, he took his information to the principal, who, he says, told him he was crazy.

And since that time, this is how district officials have treated Jeff Corn.

"For 18 years, they say I'm this wonderful teacher and coach," he says. "Then I bring this up, so now I'm crazy. It's shocking how quickly these people turn on a person, how quickly they'll turn on the teachers and students."

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The science of mold isn't terribly complex.

And everyone knows mold's habitat -- any wet, warm place.

Like New Orleans.

Or, any wet wall in an otherwise dry, warm place, like Phoenix or Gilbert.

Indeed, if given water, mold loves Arizona just as much as Louisiana.

What is complex, though, is trying to tie toxic mold to human health problems.

The first question: Are molds present in the person's environment?

In Corn's case, in Mesquite Junior High, the answer is yes.

The district's air-quality tests, even as spotty and incomplete as they were, confirmed that.

The 1998 tests showed extremely high levels of mold.

In the summation of a May 2004 air-quality test of the P.E. building, inspectors noted that fungal spore counts were much higher in tests of outside air than inside air.

True, but the numerous outside spores were all harmless. Buried deep in the test results was the fact that Stachybotrys chartarum, the most notorious of toxic molds, showed up in both the "East Gym" and "West Gym" samples.

In November 2004 -- after officials again claimed to have taken care of the mold problem -- more testing of the gymnasium by Health Effects Group, Inc. showed four rooms with elevated spore counts of toxic molds. The inspectors noted "water staining and sporadically located drywall deterioration in the boys' locker room. There was evidence of corroded plumbing systems throughout the gymnasium facility."

The building, the inspectors said, "should be considered for renovation activities."

But here's where that question gets complicated.

Were the toxic molds present when the person was there? Was it possible for the toxins from those molds to reach humans? How long were the humans exposed to the toxins?
Beyond that, scientists continue to argue two critical points in assessing mold damage to humans:

What signs in the human body indicate damage from toxic molds?

What are the effects of long-term exposure versus short-term exposure?

After Corn left Mesquite, a former student who is now a physician suggested he contact a medical pathologist named Dr. William Croft, a longtime professor of environmental toxicology at the University of Wisconsin before starting his own toxicology lab.

Croft asked Corn for a urine sample as well as a tissue sample taken during Corn's treatments for cancer.

Croft, who, since the 1980s, has examined more than 7,000 cases of potential toxic mold poisoning, determined that Corn's urine sample showed that he had been exposed to "moderate levels of Trichothecene Mycotoxins," the toxic byproduct of certain molds.

Croft continued, "There is no safe level of Trichothecene Mycotoxins. This mycotoxin can affect every cell in the body, but the brain, lungs, immune, gastrointestinal and reproductive organs are especially susceptible."

Besides the show of mycotoxins in the urine, Corn's tissue sample, Croft said, "clearly demonstrates the chronic exposure to trichothecene mycotoxins to this subject."

The report Croft sent to Corn included hundreds of pages of medical literature supporting his conclusion.

Earlier this year, armed with Croft's diagnosis, along with numerous photos he had taken in 2003 of black mold in many locations at Mesquite Junior High, Corn went to Gilbert district officials seeking $675,000 in damages, an amount, he says, that he would invest so he could live out his life on the interest.

He also asked for assurance that Mesquite Junior High would be made genuinely mold-free as soon as humanly possible.

District officials said Mesquite already was mold-free.

They said Corn's request was absurd.

The district hired a University of Arizona toxicologist, Dr. John Sullivan, to review both the conclusions of Corn's doctor and the air-quality test results taken from Mesquite in 1998, 2003 and 2004.

Sullivan concluded that with the evidence provided, there was no way to link Corn's cancer to his workplace. Oddly, Sullivan didn't address any of Corn's myriad other illnesses. Sullivan brought into question, too, Croft's methodology in determining that Corn's body showed evidence of mold poisoning.

Sullivan's report was thrown back at Corn in late September. The district's offer: Three months' pay. Take it or leave it.

The only real conclusion reached in the standoff was that much more testing needed to be done on Jeff Corn's body.

But Jeff Corn has run out of money. He sold his house recently, a move that he hopes will cover some of his medical and living expenses.

More tests would strap him financially. He can't afford what would be a very expensive legal fight.

And the school district isn't going to pay for any tests because it argues it is not responsible.

Heck, Sullivan claimed, health-nut Corn might have gotten sick from the foods he ate.

So, the district wins. And Corn is left out in the cold.

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By February of this year, Jeff Corn was on the verge of suicide. His sleeping problems were at a zenith. He was in pain. His memory was failing. He was deeply depressed at the thought of life with a chronically collapsing immune system.

In 2003, he had been struck by a drunk driver. After that, doctors put him on antidepressants.

In December 2004, his school insurance was discontinued. He no longer could afford the antidepressants.

In April, a friend of Corn's, seeing that he was slipping, asked a psychologist friend toevaluate Corn at no cost.

The psychologist noted the frightening collapse of Corn's physical and mental well-being.

The man once named by the ArizonaRepublic as the state's "Coach of the Year" was now "unable to get out of bed four days out of the week," the psychologist wrote in his report of Corn's condition. "Corn is suffering from frequent crying and suicidal ideations. He is having difficulty with concentration and memory." The psychologist also noted that Corn suffered from nervousness, trembling, headaches, dizziness, pains in the chest, heart pounding, pains in the lower back, nausea, sore muscles, hot and cold spells, numbness and "the feeling of being trapped."

Clyde Dangerfield, the attorney for the school district, noted in his interview with New Times that Corn also told him "he was hearing voices."

The implication being that Corn is too unstable to know that mold from his workplace made him unstable.

The psychologist determined that Corn was permanently disabled.

Croft, the medical pathologist who determined Corn was full of mycotoxins, said the best treatment for Corn would be at the facility of an expert in toxic mold poisoning in Dallas.

Great idea. But can Corn afford it, even with proceeds from the sale of his house?
Most likely, the Gilbert school district is free of Jeff Corn.

The problem is, Jeff Corn may not be a medical anomaly.

Corn's problems began with respiratory ailments that seemingly advanced to a host of debilitating conditions.

According to a recent study by University of Southern California researchers, Corn's progression of ailments closely mirrors the problems experienced by 65 patients who had been exposed to mold in California, Texas and Arizona.

The mold-exposed patients first complained of asthma-like symptoms, followed by persistent flu-like illnesses, severe fatigue, and impaired memory and concentration.

Compared to more than 200 non-exposed patients, the mold-exposed patients showed sometimes profound decreases in cognitive ability. Balance, motor skills, verbal recall and long-term memory were all damaged. Several patients suffered from severe depression after their mold exposure.

What is most frightening, though, is what happened when researchers gave eight of the patients the same battery of tests more than a year later, long after they had left the mold-contaminated buildings that caused their problems.

None of the eight patients showed improved functioning.

In fact, seven of the eight had gotten worse.

"Absent additional mold exposure, function in 88 percent of these patients had deteriorated during the course of the year," the study's author, Dr. Kaye Kilburn, wrote.

The point:

If Corn is dying because of toxic mold exposure at Mesquite Junior High, he may not be alone.

Which means that instead of making fun of Jeff Corn, Gilbert officials might want to provide testing for students or teachers who have shown symptoms of toxic mold exposure during their time at Mesquite.

For now, though, everyone involved with Mesquite Junior High is looking to the upcoming Gilbert schools bond issue. If voters approve the bond proposal, more than $4.5 million will go toward renovating the Mesquite complex.

Corn is trying a renovation of his own.

Amid bouts with pain and depression, he says he's regained the strength to "earnestly try to fight this stuff in my body." He plans to use some of the money from selling his house to place himself in that toxin treatment center in Dallas.

Meantime, he is self-medicating. For example, one basic treatment attempted by some toxicologists for purging the body of toxins is frequent saunas.

So, when he's up for it, Corn has begun running again -- in the heat of the day.

"I've got to try to fight this," he says. "It may not work, but I'm going to give it my best shot."

As for his old school, Corn simply hopes that Gilbert officials will finally give their best shot to helping other teachers and students who were made ill by years of moldering decay at Mesquite.

"I have this terrible fear it's going to start catching up with others who came into that school later than I did," Corn says. "What makes me so mad is this could have been stopped a long time ago. But instead, [the school district] just let the problem grow."