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Mold found in Butner hospital gym

Mentally ill kids used the facility

- Staff Writers

Published: Fri, Mar. 06, 2009

An environmental study has found high levels of mold in a gym used by mentally ill children at a state hospital in Butner.

The spore count in the gym was 61 times that in the air outside the building at the old John Umstead Hospital. Tests found high levels of three molds, including the most common kind of black mold, and also identified asbestos in floor and ceiling tiles throughout the building. The environmental analysis was received by the state Feb. 27 and conducted by Matrix Health & Safety, a Raleigh-based company that tests building hazards.

The report comes as the state is considering whether the hospital's World War II-era Army buildings are the best places to treat children. Maintenance orders for the children's unit from October into February showed frequent calls to repair leaking and clogged toilets and showers, exterminate bugs, and adjust heat in wards that were too hot or cold.

Federal investigators Thursday inspected the children's unit at Umstead. Spokesmen for the state Department of Health and Human Services said they did not know why inspectors were at the children's unit.

Also Thursday, regulators were reviewing the recent attempted suicide of a patient in the new Central Regional Hospital that opened in Butner last year. The opening of the $138 million hospital was delayed repeatedly because of construction problems and safety concerns over bathroom fixtures and door hardware that inspectors worried suicidal patients might use to hang themselves.

Mark Van Sciver, a health and human services spokesman, declined to say whether the woman who tried to kill herself used the door hardware that hospital administrators were warned might pose a threat. He cited concerns for the patient's privacy.

The living area of the new hospital built for children is vacant. Its classrooms are being used as staff offices because the space isn't big enough to accommodate all the children now being treated at the old Umstead hospital and Dorothea Dix Hospital in Raleigh.

Because of the space crunch, the state had planned to combine the children's wards from both old hospitals and move them into a repainted section of Umstead. The state then was to fill the new hospital with adult patients only.

Vicki Smith, executive director of the patient advocacy group Disability Rights North Carolina, said the mold and asbestos found in the gym is further illustration why the Umstead buildings are not suitable for children. "The kids' unit is in the middle of a very old building, and parts all around them are health and safety risks," she said.

The state closed the building in January, a few weeks after finding a steampipe leak it could not easily fix. Brad Deen, a health and human services spokesman, said the state does not need to warn former patients and state workers who used the building about potential health hazards because the building became contaminated after it was shut down.

The testing company collected air samples in February, after the building had been closed off for more than a month. Deen said children did not breathe air as moldy as the test samples indicated. The steam leak created ideal conditions for mold to grow, said Terry Hatcher, director of the property and construction division at the department.

Mold levels are considered high in air with more than 1,000 spores per cubic meter, according to the report. The gym had 20,600 spores per cubic meter, and no room in the building had fewer than 1,000.

The new hospital, Central Regional, has never been accredited by either federal regulators or the private commission that affirms hospital safety. Despite repeated inspections, it has failed to win federal accreditation because of deficiencies in patient care and cases of patient abuse and neglect.

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