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Reports of Fungus Spur Discussion
By Robert Cooke, Newsday Staff Writer, May 21, 2002

    It's what the military might call collateral damage. Two large buildings near Ground Zero that suffered extensive damage in the wake of the attack on the World Trade Center are reported to be infested with fungi. And that has prompted discussion of what measures can be undertaken to clean them up -- or whether they ultimately might be destroyed.
    Two engineers associated with the buildings say tearing them down may be unnecessary: That the 1907 building at 90 West St. is being cleared of debris and will be rehabilitated for normal use. And the Bankers Trust building at 130 Liberty St., while in need of extensive repairs, also may be spared.
    The 25-story building at 90 West St. does not appear to have a severe fungus problem, said Joel Weinstein, president of LZA Associates, an engineering and architectural group that is part of Thornton Tomasetti Group Inc., engineers in Manhattan. "The owners are working... to restore the building,” he said. He estimated the cost at between $60 million and $70 million.
    The 39-story One Bankers Trust Plaza structure indeed may have fungal infestation, he said, but he anticipates that repair is not unfeasible. No cost estimate was available.
    John Hennessy III, chairman and chief executive of the Syska Hennessy Group Inc. in Manhattan, agreed: "To the best of my knowledge, they will not be torn down.” The fungal growths, being described as "black mold,” have been reported to be on walls and other interior surfaces as a result of long-term soaking from fire-control sprinklers and exposure to outside elements. The glass-clad Bankers Trust building was damaged when a large chunk of steel hit and ripped open a nine-story gash in its facade. The building at 90 West St. was damaged by flying debris and by fire, and then soaked by the sprinkler system and, subsequently, rain.
    After such exposure, molds that are naturally present find conditions conducive to growth. If the surfaces stay wet long enough, growth can spread across walls and into places such as air conditioning ducts. There is no unanimity among fungus experts -- mycologists -- about the potential hazards of such a mold. Most of the focus is on a fungus called Stachybotrys.
    It is one of hundreds of kinds of fungi, many of them black, and the majority aren't dangerous. Stachybotrys, a normal inhabitant of the soil, is commonly identified as the fungus whose spores take up residence in buildings when porous surfaces stay soaked for several days.
    According to mycologist Janet Gallup, in Escondido, Calif., the actual danger is far smaller than perceived. She said that while extensive exposure to the mold or its spores can cause ailments, most people are not bothered unless they are already weak. "Asthmatics and mold-sensitive people can have worse health if they live in a moldy place,” Gallup said. Some fungi produce mycotoxins, potent chemicals that keep other microbes at bay. The best illustration is in a petri dish, where a growing mold sample may clear its surroundings of other molds or bacteria by secreting a toxin. It is an original form of chemical warfare.
    Joseph Laquatra Jr., professor of design and environmental analysis at Cornell University, added that "some people who are sensitive” to mycotoxins -- the fungal poisons -- because of allergies or asthma "are going to have a problem” in heavily infested areas.” And, he said, "a large exposure [to fungal toxins] can cause a nonallergic person to become sensitized and develop allergies.”
    Exposure to such molds isn't a new phenomenon; they have always been present, often in large amounts. If one detects a musty smell in a basement, it means some mold is there and it's airborne. "We've had molds around us for thousands of years,” said Estelle Levetin, a biologist at the University of Tulsa. But the problem of molds "recently appeared to get worse because we've tightened our buildings” for energy conservation "and trapped more moisture” inside. It's the trapped moisture that "spurs fungal growth.”

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