By Matthew Hendley
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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."
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."