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Link doubted in death, mold at law library

Published Oct. 2, 2005

Last Saturday Deborah Hays, who managed the law library at the Pinellas County Criminal Justice Center, died at age 37. On Monday a sign went up on the library door, announcing it was closed for cleaning.

The library remained closed all week so workers could eradicate an infestation of mold and change the air-conditioning system.

The timing, said the county official in charge of the building, is just a coincidence. But General Services Department chief Carl Barron said Friday that he could not rule out a connection between the mold and the death of the popular librarian.

"I don't believe we have a condition that could put anybody's life in jeopardy," Barron said.

But he noted that Hays had undergone extensive treatment for cancer and that might have damaged her immunity to airborne germs: "A person in that condition has to be very, very careful about what they expose themselves to."

However, Chief Judge Susan Schaeffer said she was certain the library's mold had no role in Hays' death, which she said was from pneumonia.

"Mold doesn't cause pneumonia," Schaeffer said.

Hays' family could not be reached for comment.

Court and county officials are sensitive to questions about air quality because of a 1994 incident in which they closed the old criminal courts complex for three weeks to deal with an outbreak of a mold that could cause Legionnaires' disease. Eight people tested positive for Legionnaires' disease during that crisis.

In the months before the shut-down, a number of employees reported respiratory ailments, including bronchitis and pneumonia. The flulike symptoms, health officials said then, could be caused by mold spores being circulated through the building by the air conditioner.

Last year, the county opened a new $54-million complex on 49th Street. It has a full-fledged law library the size of the ones in the St. Petersburg and Clearwater courthouses. Unlike those libraries, though, the new library draws few users from the general public. Most are private attorneys such as Randell Hafner.

Hafner, a friend of Hays', said she had recovered sufficiently from cancer to return to work, but two months ago began having trouble breathing. After she tried an allergist for several weeks, he said, another doctor determined she had pneumonia.

While Hays was out , her temporary replacement, Pat Bliss, discovered mold on the law books and reported the problem. But Bliss said she was not concerned about the mold posing a health threat.

"I feel for the books," she said.

Barron blamed the mold on the library's air-conditioning system, which he said was designed to cool many more people than currently use the library. The county hired a consultant to assess the problem and devise a treatment, he said.

Meanwhile, he said, Hays' husband called him asking questions about the library's air quality.

Barron said he talked to someone from Hays' doctor's office last week and was told that the mold did not appear to be contributing to her illness.

Barron said he ordered the library closed for cleaning before he learned of Hays' death.

"In light of the perception that can possibly occur, especially with an employee passing away, we wanted to make sure everything was fully documented," he said. "So we're having a contractor clean it up. The whole thing is very unfortunate."