It started with a problem common to shower stalls all over Florida and seemed to develop into a respiratory illness that has swept through the control tower at St. Petersburg-Clearwater International Airport.
Now the Federal Aviation Administration is asking for $20,000 in emergency money to tear up part of the administrative building at the base of the control tower to get rid of the likely cause of the outbreak, black mold.
One controller has been forced to stay home from work for the past two weeks, and others have had symptoms of respiratory problems that have lasted for several weeks, including tower manager Sandra Bathon.
"I've been fighting it for a couple of weeks," Bathon said. "I'm just not sick enough to stay at home."
The mid-Pinellas tower building joins a long list of public facilities in the region that have been forced in recent years to deal with outbreaks of one of the most common growths in the world. The list includes area schools, as well as the federal courthouse in Tampa and City Hall in Dade City. It took three years and $34-million to make Polk County's courthouse fit for human habitation.
The base building under the airport tower became a mold haven last month after a floor drain in an equipment room stopped up.
"It's the same place the building's air-conditioning drains, and it backed up and flooded," said FAA spokeswoman Kathleen Bergen. "We've removed some carpeting and some drywall and used a bleach spray to get rid of the mold, but permanent remediation will take more extensive reconstruction including walls, ceiling tiles and furniture."
Bergen said she expected the construction funds to be available quickly.
"When we hear about mold, we act on it," she said.
Bob Howard, a Miami air traffic controller who serves as the National Air Traffic Control Association's representative to the Occupational Health and Safety Administration, said the FAA sent an industrial hygienist to the tower complex and tests by the specialist found mold.
"They were starting to tear out walls, and I suggested that they stop because all that's going to do is get the mold airborne and into people's mouths and lungs faster," Howard said. "I suggested cordoning off the affected areas and keeping people away."
Work has been halted in the building while the FAA awaits the money.
Both Howard and Bathon said it isn't certain the respiratory problems in the tower are mold-related. Although workers walk through the base building to reach the tower, the two buildings have separate air-conditioning systems.
"The controllers work in close proximity, and it's possible it's just something going around," Bathon said. "I have a lot of allergies, and it's been a bad allergy season."
But a well-known area allergist said that since the respiratory problems started about the same time as the water problems, his money is on the mold.
"Mold can have a toxic effect, which involves the nose, the sinuses, the lungs and, if it gets bad enough, create flu-like symptoms," said Dr. Stephen Klemawesch of St. Petersburg.
Klemawesch said those symptoms can also just be the result of allergies to the mold rather than toxicity, noting that mold is the most common allergy in Florida. But he doubts that's the case here.
"The fact that multiple people were affected at the same time leads me to guess that they're having a toxic reaction," he said.
According to the Toxic Black Mold Information Center, mold is the most ubiquitous fungus on earth. There are about 1-million species of the stuff, including mushrooms, molds and yeasts. Their common trait: They love moist environments.
Mold can be a simple nuisance that keeps reappearing on your shower tile, or it can be a long-term health hazard, such as a trigger for asthma and neurological disorders.
And it is hard to get rid of it permanently.
"One thing I have learned over the years is that whatever remediation you do to get rid of mold, it usually isn't enough," Klemawesch said. "People will take major steps to get rid of it, but unless you tear down walls and plaster and replace them, repair every place the mold can hide, the problem will come back."