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State Tests Disabled Residents Amid Mold Problems

Sunland Center from the outside
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The Florida Channel
While the Agency for Persons with Disabilities tests 209 residents, the air quality conditions at the Sunland Center are the center of four whistleblower complaints filed by agency employees.

Florida is testing the health of more than 200 residents of a state-managed institution for people with developmental and intellectual disabilities, after a 145-page report showed severe mold problems in 16 buildings on the Marianna campus.

While the Agency for Persons with Disabilities tests 209 residents, the air quality conditions at the Sunland Center are the center of four whistleblower complaints filed by agency employees who allege the state unfairly retaliated against them for reporting the problems.

Agency spokeswoman Melanie Etters did not answer questions about the whistleblower complaints filed with the Florida Commission on Human Relations.

In a prepared statement, she told The News Service of Florida that the agency hired Marianna physician Jirayos Chintanadilok to determine if  any resident’s health has been “compromised or is at risk for compromise due to exposure of environmental allergens that may originate from mold.”

The testing began last week and is being done, Etters said, out of an “overabundance of caution.” Before last week, the residents were being “monitored” by medical personnel who work at the institution. Etters said families of the residents were notified of possible air-quality issues in September and were encouraged to contact the facility’s administration if they had any concerns.  Several families, Etters, said, contacted the facility.

Mold can produce allergens that can trigger reactions and cause respiratory problems or aggravate asthma.

Former Agency for Persons with Disabilities Director, Jim DeBeaugrine said it could be more dangerous for Sunland residents, all of whom have developmental or intellectual disabilities.

“We’re dealing with people, many of whom have compromised immune systems to begin with, so this represents potentially a very serious threat,” DeBeaugrine told The News Service of Florida. “I’m glad to see them taking some steps to assess the situation, and hopefully they will act decisively.”

The agency is not testing employees who work at Sunland, which is administered by APD.

But Etters said the agency has “consistently advised employees to seek medical attention if they believe they are experiencing health issues due to air quality at Sunland and to report any air quality concerns to management.”

Some of them have.

Tallahassee attorney Tiffany Cruz is representing four employees who filed whistleblower complaints against the agency in October, alleging they were retaliated against at work.

Three of the four employees had blood and urine tests that showed they tested positive for mold, Cruz told the News Service on Tuesday. The three employees are on unpaid leave from APD.

The fourth employee who filed a whistleblower complaint continues to work at Sunland Center.

Sunland Center’s residents receive care and services through the Medicaid program. The 500-plus acre campus in Marianna, about an hour west of Tallahassee, served as a military training base for pilots during World War II.

APD contracted with the firm Healthcare Consulting and Contracting, which conducted an air quality assessment at Sunland in November.

The firm conducted a visible inspection along with what is known as a “tape lift,” with the results contained in a Jan. 3 report. It showed mold colonization within air-conditioning systems, fan coil units and building materials.

The firm reported that there was “more than 100 square feet” of mold growth within the air-conditioning systems and duct work in the buildings and a range of between 60 and 600 square feet of mold on some ceilings.

Etters said the Agency for Persons with Disabilities is taking steps to ensure the health and safety of residents and employees.  Etters said APD has state has installed air scrubbers in areas “where conditions warrant them.” Air scrubbers are portable filtration systems that clean pollutants from the air.

Etters also said the agency has repaired five roofs on residential buildings at Sunland Center, with roofs on six other buildings being addressed.