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The Army is escalating one of its toughest battles: fighting mold

LEILA FADEL, HOST:

The Army is escalating one of its toughest and longest-running battles - the war against mold. A new plan of attack makes mold prevention a basic part of being a soldier. Jay Price of member station WUNC reports from Fort Bragg, N.C.

JAY PRICE, BYLINE: Sergeant Major David Cutshall walks into a barracks room for a routine inspection. He immediately looks up at the ceiling.

DAVID CUTSHALL: That is the start. See it? See what I'm talking about?

UNIDENTIFIED SOLDIER: Yes, Sergeant Major.

PRICE: Cutshall points at tiny black dots - together, enough to maybe cover a dime - dotting a vent cover just inside the door - mold. The residents, Privates Second Class Aubrey Smith and Indie Ziegler listen attentively.

CUTSHALL: Since you're new to this - right? - new to the Army, in hot, humid areas - right? - mold in barracks tends to be a problem.

PRICE: The Army is using these routine room checks as a teaching opportunity about mold, which can cause health issues that vary greatly, depending on the type of exposure and how susceptible someone is. The push started last year after serious mold issues forced more than a thousand Bragg soldiers to relocate from a cluster of barracks. A dozen of the buildings will be torn down. That and mold problems on other bases triggered an Army-wide inspection of barracks, family housing, and offices. Mold was found and cleaned up in more than 2,000 places. Now the Army is bringing its nearly half a million soldiers into the fight.

OMAR J JONES: And the primary effort there is inform and educate them in terms of how to report.

PRICE: Lieutenant General Omar J. Jones leads Army Installation Management Command, which is responsible for maintaining thousands of buildings.

JONES: So if they see mold or have a concern, how do they tell someone? And who do they tell to make sure that we can get the right experts there to help them?

PRICE: Jones says the Army-wide plan also includes standards for defining and cleaning up mold, training for remediation and inspection teams on each base, tracking mold issues with sophisticated software to identify trends, and giving higher priority to mold reports.

JONES: Our standard - if someone has put in a work order request, someone has put in a report of mold, we will have a certified expert responding to them in less than 24 hours.

PRICE: The problem the Army faces is common. One study estimated 47% of U.S. homes had substantial dampness or mold issues. Another found 100% had mold on some surfaces.

PHILIP FAIREY: Mold is ubiquitous.

PRICE: Philip Fairey of the University of Central Florida is an expert on mold issues in structures.

FAIREY: It's everywhere all the time. There's mold spores everywhere.

PRICE: And he says the right amount of moisture on a surface can be the catalyst. How the spores get that moisture is what humans have to figure out and prevent, and it's often complicated. The cause of moisture that triggers, say, mold inside walls isn't always obvious, and whether a particular mold problem is serious is a big question. Take mold in bathrooms, a common issue in the barracks and, Fairey says, in every home with a tile shower.

FAIREY: Every single one, because there's enough moisture there to support the growth of mold. So is that a problem or not? It's not really a problem for me because, I mean, a little bit of Clorox will fix it.

PRICE: For mold issues too big for the soldiers to handle themselves, work crews are brought in. The Army inspections found by far the most problems were on bases in the humid southeast, like Bragg. Base officials there say they're watching to see if the effects of educating the young soldiers are reflected in data on work orders. Meanwhile...

CUTSHALL: The caulk is gone. Put a work order in. And they'll come out, and they'll redo the caulk.

PRICE: That educating continues, one barracks room at a time.

For NPR News, I'm Jay Price at Fort Bragg, N.C.

(SOUNDBITE OF UNWED SAILOR'S "LONDON FOG") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Jay Price is the military and veterans affairs reporter for North Carolina Public Radio - WUNC.