Spring 2014

Scraping Beyond the Surface, Learning About the Effects of Mold on Our Communities

An Interview with Representative Regina Barrow (LA), serves the 29th District of Louisiana. In addition to her role as Regional Chair on NBCSL’s Executive Committee, she is also Vice Chair of the Louisiana House Executive Committee. Rep. Barrow sits on several committees, including Ways and Means.
Scraping Beyond the Surface, Learning About the Effects of Mold on Our Communities
Representative Regina Ashford Barrow has served Louisiana’s 29th Legislative District for nearly ten years—taking office less than four months before Hurricane Katrina hit the Gulf coast in August 2005. She ran for the seat when it opened up after her former boss and mentor, Sharon Weston-Broome, moved to the Louisiana Senate.  Representative Barrow represents the northern and a small portion of the western sections of Baton Rouge, an area that is economically diverse with a mix of urban and rural neighborhoods, as well as low, middle, and upper-income households.

Hurricane Katrina is the worst natural disaster in U.S. history, and it permanently altered the landscape of Baton Rouge, New Orleans, and the entire state of Louisiana. In addition to the destruction, the disaster left a host of long-term health issues for Louisianans. One of the most pervasive Katrina-related health issues has been mold – a type of fungus that can spread rapidly and cause several health issues – which has been attributed to the abundance of floodwater left after the storm. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has indicated that indoor mold exposure can result in eye, skin, and nasal irritation; respiratory distress; allergic reactions; and chronic lung diseases.

Concerned with the health of Louisiana residents following Katrina, and the lack of post-storm action on mold remediation, Representative Barrow introduced several pieces of legislation to address the residual health issues caused by mold exposure. NBCSL interviewed her about this topic, looking to improve national awareness on mold exposure, especially in relation to its effects on vulnerable and underrepresented communities.

1. Why is this issue important to you and your constituents?

I was first exposed to the negative effects of mold before I entered the Legislature when I ran a non-profit organization in Louisiana. While there, I noticed that some children seemed to have more respiratory problems than others. More importantly, these children lived in the more impoverished areas of the state.

At the time, I didn’t know it was mold causing this disparity, but my research has since informed me that this may have been the case. We now know that this is an emerging issue in the state of Louisiana.  Furthermore, there is a lot of information available on respiratory problems, but more information is needed to connect these health issues with mold exposure. Research shows that the immune system overreacts to exposure and causes several common cold or sinus symptoms such as scratchy throat, runny nose, or fever. Exposure to mold can cause high incidences of asthma, skin disease, and also chronic illness. It is very important for us to look into this. We must improve the overall health of our children, families, and our communities.

2. Some say this could be just a local issue, due to unexpected effects of Hurricane Katrina. But is it? What would you say to other stakeholders outside of the state looking to learn more about mold and mold remediation?

This is definitely a national issue. Research shows that other states have experienced similar problems with mold. North Carolina published information on its exposure to the substance, and following Hurricane Sandy, states along the East coast, including New York and New Jersey, have tackled this issue as well. Generally, whenever there are instances of large, natural disasters involving water, and houses and buildings are unprepared, the growth of mold can occur.

Unfortunately, I think this issue has flown under the radar for several years, especially as it relates our health. I implore my colleagues to look a little deeper into this issue. Of note are certain housing areas where there may be higher incidences of respiratory issues and/or skin disorders. There may be a direct connection with the existence of mold.

3. We’ve heard that you’ve introduced a bill to address mold in Louisiana. Can you tell us about it?

I am very excited about my bill. It has been cleared through the House and has now moved on to the Senate. HB 802 convenes a task force to look at all of these issues we have been talking about and place this information into a comprehensive report for lawmakers, state officials, and community leaders. The bill also gives Louisiana an additional tool to use when developing critical policies in the coming years to address mold throughout the state. 

The task force, as amended, consists of 15 people from a broad cross-section of professional areas and industries. Three additional task force members from the housing, rental, and real estate arenas were also added.

I also introduced another bill focused on creating a mold certification program similar to what most states have with lead. The bill would require landlords and home owners to state/show that a property is mold-free. Due to much push back, however, I have decided to pull that bill and focus on the task force, which is a good first step in working on this issue.

4. Have you faced any opposition to your bill?

Yes. As stated before, I experienced a lot of push back due to my bills on mold, especially from the housing, rental, and real estate communities. Most of the resistance centered on creating a universal definition for mold. As it stands now, there is no agreed upon definition for  “dangerous” mold, “mold exposure,” or what type of mold actually negatively impacts our health. Therefore, naysayers thought that a new certification system would actually create opportunities for lawsuits and additional costs to landlords, developers, etc.

This was not my intention at all, and I was definitely surprised by the comments received. The good news, though, is that we can address these concerns, with the input from everyone, with our task force. It is my hope that from their work, Louisiana can comes up with a unified definition that does not place harsh burdens on certain industries but instead addresses the problems concerning mold exposure and our health.

5. What would you hope to see accomplished by this task force?

I would like to agree on a Louisiana definition for the type of mold that we should be concerned about in our building structures from homes to apartment complexes to sky scrapers. We need to decide what type of mold is the most dangerous. (I suppose this will be the kind that is black and grows rapidly on walls and ceiling panels in a home).

I would also like to raise awareness about the effects of mold on our communities and empower constituents to act if they suspect mold exposure in their area. I would like to encourage homeowners and apartment tenants to learn about this issue.

Lastly, I would like the task force to devise a plan to raise our state standards on mold (just as we have done with lead). Currently, there are certain things contractors must do to alleviate lead and determine a structure is “lead-free.” We need to do the same with mold. Armed with results from the task force, I would like to move forward with creating a mold certification program to be implemented state-wide.

Final Word

Representative Barrow shared her takeaway for NBCSL members:

I would like to introduce a resolution this year that pushes for mold standards in states across the nation. I think this issue needs to be a part of NBCSL’s policy platform. People shouldn’t have to be exposed to mold, and they definitely shouldn’t have to live with the negative health effects associated with it. I will be actively working with NBCSL and other national partners to take this message to fellow legislators and alleviate issues surrounding mold.

Representative Regina Barrow (LA) REPRESENTATIVE REGINA BARROW (LA) serves the 29th District of Louisiana. In addition to her role as Regional Chair on NBCSL’s Executive Committee, she is also Vice Chair of the Louisiana House Executive Committee. Rep. Barrow sits on several committees, including Ways and Means.

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