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Toronto Sun
Fri, September 19, 2003

Pup's nose like no other
Super-sleuth dog sniffs out moulds that make us sick

See Flip and Betty play. See Betty throw the ball. Run, Flip! Run! But Flip is not running.

Flip has found some toxic stachybotrys, hidden and growing under the floor boards of Betty's new home.

Run, Betty! Run!

Over the years, we've grown used to highly trained canines sniffing out arson and bombs and drugs. Now there's a new super-sleuth canine with a wet nose.

The Mould Dog.

Quincy, a two-year-old yellow lab, was dropped off at a Florida humane society shelter more than a year ago. The pup was unwanted and disposable.

Today, she's become Canada's first mould-detecting pooch -- a $20,000 panting marvel of genetics and training, which can pinpoint toxic moulds in schools, businesses and private homes.

"She's like any other dog -- she just has a very unusual day job," says Quincy's handler, Frank Haverkate, who runs Haverkate and Associates Inc., a Toronto indoor, environmental testing firm.

As her master talks, Quincy sprawls out on a hardwood floor at my feet. Occasionally, she sniffs the air -- as if my shoes might contain a health threat.

Quincy is to mould what Lassie was to kids who would fall down wells in the '60s.

A decade ago, the only mould any of us took seriously was forming on bread we grabbed to make toast.


In recent years, the hidden fungi has had the power to close an entire criminal court in Newmarket, as well as cause a crisis in school portables in the province.

Mould is also big business, as homeowners and office managers try to find out why those under their roof have become sick of staying indoors.

It's not anthrax North American offices are testing for right now -- it's Sick Building Syndrome.

An estimated 40 million people in Canada and the U.S. annually suffer from asthma, headaches, fatigue, depression, rashes and chronic flu-like symptoms, after spending their days sucking up moulds, pollutants and poisons coughed up by the walls around them. To traditionally help track down the hiding biological vermin, Haverkate would largely count on a $30,000 air-testing kit -- precise and complicated tools which sit in a nearby case.

The devices are accurate, but can't specifically point out exact spots -- hidden behind walls or under floors or even in ceilings -- where mould has moved in. That's what Quincy does -- for a pat and a dog treat.


"She's used to find hidden issues," says Haverkate, as he leans down to Quincy, who started her work earlier this month after being saved from the humane society, and trained at the Florida Canine Academy.

The facility has traditionally trained drug and arson dogs for American agencies.

"To us, it's a health concern. To her, it's a game of hide-and-seek," says Haverkate.

"And she's happiest when she's playing."

For homeowners, it's no game. In fact, none of Haverkate's residential clients wanted in tow when Quincy and Haverkate were making their rounds. So, instead, Quincy plays K9 P.I. in his master's own home, a 1960s Toronto bungalow.

From a sniff of a single drop of urine, the average dog can identify another canine's sex, health, diet, emotional state and even if it's dominant or submissive.

Researchers believe they sense smells as three dimensional odour models -- an image that's better than a photograph for a human.

So Quincy -- after more than 1,000 hours of training -- has little trouble tracking down, and sitting, when she comes to two different suspect locations in Haverkate's own home. One is in the kitchen, near a place where a pipe once burst. The other is on the other side of a garage, that may have had some moisture problems.

A trained arson dog can track a single drop of gasoline in the equivalent of a swimming pool of water. In all, Quincy can doggedly track down 18 species of toxic moulds.

Back in our early readers, Betty could only have wished Flip was that smart.





Sun, November 28, 2004


A ticking time bomb

A government report says those who are exposed to grow house environments run the risk of becoming seriously ill


THE MARIJUANA grow house phenomenon sweeping the Toronto area is a ticking time bomb that at best is a health risk and at worst a killer, experts say. Illegal grow lab operators are the first to put themselves at risk when they dig through a basement wall or floor to tap into the 10,000-watt hydro mains in order to bypass the meter and steal electricity.

The Green Tide report commissioned by the Ontario Association of Chiefs of Police says while no electrocutions have been reported in Ontario to date, an estimated 15 would-be weed growers in British Columbia died by electrocution between 1995 and 2000.

The threat of electrocution also extends to firefighters, police and landlords who enter the buildings.

In a typical grow house, numerous electrical ballasts multiply the power of the 10,000-watt line six times. Crude connections and humidity levels increase the risk of explosions and fires.

The Green Tide report said fires are 40 times more likely in grow-ops than in a typical Ontario home.

University College of the Fraser Valley criminologist Prof. Darryl Plecas said 8.7% of all fires in Surrey , B.C. were directly attributed to illegal grow houses.

Two Philadelphia-area firefighters were killed in August when they unwittingly stumbled into a grow lab during a fire.

"It is hard to imagine we are not going to see deaths here ... we have just been plain lucky," Plecas said.

Growers risk their eyesight through prolonged exposure to 1,000-watt lights used in the hydroponic grow process.

One York Regional Police officer may have suffered permanent eye damage from lights during a bust last year.

Fertilizers and pesticides are also hazardous to growers and family members who live as "crop sitters" to add an air of legitimacy to the operation, the Green Tide report said.

Booby traps also pose a risk to firefighters and police, kids who live in the homes and rival drug gangs who break in to steal the weed. Some homes have been rigged so that intruders face electric shock, scalding nitric acid, spiked boards and injury through removed floor and stair boards.

But it is the health risks of mould to future grow house residents that concerns most experts.

Until the City of Toronto moved a few weeks ago to close two Scarborough houses until satisfactory structural and environmental assessments were done, former grow houses were returned to the market without any government checks.

York Region Police Chief Armand La Barge said he realizes mould issues are worse than initially believed and drug officers now enter homes with hand, foot and face protection. "And yet there are kids living there," sighed La Barge, adding that so far this year 30 children have been found in grow homes.

The Green Tide report estimated 10,000 kids lived in grow-ops in Ontario in the past four years.

Environmental inspector and mould specialist Frank Haverkate said he found seriously "unacceptable" levels of potentially harmful mould in five of 20 homes he tested.

"Some of these have had pristine drywall, but the condensation from the grow house humidity has infiltrated every nook and cranny and inside we have found large amounts of hidden mould growth."

Mould specialist Dr. Andrew Campbell, of the Medical Centre for Immune and Toxic Disorders in Spring, Texas, said families who buy or rent mouldy homes will likely become ill within a few months, maybe even weeks.

"It really has a major impact on their lives. People lose jobs because they are not performing, they don't pay attention to traffic signals, they become disoriented and confused. They just do not function correctly. They are as tired when they wake up in the morning as they were when they went to bed."

Bruce Stewart, of Pinchin Environmental in Mississauga , said mould growth has varied in the 40 or so homes his company has assessed.


While experts differ on risk levels, Stewart said all agree moulds are a health risk and should be immediately removed.

Dr. James Scott, professor of environmental microbiology at the University of Toronto 's department of public health sciences, said mould produces "gobs and gobs" of spores that are a health hazard when inhaled.

He said many studies confirm mould exposure is a leading cause of childhood asthma, behind family tobacco smoking.

Scott said moulds are also problematic because while people may not initially be allergic to them, repeated exposure will see the onset of allergies that could become lifelong.

Scott said the mould problem is not confined to grow-ops and can be found in many poorer housing areas.






Sun, November 28, 2004


Like a 'rainforest'

By Alan Cairns

MOULD LEFT by marijuana grow houses is "really scary stuff" and has to be removed with great care, specialists say. And while a proper environmental assessment and mould remediation job can be costly, dealing with it improperly can quickly turn a home into an environmental disaster.

"You are dealing with a saturation of humidity through the entire house for long periods of time," said Frank Haverkate, of Haverkate & Assoc. Inc. indoor environmental testing and consulting.

Haverkate, who has now tested 20 or so grow houses, says the extreme "rainforest-like" environment of a grow house typically creates mould in and behind drywall, on floor joists, in carpets and furniture and roofs.

If mould is found, Haverkate said, it must be treated with respect and should not be disturbed without containing the area to avoid the release of mould spores.

"Some construction companies have no idea what they are doing," Haverkate said. "Any monkey can put up drywall and remove the surface mould, but to do it properly takes expertise."

Haverkate has linked up with Mississauga-based engineer and mould inspector Darren Cooper, of Mould Scene Investigations (MSI) and Clean Lab Evaluation and Remediation (CLEAR).

Cooper cites as an example a high-end Markham house that was used as a grow-op for two years.

He said an insurance company and adjusters who had little insight into mould approved a basement cleanup. They did not believe the mould had spread to the second floor.

An inexperienced construction company failed to contain the mould, or seal the forced air heating vents. Airborne mould spores spread through the entire house.

Upon further inspection of the house two weeks ago, Cooper found masses of mould behind the upper bedroom walls.

Now all drywall, wood panelling, furniture, carpets, insulation and other porous objects have to be removed.

Wood floor and ceiling joists have to be blast-cleaned with dry ice and the entire roof must be removed.

The entire project will top $180,000.

Cooper said mould cleanup must see the creation of negative pressure in the house so mould spores do not blow around.

Mould has to be isolated, the heat vents sealed, and the removal and clean up must be done with specialized equipment.

Workers must wear contamination suits, gloves and boots at all times and use special breathing gear, he said.

Dr. James Scott, professor of environmental microbiology at the public health sciences department of the University of Toronto , agreed that grow houses are biologically "a mess."

Scott said a significant amount of mould on wallboard and other materials "can mean very costly renovations."

"It is not just as simple as a using a claw hammer and throwing it into a dumpster," Scott said.