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Editorial: First responders’ unexpected risk: Mold in the firehouse

It’s Florida First Responder Appreciation Week. For the second year in a row, Gov. Rick Scott has encouraged “all Floridians to take time out of their day to show first responders and their families how much we value their service to our cities, counties and state.”

And what better way to show our appreciation for those who selflessly rush in to save lives in emergencies than to close a couple of firehouses laced with toxic mold?

This would be in Boynton Beach, where two of the city’s five firehouses are shut down while workers clean them up.

Two firefighters have filed workers’ compensation claims after getting chest X-rays and blood work showing an elevated amount of feces and feathers, according to Tim McPherson, the city’s human resources and risk administrator.

Mayor Jerry Taylor said that one of the buildings, Fire Station 3, at Congress Avenue and Miner Road, may reopen by the end of this week. There was no word on Fire Station 1, which is attached to City Hall, whose own air quality is now being tested as a precaution.

Taylor told The Post Editorial Board that the problem was caused not by any apparent lack of maintenance, but by these being “very old buildings.” Station 3 dates from around 1986 and Station 1, at Boynton Beach Boulevard, 1966.

“City Hall is, unfortunately, an old building,” Taylor said. “And we live in South Florida, where mold is a problem.”

Station 3 has been closed since late October, when three dead mice were discovered in an air duct in a bathroom. Rodent feces were also found in the bathroom and an air-quality test showed mold, McPherson told The Post.

Those discoveries led to checks of other buildings. Three stations came up clean. But crews found mold — or maybe mildew — at Station 1, Taylor said, and the city closed the building a couple of weeks ago.

The employees of both stations — the oldest two stations in the city — have been moved to other buildings. We hope we don’t have to find out, through someone’s heart attack or seizure, that a loss of minutes in response time had vital consequences.

Boynton, to its credit, is paying for affected employees’ lung X-rays, blood work and physical exams. But this was not the bargain that firefighters signed up for. Certainly, their work always carries the risk of respiratory illness through smoke inhalation. They shouldn’t also have to worry that their stations are making them sick.

It’s not routine in Boynton Beach, or many other places, to test for air quality in city buildings. When the city does check for mold, it’s “based upon identification,” Jeff Livergood, Boynton’s director of public works and engineering, told Post reporters.

And while the Palm Beach County Health Department “used to do courtesy checks to look for mold and other indoor air issues … we discontinued as we had other regulated issues to review and enforce,” said health department spokesman Tim O’Connor.

We ought to re-think this, given how seriously mold can harm one’s health. Mold produces spores that release mycotoxins that block or deplete antioxidants. When that happens, “it accelerates any kind of disease: autoimmune diseases, cancer, anything,” said Dr. Harlan Bieley, of North Palm Beach, a specialist in mold-induced conditions.

Boynton Beach may have let its firehouses go to hell. But at least it didn’t show the callousness toward first-responders that Congress did last month. Emergency workers nearly had to camp outside Senate Majority leader Mitch McConnell’s office to ensure the renewal of an $8 billion fund to treat serious, often fatal, illnesses incurred in the rescue and cleanup of the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks. The funding came only after a publicity drive led by Jon Stewart, forsaking comedy for a heavy-hearted duty of citizenship.

So, yes, by all means, let’s show our appreciation to first responders. But not just one week a year. And not just with words. With justice.

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