Feds to spend $100k exterminating documents with ‘zombie’ mould

Steve Mertl
National Affairs Contributor
Daily Brew

I bet you thought all those federal civil servants in Ottawa had nice, cushy jobs shuffling papers all day.

But there are risks, real risks, sometimes in handling those papers.

The Canadian Press reports that secret documents in the Privy Council Office (PCO) archives are infested with mould that was thought to have been wiped out a decade ago.

It's returned like some microbial zombie to menace unwary bureaucrats.

The mould is a potential health threat, especially to people with respiratory illnesses such as asthma, CP notes.

The mould first appeared in 2001 after a broken pipe drenched key files in a storage area used by the PCO, the powerful hub that supports the prime minister and cabinet.

An expensive, painstaking cleanup was thought to have eradicated the mould, CP says, but employees working in the archive found it on files that had been dried and treated after the flood.

[ More Daily Brew: Canadian Border Services most wanted list could soon be bigger and broader ]

"Mould-affected documents are more susceptible to develop mould because they have a higher concentration of mould spores — visible or invisible — that may be dormant, but still viable," says a government notice outlining the problem.

"Considerable effort has been afforded to try and prevent mould growth, yet mould has been recently discovered in some records previously damaged by the flood."

It can cause staining and deterioration of affected documents as well as pose a health risk to anyone who touches the files or even goes into the storage area, CP notes.

The PCO now plans to spend up to $100,000 to hunt down the mould and kill it. But it's no ordinary extermination operation.

Because documents in the archives contain highly sensitive information, technicians will have to have security clearances and must hand over cellphones, laptop computers and other mobile devices before going into the storage area, CP reports.

Once there, they'll don protective gear, including latex gloves, goggles and respirators before using specially filtered vacuum cleaners to go after the mould spores on shelves, carpets and concrete floors.

The work is scheduled to be completed by next September.

PCO spokesman Raymond Rivet told CP via email the records, held at a storage warehouse in Gatineau, Que., are "operational and administrative in nature.

"They date from 1968-98, with most of the affected records dating to 1988-94. No documents have been destroyed as a result of being affected by mould."

The warehouse belongs to Library and Archives Canada, the government's biggest repository of historical documents, CP says. Mould sometimes creeps onto the pages of old books, photos, newspapers and other stored documents despite climate controls aimed at keeping down humidity and temperature.

[ More Daily Brew: Toronto Mayor Rob Ford gets green light to run in byelection ]

When it's discovered, the mould is treated by freezing any contaminated documents for at least 48 hours to kill live spores, then treated under a biological containment hood. But mould spores are a hardy organism, CP noted, with tough outer shells. They can lie dormant for years before the right conditions allow them to grow again.