JEFFERSON CITY, Mo. -

Work on renovations at the former Missouri State Penitentiary in Jefferson City could begin within weeks, but an ABC 17 News investigation has found mold problems date back years in the buildings.

Tours were canceled at the former prison in fall 2013 because staffers noticed the smell of the mold was more powerful than ever after a wet spring season. A study done then showed elevated mold spore numbers throughout the public-access areas.

The inspections obtained by ABC 17 News indicate levels of stachybotrys, or black mold, up to 20 times higher than in the air outside the buildings. Other mold spore counts reached as high as 80 times the outside air count.

"[Stachybotrys] is dangerous but it is mostly dangerous to people who already have lung problems, breathing problems and asthma," said Michael Goldschmidt, an environmental design specialist with the University of Missouri extension. "So the higher quantity that’s being shown in these buildings would be problem for people who have asthma or respiratory problems."

Goldschmidt was shown the 2013 inspection results and noted that the molds found inside the former state penitentiary were consistent with old buildings in Missouri. MSP was the oldest prison west of the Mississippi when it closed in 2004, having opened in 1836.

"This is not unexpected, but it’s still higher than what might be safe for a building like this, especially if a large amount of the general public may be walking through it," Goldschmidt added.

Prison history and ghost tours brought nearly 19,000 people to the former prison in 2012, raising around $300,000 in direct revenue, according to the Jefferson City Convention and Visitors Bureau.

In an open records request, ABC 17 News obtained a 2010 hazardous materials survey of the former Missouri State Penitentiary. In it, California-based Tetra Tech observes "abundant" or "elevated" mold throughout the property.

Documents show the observations were also made in Housing Units 1, 3 and 4, which are the three units currently slated for renovation.

"Tetra Tech recommends repairing/closing windows that area currently open and addressing all area where water intrusion is occurring," according to the report. "All visible mold growth should be removed from the buildings."

At the time of the survey and final report, tours had been happening throughout the MSP facility for about one year.

ABC 17 News asked the state Office of Administration why the mold was not addressed at the time of the 2010 survey, when tours were in their infancy.

The office issued this statement:

"Although hazardous materials were identified previously, they were found in specific locations in non-public access areas, thus the exposure was deemed to be minimal or non-existent. Most were common fungi and not considered toxic."

"When testing was completed in 2013, it showed that the levels and locations of mold had increased since 2010. This prompted further testing which showed that elevated levels now exist in public areas, thus the tours were halted due to the potential for unacceptable exposure that the current conditions present."

Ryan Burns, public information officer for OA, added that the office would go into more detail about the current renovations at the site when work got underway.

"If they can repair windows, repair doors, repair the walls so that the water’s not leaking in, that goes a long way," Goldschmidt told ABC 17 News. "Then you remove the mold that’s there and you increase the ventilation because we have a saying – 'dilution is the solution to pollution.' The more fresh air they pump in, the less chance that those mold spores will be there and in less numbers."

In terms of health effects, Goldschmidt added that most visitors to the prison should not have experienced any sickness even given the elevated spore counts because the vast majority of people can handle high levels of molds.

"My experience is that although these can be problematic, they are pretty common in old Missouri buildings, we see them all the time," he said. "But if they started to develop asthma or respiratory problems, shortness of breath, especially right after they were there they should see a physician."

In November, Governor Jay Nixon and Jefferson City-area state Senator Mike Kehoe announced a $2 million joint deal to get the former prison reopened to tours by this spring, noting that the true economic of the landmark as tourist spot was much higher.

Of that, $1 million will come from a state facilities fund and the remaining $1 million will be provided by the City of Jefferson from a half-cent sales tax passed by city voters in 2011.

Mayor Eric Struemph defended the decision to spend the money to ABC 17 News, saying the money had already been approved for roads at the former state penitentiary site and therefore wouldn't come at the expense of any department's budget.

City and state leaders stressed the need to get the prison reopened in a November 6, 2013 news conference announcing the investment to replace windows, doors and roofs while removing the mold inside.

"As an architect, I really want them to reopen this building for tours, again, it’s an architectural icon, it has tremendous historical value," Goldschmidt said. "At the same time, I want them to clean up the mold."

According to the state Office of Administration, bid for the renovation work should go out any day. As of the end of January, the prison was expected to reopen for tours sometime in the spring.