Mold Remediation: Tackling the Problem by Being Part of the Learning Process

February 1, 2002
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Coming soon to a water damage near you - toxic mold! - killer mold! - the mold that ate Houston! Anyone in the business of dealing with water damaged commercial structures that isn't aware of the controversial subject of mold and how professionals are trying to deal with it has probably been living in a Afghanistan cave for years.

Water loss expert Ron Reese, CR, WLS, CMR (Certified Restorer, Water Loss Specialist and Certified Mold Remediator), of Hailey, Idaho, warns, "Schools and other public buildings have been closed; a plethora of litigation has made its way to and through the courts while some pretty hefty jury awards have made their way out. The biggest news might be the insurance situation in Texas, as some companies have threatened leave that market or done so, creating uncertainty in their residential insurance market and leaving the state's insurance commission in a position as enviable as the last few defenders of the Alamo, as they try to craft a solution"

Reese says the mold remediation situation is evolving rapidly, with little consistency in approach from one part of the country to the next. There is an incredible disparity of technique and interpretation within the environmental testing community as to methods - and acceptable results - of remediation. The insurance industry's response is even more inconsistent as differences in approach are evident from company to company, within companies from area to area and even within individual offices from desk to desk.

Meet the Enemy
"Mold or mold spores are almost everywhere and found in literally thousands of variations of types," Reese said. "Mold grows on virtually any organic material. Some actually grow and prosper inside the human body, often to the detriment of its host."

According to Reese, molds of concern to professionals in the cleaning and restoration industry "are designed to digest cellulosic materials. It just so happens that a good portion of the material that we use to build structures, like the paper on drywall, the wood in framing, wallpaper, etc., is made of cellulosic material. The mold is there, the food is there, the only thing missing is water and as we all know buildings get wet all the time."

Mold is made up of three components that can cause problems for people. The active growth (hyphae), the spores (seeds) and what is probably the most controversial component, the mycotoxins (poisons) that molds may produce to defend themselves against other molds invading their territory.

"There is really no plausible argument that mold doesn't have the potential to adversely affect people. From fungal infections to allergic reactions to the controversial effects that mycotoxins may produce, there is a substantial body of documented evidence that mold can contribute some annoying, if not deadly, consequences under the right conditions," Reese said.

He adds, "The problem is that no one has done the science to be able to say for sure what mold and what conditions will affect what percentage of the population at any given time. No permissible exposure limits (PELs) or Threshold Limit Values (TLVs) have been defined. There is substantial disagreement as to how much of what kind of mold exposure constitutes a clear danger."

There does seem to be agreement at this point in time that active mold growth does not belong inside of buildings and that the incidence of such growth has become more prevalent in recent years.

There is guidance when responding to a situation where active mold growth is visible or may be suspected. The IICRC Standards for Water Damage Restoration (S-500-1999), outline accepted practice to avoid mold growth through timely and appropriate action while giving some guidance to deal with situations where mold may already be present. The American Conference of Governmental Industrial Hygienists (ACGIH) has published a book called Bioaerosols, Assessment and Control, which outlines procedures to deal with mold. The EPA and the AIHA have published additional material on mold remediation, which provides practical information for use in the field.

Why Now?
How did we get to this point?

Mold has been around forever, Reese points out. It has only moved into the spotlight in the last few years. While the media has done its share to increase awareness through a number of sensational stories about "toxic, killer mold," there have been fundamental changes in construction practices over the past 20 years that have made mold growth increasingly likely to occur.

These changes include the growing practice of "tightening up" homes. Installing additional insulation and integral vapor barriers have limited a building's ability to dry naturally. Barrier type synthetic stucco systems meant to keep moisture out of a building's wall assemblies as often as not work better at keeping moisture in.

"An unintended consequence of our attempts to isolate our indoor environment from the outdoor environment has included an increase in moisture accumulation in the buildings we live in and an increase in the problems associated with that increased moisture," says Reese. "The forgiveness that was built into many older structures allowing sloppy technique in dealing with water damage is being replaced with the requirement for specific knowledge regarding moisture movement through buildings to deal with uncontrolled water in a competent manner."

Paul S. Cochrane, vice president of Phoenix-based Aerotech Industries (www.aerotechlabs.com), agrees with Reese. He said that since modern structures are built so tight, "you get an amplification in a home from a water incursion. Where it's growing, it basically tends to stay within the structure."

The end result, he says, is "absolutely negative health affects from it."

"Some of the health effects are extreme, some are pathogenic responses in breathing in live mold spores and actually having them grow within your body," he says. While that is an extreme case, overall, mold in homes, Cochrane adds, "Is a real concern, and a lot more research needs to be done. And I think you'll see a lot of that in the years to come."

The New Paradigm of Containment
An interesting problem with mold is that the spores or seeds of most varieties have evolved to be very aerodynamic, becoming airborne quite easily and staying airborne for long periods. Many spores "float" for 8-12 hours before settling to the ground. This is problematic for an industry using high velocity air movement as a fundamental strategy to aid in drying structures quickly. The same holds true to a lesser extent to the practices of demolition and removal of wet materials (like damaged sheetrock) as a precursor to the restoration process.

"Often we are confronted with visible mold growth that may be the result of a current water event or the result of an earlier event," says Reese. "To make this more troublesome, mold may be hidden in a wall cavity or behind an installed cabinet and not discovered until the drying process is well under way."

If mold is in the wall or behind baseboard, the problem probably belongs to the owner of the structure. When it is released into the air, or worse, finds its way into an HVAC system and is spread through a structure, ownership of the problem may move to the individual or company holding the airmovers and the demolition tools. "If we don't contain it, we may own it," Reese points out.

Cochrane says that cleaners need to understand that if they enter a mold-contaminated area, "you can't just kill them and expect the problem to go away. The number one thing to do is, identify where it's coming from. Then, remove the water source, and any porous materials (which the mold consumes as food). Then it's important to seal the room before the remediation process begins."

According to Cochrane, the area should be fully enclosed under negative air pressure with HEPA filtration. "You should treat it like you're removing asbestos," he says. "You can't walk around spreading the spores."

It's not uncommon to find that standard liability insurance may attempt to define such a release as a pollution event and refuse to cover resulting costs of remediation under the policy's pollution exclusion. It's important to verify the coverage of their existing policy and obtain pollution coverage if needed.

Reese says the accepted practice for attacking water damage will continue to undergo dramatic change as the mold issue matures. An understanding of air pressure differentials and rudimentary containment techniques are essential to keep an emergency responder from creating a potentially devastating liability in a water damage situation. Standard practice requires cleaners to know how to keep whatever is or might be lurking where it's at and not released into the air. The use of air filtration devices (AFDs) and critical barriers are increasingly becoming a part of the restorative dryer's standard operating procedure, according to Reese.

Containing damage doesn't have to add substantially to the costs of a water damage project, but does require industry specific knowledge and good technique to accomplish successfully.

Killer Mold or Black Gold?
There is no question that everyone from installers to carpet cleaners to restoration professionals providing services to the residential and commercial building market needs to understand and practice the most basic tenet of dealing with mold: If it is there, keep it there. Don't disturb it until you contain it.

The jump from doing no harm to providing remediation of contamination is a quantum leap. It can be a lucrative service to those who are proficient, but not without risk. To be successful, a new set of skills must be mastered.

"First, education about the nature of the problem and its risks and rewards is essential," Reese said. "There are numerous opportunities to improve your understanding of the process. Certification is presently offered by the Indoor Air Quality Association (IAQA) and will soon be offered through the IICRC.

"Second, equipment and record keeping requirements need to be met. As an example, outfitting workers with appropriate personal protection equipment (PPE), fit testing and implementing a written respirator program are a must.

"In addition, the insurance coverage question mentioned earlier should be addressed."


An opinion piece in a recent construction trade publication states, "this [mold] thing will run its course" as if to say it would go away and not to worry too much about it.

"While that statement may not be the most astute of comments made regarding the issue, the situation will certainly mature and standard practice will be established much like was done with asbestos, radon and even sewage events in occupied structures," says Reese. "As and until that maturation process occurs, we need to understand the current state of the industry, keep abreast of developments and continue to act based upon the best information available."

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