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MOLD: ENVIRONMENTAL BOGEYMAN OR CONTRACTOR NIGHTMARE?

By Katie Rotella
Plumbing & Mechanical Magazine
, February 2002

It has been labeled a "silent killer," plaguing homes, schools and places of business around the country. It has been the cause of several multimillion-dollar lawsuits. It was found in nearly 50,000 homes in Houston last June.

It has been compared to asbestos in terms of remediation costs -- rising to an average of $150 per square foot. It is mold. And it is making the industry take notice. The media talking heads also have taken notice of "toxic mold," fueling concerns of the public with gloom and doom statistics.

Currently, there are no local, state or federal regulations on how to identify or clean up mold, or even on exposure limits. This lack of information has left us with bouts of finger-pointing and public outcry, with most of the blame landing on the backs of insurance companies. But it is not unheard of to see a contracting company's name listed among the liable parties.

From plumbing and new construction to forced air and janitorial/maintenance businesses, no one has been exempt from the hundreds of mold claims sprouting in courtrooms these days. In short, the mold issue is growing, well, like a fungus in our industry. With an unregulated issue such as this, steeped in lack of education, training and standards, it's easy to see how quickly things can get confusing and out of hand -- and a bit slimy.

The following article will give a brief overview of the basic mold facts and report on the issue as it stands as of early this year, but it is in no way comprehensive. (Do a quick Internet search on "Mold" and you'll find more sites to click through to keep you busy for weeks.) However, we will attempt to weed out the facts from the phooey on mold and its implications to your business.

Meet The Enemy

Growing mold concerns haven't stemmed from its "newness;" fungus has been around since the dawn of time. (The Bible references the spreading of "the plague," in which the "unclean item or property must be removed and destroyed.")

According to the Center for Disease Control & Prevention, there is always a little mold everywhere -- indoors and outdoors. Some mold is considered "helpful" mold, such as those found in medicines and antibiotics; mold is needed in the breakdown and decaying of dead materials.

Molds are also very common in buildings and homes, and will grow anywhere there is moisture and material on which to feed. Mold spores can enter a building through open doorways, windows, heating and ventilation systems, and even on your clothes.

When these airborne spores drop on places where there is excessive moisture, such as near leaky pipes, roofs or where there has been flooding, they will grow and prosper.

The most common indoor molds are Cladosporium, Penicillium, Aspergillus and Alternaria. But the mold that has coined the phrase "Black Mold," or "Toxic Mold," is Stachybotrys atra.

It is the new bogeyman of the press. The CDC admits there is no accurate information about how often Stachybotrys atra (or Stachy) is found in buildings and homes; it is less common than the others, but it is not rare.

Stachy is a nasty little fungus -- greenish-black and slimy, sometimes with white edges. It was first identified and described by a scientist from wallpaper collected in a home in Prague in 1837.

Stachy and other molds grow on material with a high cellulose and low nitrogen content: fiberboard, gypsum board, ceiling tiles, paper and -- their favorite snack -- drywall.

For the sake of energy efficiency, homes, commercial buildings and other structures built over the past 40 years have become increasingly airtight. The buildings simply don't "breathe" the way older structures do.

Add in the housing boom of recent years and you've got an increase in structures providing a relative feast for mold.

To clear up a few things, toxic molds cannot grow on ceramic tile. A little mildew around the bathtub or shower probably isn't anything to worry about and is more of a house cleaning issue. Nor is it found in the fuzzy-green molds on your forgotten tuna sandwich. But wet and leaky areas shouldn't be allowed to go unattended.

Mold and fungus can grow exponentially within 24 to 72 hours of initial water damage. Constant moisture is required for growth -- for Stachy to survive, materials need to be virtually saturated. But it is not necessary to determine what type of mold you have. The CDC recommends all molds be treated the same with respect to potential health risks and removal.

Risk Or Ruse

It has been re ported that Stachybotrys atra and certain other toxic molds produce mycotoxins, which can cause rare health conditions, such as pulmonary hemorrhage or memory loss. But here is where the experts vary on their conclusions.

There are some doomsayer's that will have you running for the hills at the first sight of mildew, saying mold causes you to cough up blood. But the truth is, there is no "truth" ?yet.

The CDC reports there is a lack of significant data that scientifically links toxic mold to these conditions, and no scientific study has been concluded concerning the safety level of mold in a home, or at what point a home becomes uninhabitable.

One thing is true, however. Asthma affects more than 17 million Americans, including 5 million children. And the airways of all people constrict when exposed to certain irritants, like pollen, pollutants and some drugs, according to the American Academy of Allergy, Asthma & Immunology.

Individuals who are more sensitive to molds commonly report symptoms including runny noses, eye irritation, congestion, aggravation of asthma, headaches, dizziness and fatigue.

Amazingly enough, high-profile cases are still being won by homeowners against insurance companies, even without conclusive health-risk evidence.

Last June in Texas, a jury found in favor of Melinda Ballard and her family, and ordered Farmers Insurance Group to pay out $32 million in damages and lawyer fees. Farmers was charged with improperly handling Ballard's water claim, allowing toxic mold to form and take over the family's $3 million home.

This decision was reached a few months before Farmers -- the state's second-largest insurer -- decided in August to stop selling new comprehensive home policies.

The Los Angeles-based company said mold coverage threatens its financial stability, and it will not renew homeowner policies in Texas in 2002, effectively putting it out of a market where Farmers serves 600,000 customers.

There had been a dramatic rise in mold claims for the company, which increased from 12 in 1999 to nearly 8,000 last year.

What To Do?

So what does all this mean for contractors these days? It means education and training is in order. Mold growing in homes and buildings, whether the "Black Mold" or other molds, indicates there is a problem with water or moisture. This is the first problem that needs to be addressed. This is where the trained professionals of the industry come in.

Take your customers' concerns seriously, but don't create or add to panic -- there is enough real need for remediation without creating fear through advertising or other communications with clients.

Feel free to refer clients to appropriate experts, expert documents or informative Web sites. But don't give medical or scientific advice unless you are a doctor or mycobiologist.

Remove mold according to lab criteria and/or specified scope of work. Currently, the standards for mold remediation come from a 1993 report by the New York City Department of Health's Bureau of Environmental & Occupational Disease Epidemiology.

This panel convened to create the "Guidelines on Assessment and Remediation of Stachybotrys Atra in Indoor Environments." It was revised in April 2000 to include all mold or fungi. (A copy of these guidelines can be found through the Web site www.ci.nyc.ny.us.)

The authors of the NYC guidelines suggest -- and the CDC, FEMA and the EPA all agree -- that no amount of visible mold is a good thing. If you can smell mold or see mold, it must be removed.

Continue to do what you do best: get proper training and certification (see sidebar on "Mold Certification") and insure, insure, insure. (As one mold remediator said, "Think worst-case scenario, triple it, add two shakes of paranoia, then insure for that.")

California is now the first state in America to make new toxic mold health laws. The Toxic Mold Protections Act of 2001 directs the California Department of Health Services (DHS) to develop and adopt standards for mold exposure limits for indoor mold environments by July 1, 2003 (Section 26105 (d)).

This law will set the stage, so watch for other states to eventually join in the act.

As more and more information becomes available to the public, mold claims -- and the need for mold remediation -- will continue to rise. But the best defense is always a good offense. Fixing clients' water leaks and moisture troubles is a great start to curb the possibility of toxic mold.

The Road To Mold Certification

Three years ago, Philip Fry was diagnosed with chronic sinusitis. And after months of research into the realm of indoor air quality -- and upon closer inspection of his own home -- he discovered mold.

These days, the former hospital administrator considers himself on a crusade to provide in-depth information to industry professionals, and produce highly qualified people in the field of mold remediation with his company Certified Mold Inspectors & Contractors Institute.

"The biggest myth of mold removal is chlorine bleach," says Fry, whose two-day course held in Hurricane, Utah, has certified nine companies in two months of operation. "Cleaning mold is a temporary solution. It'll re-grow unless you remove it completely and take care of the water and moisture problems.

But just because you don't see mold, doesn't mean it's not there, Fry warns. Hidden mold -- behind walls, wallpaper and ceilings -- has been the cause of several outbreaks of Stachybotrys atra and other molds, where they can thrive in moist areas undetected for as long as there's water and materials to feed on.

Fry's company does not offer plumbing courses. In Day One his faculty of three teaches hands-on mold detection and testing methods to construction and plumbing businesses, and trains them to locate hidden mold. Day Two covers the remediation portion of certification, and educates trainees on the possible dangers mold poses to the health of their clients.

"Certification is not legally required," says Fry about the lack of regulation on the mold issue as of yet. But he says completed courses in mold remediation lets clients know the company has taken the extra step to become informed on the issue. And certification couldn't hurt if a company was ever involved in litigation.

Fry says the public awareness of mold should bode well for plumbers, bringing in new revenues from remediation and service and repair work.

He recommends plumbing contractors, especially, become familiar with mold problems and symptoms, and make an effort to get certified. "A plumber would be the first one to see the possibilities of mold problems. He is the first line of defense against mold: fixing water and moisture leaks."

Fry also maintains two Web sites, www.moldinspector.com www.certifiedmoldinspectors.com. Visitors can find resources and information on mold and current mold news items, as well as search for a certified mold inspection or remediation company.

CDC Recommendations

Keep humidity levels below 50 percent.

Be sure homes have adequate ventilation, including exhaust fans in kitchens and bathrooms; Perform routine building maintenance, noting evidence of water damage and visible mold; and Use mold inhibitors, which can be added to paints.

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