Mold and the Indoor Environment

We all live with surface and airborne mold spores daily, as they are a part of the air we breathe both indoors and outdoors.  Adverse environmental issues develop as a result of one essential component; moisture.  Excessive moisture is the trigger that begins the life cycle of a mold problem.  This can come from a sudden water incident like a water pipe break, washer hose failures, foundation wall leak, etc. Other mold situations can develop over an extended period, from a plumbing leak, roof leak, or window failure, etc.  These water intrusions can transition into mold problems as a result of slow or inefficient drying, or even not being aware of the issue.

Mold Basics

Mold problems will typically show signs of fungal growth, which can leave affected areas looking fuzzy or discolored, or can reveal a musty odor.  However, you will not always have those markers to help you identify the problem. Without some qualitative professional environmental air testing, the level and type of contamination can only be a guess.  Actual mold species and their toxicity can only be determined through microscopic analysis by a qualified mycologist or an Indoor Environmental Professional.

  1. It is not reasonably possible to remediate a structure of all mold spores since they are a part of our everyday air. Professional mold remediation is about reducing mold spore counts to acceptable or normal everyday levels.
  2. There are no federal regulations for “permissible exposure limits” (PELs) or “threshold limit value” (TLV) for human exposure to mold, and mold exposure will not affect all individuals the same way.
  3. Mold spores are microscopic and cannot be seen with the human eye, without significant magnification.
  4. The “fuzzy” green, red, black, etc. patches we see on surfaces are revealing signs of mold activity. You cannot always count on visual signs or odor to announce the problem.
  5. The process of killing mold alone does not solve the problem, as non viable mold spores can still be allergenic and toxigenic.
  6. All repairs should be made to control excess moisture before the remediation process begins. If the conditions that led to the initial mold growth continue or reoccur, mold contamination is likely to begin again.
  7. Many times, the term “black mold” is used as a scare-to-action tactic, as the black mold refers to a type of mold named Stachybotrys Chartarum.  Stachybotrys Chartarum is black in color and was a common link found in public housing in Cleveland, OH in 1994.  Exposure to the indoor mold spore levels was thought to cause bleeding lungs in 30 children, 9 of which died.  The media referred to mold as the black toxic mold, and thus the black mold scare began. Not every mold that is black is Stachybotrys Chartarum, and other molds can produce toxins at the same level as Stachybotrys Chartarum but are not black in color.
Understanding Mold Related Health Concerns

Exposure to mold and the potential to affect human health is always debated, but science hasn’t settled on a conclusion yet.  As individuals, our immune systems are unique to us and will react, respond and tolerate microbial exposure in a countless number of ways.  Add to the equation the multitude and variety of mold spores and their ability to be allergenic, and in some cases toxigenic.  You can begin to see how complex the issue of exposure and health can be.  Since there are many unknowns regarding health and mold exposure, it would be prudent to play it safe and protect your health by limiting your exposure to mold.

  1. Health effects and symptoms associated with excess mold exposure may include allergic reactions, shortness of breath, asthma, bleeding lungs, and other respiratory issues. Exposure to high indoor mold levels may also cause headaches, fatigue, memory loss, nose bleeds, nausea, etc.
  2. The key to controlling mold growth is controlling excess moisture. The ideal target for indoor relative humidity is 30% to 60%.  Relative humidity above 60% can sustain microbial activity.
  3. Respond to water intrusions immediately. Repair the source of moisture and completely dry all affected areas.
  4. Do not allow those unfamiliar with mold remediation to disturb contaminated areas.
  5. Never spray bleach or other chemicals on colonized mold contamination, as spores could be dispersed and become airborne. Using biocides to kill mold does not reduce the problem of airborne mold spores, which can still be allergenic and toxigenic.
  6. Those most vulnerable to the health effects of mold exposure are pregnant women, children under the age of 7, senior citizens, and those with respiratory ailments or compromised immune systems.
  7. Hidden problems can only be detected by professional air sampling to find airborne contaminants.
  8. Confirm the quality of remediation with a post-remediation verification testing to validate the efficacy of the process.
Question the Authority

There may be a variety of professionals you might encounter through the course of a mold problem. Some may be home inspectors, realtors, contractors, insurance adjusters or environmental testing professionals, each with different perspectives or experiences and all with their own opinion.

We have identified some very straightforward insights that will give you a gauge for whether the company or professional you are prospecting is knowledgeable about mold contamination.  When seeking counsel from professionals, be your own advocate.

  1. Question any environmental professional that also performs remediation as a service. Because mold is a microscopic problem, the lack of an independent third-party tester is an inherent conflict of interest.
  2. Question any professional that uses “instant spray mold killers” or any professional that uses chlorine to “kill the mold”, as chlorine has also not been proven to kill mold. These sprays have a bleaching effect on surfaces but will not be as effective as remediation.  There are many products manufactured to “kill” mold, though the chemical makeup of these products can be aggressive and dangerous.  They can be quick and cheap, but they are also unproven in the long-term application and are not a part of professional remediation.
  3. Question any professional that uses the term “black mold” as a specific identification of a type of mold or uses sight and/or odor to identify mold species. Professional mold identification is not about the color of the residue.  Some colors of mold growth will be determined by the food source that the mold is digesting.
  4. Question any contractor that uses paint sealers to bury or entomb mold without remediation. There are many sealers today that are manufactured with antimicrobial properties, but these are unproven in the long-term application. These sealers should only be used as a preventive after remediation.
  5. Question anyone that uses themselves as a barometer, as in “I’m allergic to mold, so I’d know if you have a problem”. There are thought to be thousands of mold spores, only of which approximately 800 are identified and studied. The likelihood someone would be allergic to all the molds in your structure or have a reaction to short term exposure is remote at best.
  6. Question anyone that suggests mold remediation before locating and solving the excess moisture problem.  Effort should be given to cause and effect.  The moisture problem needs to be addressed before remediation begins.
The Contractor Mentality

There are very few general contractors, plumbers, etc. that understand the nuances of mold contamination and remediation.  Our experience has been that most have one of two mentalities; “I’ll spray something and kill it” or “just tear it out, I’ve never had a problem before”.

  • The “I’ll kill it” mindset- Killing mold spores is not an easy proposition, and just using chlorine bleach doesn’t come close to solving the problem. Spraying the spores is the first challenge, as you cannot see the microscopic spores to spray them.  There should be an understanding and distinction between visible surface mold growth and airborne mold spores that you cannot see. There are mold treatment products that will change the color of the substrate by bleaching it, but that does not mean the spores are dead.  These chemicals can be so aggressive they damage the painted and metal surfaces in the treated area in an effort to “kill” the mold.  Some contractors have been known to fog hazardous chemicals into the air with the hope of killing airborne spores.  Fogging a harsh chemical can not only be very dangerous to those applying it, but also for those who live and work in the treated area.  They are left with the resulting odor and residue that may continue to off-gas those chemicals.  As a reminder; dead mold spores can still be both allergenic and toxigenic, so killing them is not remediation.
  • The “just tear it out” mindset- Removing the visual signs of growth from the wall is a good step, but without proper containment controls in place, the resulting airborne contamination could be raised as much as a 1000%. As the contaminated areas are disturbed, adjacent rooms and their contents could become contaminated by airborne mold spores.  When questioned or confronted with the facts about mold and fungal issues, a poorly trained contractor will defend their previous experiences in which they did everything wrong with an “I’ve never had a problem before!” mentality.  Professional remediation requires basic fungal knowledge, planning, airflow containment, specific remediation equipment, as well as trained and protected personnel.

For the best remediation results:

  1. Do not allow individuals to disturb areas of mold contamination.
  2. Do not let a contractor “cross-contaminate” previously uncontaminated areas.
  3. Do not allow any untrained individuals erect critical barriers, install containment controls or negative air scrubbers.
  4. Do not let individuals begin remediation without a written protocol of their work plan.
  5. Do not allow a third-party (adjuster, contractor, etc.) to hire unprofessional remediation or testing services in an effort to save their money. Their effort to save money may be detrimental to your property, possessions, and your health.
  6. Do not let a contractor spray any chemical unless you know what it is and you are comfortable that it won’t harm you, leave a harmful residual residue or damage interior surfaces.
The Indoor Environmental Professional

The guidance from a skilled Indoor Environmental Professional can save you time, money and hassle.  The trick is finding one.  There are many untrained or less professional mold testers willing to take on your project.  Usually, these individuals will have other unrelated jobs or trades, and they do the mold testing on the side.

Do not underestimate the value of an independent third-party professional for evaluation, testing, and guidance. Since mold contamination is a microscopic problem there inevitably will be some nuance and conjecture involved in determining and establishing a corrective protocol. This underscores the need for a trained and knowledgeable professional.

An experienced professional will identify the levels of contamination, interpret the lab results of the testing, write a remediation protocol, give recommendations throughout the remediation process, and finally perform clearance testing to arrive at a post remediation verification.  Typically, air sampling is performed by using a small air pump for a specific amount of time.  The air is drawn through a small hose and the microscopic particles that travel in the air are captured in a small filter or embedded in a gel-like substance.  Once that is done, the media is sent to a lab for a microscopic examination of the particles collected to identify what types of spores and estimate the number of mold spores found in your indoor environment.  This information is used to customize and formulate an action plan.

Final Observation

We realize when dealing with mold there can be many questions that arise.

Mold is like many things in nature; a little exposure may not hurt you and a lot might, depending on the individual.  From a health and exposure standpoint, mold can be like many household products such as milk, peanuts, caffeine, and laundry soap.  Each can cause different reactions in different individuals as the point of exposure and sometimes will cause yet another reaction with extended exposure.  Ultimately, as individuals, our existing health, age and immune system will determine what we can tolerate and for how long.  Some exposures to microbial contaminants may bring acute and/or chronic reactions.

Finding mold in your home does not qualify as an indoor “mold problem”, but a combination of many small signs may lead you to seek consultation.  As a company, we try to help clients find the right balance between inaction and emergency.

Additional Mold Information Resources

If you need more information about mold in homes and buildings or mold remediation, here are several websites that are reliable resources for information. Please feel free to contact us with any questions you may have regarding your mold remediation project.

“Mold Resources” United States Environmental Protection Agency http://www.epa.gov/mold/moldresources.html

“Molds in the Environment” Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, US Department of Health and Human Services http://www.cdc.gov/Mold/

“Questions and Answers on Stachybotrys Chartarum and Other Molds” Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, US Department of Health and Human Services http://www.cdc.gov/mold/stachy.htm

“Guidelines on Assessment and Remediation of Fungi in Indoor Environments” New York City Department of Health, Bureau of Environmental and Occupational Diseases Epidemiology http://www.nwhealth.org/pubs/NYC%20DOH%20Guidelines.pdf

RIA- Restoration Industry Association- http://www.restorationindustry.org/

IAQA- Indoor Air Quality Association- http://www.iaqa.org/

IAQA online training- http://www.iaqa.org/iaqa-university

IICRC- Institute of Inspection, Cleaning and Restoration Certification http://www.iicrc.org/standards/iicrcs520/