A Housewife’s Guide to Mold
Am I Conflicted?
You must be wondering about me; here is my disclosure. I am a building inspector. I inspect for a living and pride myself in passing out accurate, unbiased information to my clients. Do not ask me something unless you really want to know. Many times ignorance is bliss; sometimes it is just ignorant. If I do not know something, I will research it until I do know it. I do not pretend to be an expert in the field of mold, just well informed. Just about the time I think I am an expert in anything there will be somebody who pops up out of nowhere and make me feel foolish and wonder if I am even qualified to be in the housing industry.
A conflict of interest is a situation in which an individual has competing interests or loyalties. Someone in a position of trust has competing professional or personal interests in a situation. Such competing interests can make it difficult to fulfill his or her duties impartially.
There are some brilliant men in this industry but they just so not communicate very well with the public. This article is an attempt to provide unbiased information in a format that a nonprofessional can understand. It will drive some of the specialist nuts by my use of metaphors but it is not written for them. I wrote this article to help the average make an informed decision on how to handle a mold problem.
Before I get hammered for being an insensitive pig for referring to housewives I would submit that raising our children is the most important aspect in our lives. Healthy and educated children are the foundation and future of our society. Anyone who devotes their life to this endeavor should be highly praised. Our school systems have been allowed to decay which is representative of our standing in the world. Society requires a driver’s license to drive a car but anybody can raise a child with no training whatsoever! When I talk about housewives, or anyone who helps raise our children, it is with respect and admiration that far exceeds that of any banker or wall street type.
Brad Deal CIEC, CMC, CMR
Follow the Money!
It Uncovers the Motives
There is tons of bad information on the internet regarding mold. On most web sites, there is just enough truth to make it sound true but when you analyze the information, you usually find that it is connected with somebody who has an axe to grind or something to sell. If you see someone who is selling a service, or a manufacturer that has some miracle compound that will save you money, you can rest assured that they will slant the information in their favor. When you review these web sites be sure to look at who is writing the articles. Are they in the mold business, or are they in the business of writing articles, or are they salesmen? What are their qualifications and what is their experience? If you are looking for useable information, then follow up and check to see if they really are who they say they are. You would be surprised to see how many fakes there is in this business. Look for serious men who make a living in the mold business.
It’s the phone
I routinely receive phone calls from disgruntled homemakers requesting advice regarding mildew on their window frames and bathroom walls. The typical phone call goes something like this, ring ring, “I have some of that Toxic Black Mold growing on my walls and my children are getting sick. I read something on the internet that says black mold is especially bad.” And if it is a tenant they go on to say, “My landlord knows there is a mold problem in this unit and he refuses to fix it. Now I am going to sue…”
My response goes something like this:
What is mold?
First, it is important to get the name right. Every mildew is a mold but not every mold is a mildew. Mildews typically grow on plants. To characterize growths on bathroom walls as mildews is incorrect. The term mildew is a generic term that means little to an Indoor Environmental Professional (IEP).
Molds are little more than combination of microscopic fields of tiny mushrooms and dirty weeds. The spoors these mushroom give off are similar to pollen given off by flowers and can cause similar effects. Molds can also give off poisons that can become airborne either by vapors known as microbial volatile organic compounds, (MVOCs) or by being attached to spoors or dust that can become airborne. It is important to understand that happy molds do not make poisons. Molds and other organisms become unhappy when they fight over a food source or when there is some type of environmental stress. These poisons or mycotoxins are a defense mechanism that the mold creates to protect itself from secondary biological organisms. Typically, these secondary organisms create their own version of mycotoxins to combat the first mold, thereby increasing the amount of poisons until one organism prevails and stops creating mycotoxins in self-defense. After vanquishing the threat, the mold is again happy and relatively harmless. Do not get caught up in trying to determine exactly what type of mold is present. Stachybotrys is the one mold every lawyer knows intimately. Yes, it was used by the Russians during to the cold war to develop biological weapons, and yes, it can be nasty under the proper conditions but there are many other molds that can cause problems. All molds are dirty and should they be treated just like any other dirt. Clean it up. Don’t touch it, don’t breathe it; don’t eat it, and especially don’t expose your children to it.
There was an important study done some time ago where there were some concerns regarding babies with bleeding lungs that was caused by the mold, Stachybotrys. This study has been largely discredited so beware of the hysteria. This is a great example of how poor research can cause a tremendous amount of confusion.
CDC and NYC Health Department Opinions Reconsidered
While the “toxic mold” phenomenon gained momentum, the two agencies primarily responsible for guidance on epidemiology (CDC) and remediation (NYC Department of Health) quietly re-evaluated the issue, recently releasing dramatically different recommendations. After intensive analysis of the Cleveland data by both an Internal Working Group and an External Review Panel, the CDC issued the following new conclusions in April, 2000:
Additional CDC guidance also stated the following:
Do not forget the spoors. Spoors are the reproductive portion of mold that are given off through a process called sporulation. The spoors float around in the air and land on whatever surface they encounter. These spoors will grow whenever they land on a suitable surface. These spoors can cause health effects for individuals much the same as pollen. Different types of mold spoors affect different people in different ways. Under normal circumstances, mold spoors have little effect on healthy people. When they are concentrated enough the health effects can range from noticeable to acute. Keep in mind the spoors may be coated with the mycotoxins. Therefore, the mold spoors may be innocuous at times and toxic at others. In addition, the fragments of mold can be allergenic and they can also be coated with mycotoxins. It all becomes complicated very quickly. Just because mold has been killed or has gone dormant it can still cause health effects by becoming aerosolized, i.e. becoming dust that can carry the mycotoxins or it can be allergenic on its own. Every bit of mold must be cleaned up in order to minimize its health risks.
The color of mold is highly dependant on the type of food it is eating. The term, “Black Mold” means nothing. It is impossible to characterize the type of mold by looking at it with the naked eye. There are some technicians with tons of training and experience who can guess at the type of mold based on the environmental conditions but these people must confirm their suspicions by sending a sample to a qualified laboratory for microscopic analysis. Even the laboratories have trouble distinguishing between some types of mold because they look almost the same under a microscope. These types of molds require a more rigorous analysis to determine exactly the type of mold. It is a giant red flag for the layman when an “expert” tells you what kind of mold is present just by looking. “Mr. Jones, you have a serious Aspergillus Money-for-us infection. I can tell by the way it looks…” If you can see it then clean it up!
Why We Live Where We Do
“Fred Flintstone! When are you going to build me that new house you promised?”
Mold is part of our environment. Mold is everywhere (ubiquitous.) It is inside our homes and in every breathe we take. The key to understanding the health effects of mold is to consider the reasons humanity moved out of cold wet caves and into warm dry homes. Homemakers have an intuitive understanding that damp dirty areas are not healthy for their families. They may not know why it is unhealthy but they understand that it is important to keep their families away from these dirty areas. Accordingly, they have pressured their husbands to create better and more environmentally friendly places of abode. Over time, mankind has moved from caves to huts, to tents, to stone shacks, to wood frame buildings, and today, processed wood “McMansions.”
McMansion: “A large and pretentious house, typically of shoddy construction, typical of "upscale" suburban developments in the late 20th and early 21st centuries. Such houses are characterized by steep roofs of complex design, theatrical entrances, lack of stylistic integrity and backsides which are notably less fussy than their fronts. They are often placed closely together to maximize the developer's profits and appeal to people who value perceived social status over actual, physical, economic or historic value.” http://www.urbandictionary.com/define.php?term=mcmansion
Today we can control location, temperature, air quality, and humidity along with all our other creature comforts. The environment in our modern homes is exactly opposite of the conditions found in prehistoric homes. The ultimate result is that we should be better able to control the growth of mold inside our homes.
Mold needs three things to grow:
1) A place to live. Almost any surface will provide a suitable site for growth. It is a common mis-conception that mold will not grow in sunlight. There are some molds that are sensitive to light there are others that light does not bother. Areas subject to sunlight are easily seen and are more likely to be easily cleaned. Sunlight for the most part does not prohibit growth but keep in mind that sunlight will serve to dry up wet areas, thus removing water which is a requirement for mold growth. Mold is usually found in dark unventilated areas that are not routinely accessed.
2) Water. It can be liquid water or water vapor, aka humidity. Older homes are drafty and not very well insulated. As energy costs have escalated, building designs have changed to save energy. Increasing insulation and decreasing the air exchange inside homes has increased energy efficiency but a side effect has been to make the homes more susceptible to mold. Recently the various code enforcement agencies become aware that there must be a trade off between energy efficiency and ventilation in order to improve indoor air quality. Generally speaking, mold will not grow if the humidity in the home is less than about 50%. (This is also true for dust mites) However, it is possible to have microclimates where the humidity can be raised by localized conditions. Things like showers, cooking, humidifiers, or even your breath while sleeping under your bed covers can change the humidity enough to allow the growth of mold. Even the temperature of the walls can change the humidity very close to the wall’s surface causing water to condensate on its surface. Tiny amounts of water can support mold growth.
3) A food source. Dead skin cells, dust deposited from the heating system, crumbs, paper, processed wood, almost anything can become food for the right type of mold. It is interesting to note that the typical mold will not grow on wood. It is interesting to note that as wood becomes more and more processed, or pre digested so to speak, it becomes a better and better food source for molds. In the old days, our homes were built out of wood and concrete; not a very good food source for mold. Today our homes are built out of processed wood and wood by products that are little more than cardboard and paper. Paper is actually used in laboratories as a food source for some types of mold.
Extremes: So we go from one extreme to another. In our grandfather’s time we had houses that were indigestible to mold there were well ventilated. Today we have homes that are literally an unventilated mold smorgasbord. When a modern home experiences a water intrusion event it is highly susceptible to a mold infestation. Newer in this case is not necessarily better. Two steps forward, one step back?
Toxic Mold Oh My!
The Black Stuff is Especially Bad…
First it is important to get the terms right. Molds are not toxic, they are toxigenic. That means that they are capable of being toxic but not always toxic. Toxic black mold is a term invented by lawyers and printed by newspapers to create hysteria and increase their profits. They did a great disservice to the indoor air quality profession by spreading this misinformation. Just because a mold is black it does not necessarily mean it is toxic. However, I would characterize every mold as being “dirty.” Some are more dirty then others. While mold may or may not be toxic, it is an indication of a water leak or some other failure in the ventilation system. If you can see mold it should be cleaned up to eliminate the risk associated with uncontrolled growth. By removing the mold you also eliminate the probability of it infecting other susceptible areas inside your home. It is important to “nip it in the bud” to stop it before a small problem can turn into a serious problem. More importantly, the underlying cause of the mold should be identified and corrected to stop a reoccurrence of the growth.
Standards, What Standards?
We Don’t Need No Stinking Standards!
If one accepts the fact that mold is ubiquitous (everywhere) in our environment and people do not get sick from mold every day then there must be special circumstances that can cause mold to be unhealthy. If mold is everywhere then what can make it unhealthy? Obviously if we concentrate mold in our homes in excess of what is naturally found then it becomes un-natural (abnormal) and unhealthy. The problem that has plagued the IAQ industries is how to characterize what is unhealthy. While a housewife may intuitively know that mold is unhealthy for her family, it is very difficult for the scientific community to determine exactly what level of mold is safe and what is unhealthy. In an industrial setting the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), The United States Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), and the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) has set Personal Exposure Limits (PELs) for thousands of manmade chemicals but these agencies are unable to set PEL levels for these naturally occurring biological substances.
Clearly mold should never be seen inside a home. If you can see mold then you know there is a water intrusion issue. Water causes about 80% of all the damage inside a home. Whether it be from a leaking roof, a leaking pipe, poor drainage, or from condensation it is all bad. One effect of uncontrolled water is mold. Remember that mold needs three things to survive, a place to grow, a food source and water. If we eliminate the water then mold cannot grow. So if you see water anywhere inside your home then it needs to be dried up. New mold will start to grow in less then two days and stagnant mold can “wake up” in just a few minutes when water is reapplied. So the longer you wait after a water intrusion event, the higher the probability that mold will grow. The one standard that everyone can agree to is that mold should never be seen inside your home.
Dose vs. Time?
I was doing an inspection some time ago. It was for a home in foreclosure that had been vacant for some time. I opened the cabinet doors under the kitchen sink and stooped to peer inside. The odor that assaulted my senses was overpowering. It could be compared to a spilled can of acetone. After a few minutes my eyes were burning and my nose was running. After about an hour I was sick. This is only anecdotal evidence and does not qualify as scientific proof but in my experience it is clear that under the proper conditions mold can be a health hazard. I was exposed for only a few seconds and immediately felt some effects. This was an extreme case in a home that was not occupied and not maintained. In a home that is occupied, it is unlikely that such a condition would be allowed to manifest itself. Just the mere acts of opening the cabinet doors would alert the occupants of the mold condition and to clean the area. It is the mold that is not so obvious that causes health problems. When there is mold in an area that is unknown, like inside a wall, there is the possibility of being exposed to its ill effects without reaching a perceptible or conscious level. In these cases it is possible to be exposed to a low dose of contamination over a long period of time. There must be a “pathway” for the contamination inside the wall to reach the living spaces. If there is no pathway then the mold remains contained inside the enclosed space and does not become a health hazard. The problem with mold that is contained inside the walls is the uncertainty. How do you know for sure if it is completely contained? Or is it leaking a little bit? Also, it lies in wait for an opportunity to break free and infect the rest of the home. Lastly, how does it affect the value of the home, and the ability to sell that home?
Mold conditions must be disclosed to prospective buyers.
If the seller of a property withholds information regarding a mold condition and the buyer finds a condition inside an enclosed area then the seller may be liable for any damages. Due the uncertainties involved with mold this can be a high risk situation for the seller. That’s why it is so important for sellers to clean up mold conditions properly. And why it is so important for buyers to be sure they are not buying some other person’s problems. Mold conditions are especially important during any real estate purchase transaction.
How much mold is bad for you?
It is important to understand that we are talking about very tiny amounts of substances. Mold spoors are smaller than pollen. It takes a considerable amount of spoors to reach a threshold of perceptibility. In addition, it depends whether or not the spoors are contaminated with mycotoxins. In addition, there may be volatile organic molecules MCOVs floating around (vapors.) It is hard enough to determine the health effects of spoors by themselves but it is even harder when they are contaminated with mycotoxins and when there is MCOVs involved, it becomes so complicated that standards are difficult to develop. Because of the tiny amounts involved and the difficulty in measuring the compounds the scientific community is reluctant to take a stand and say, “This much is too much. The common sense standard is that if you can smell then you need to find it and clean it up.
There is a wide range of considerations.
A large amount of mold over a short period of time can cause problems. Conversely a small amount of mold over a long period of time can also cause problems. So there is a range between a large amount and a small amount that can cause problems. Another layer of confusion is the fact that some people are more susceptible to mold than others. Children and the elderly are more susceptible than healthy adults. Very young children may develop lifelong allergies when exposed to mold. Some people have genetic predisposition to mold. Immunocompromised individuals are susceptible to fungal infections. It is almost impossible for a governmental agency to set personal exposure levels when the political implications are considered.
What is a Normal Fungal Ecology?
There is considerable controversy regarding what is clean. After years of debate, the standard is a “Normal Fungal Ecology.” The next question is, “What is normal?” Consider the difference of a normal fungal ecology in a cave versus that in a modern home. Normal is whatever is normal for the subject location. It depends on your geographical location, time of year, type of construction, surface material in question, and housekeeping skills. Normal to me is comfortably clean like my grandmother’s house. The air smells good and there are no visible growths. My daughter’s room on the other hand could be an emotional toxic dump of clutter but it still qualifies as a “normal fungal ecology.” Visible growths or odors are not normal they are dirty just like weeds are dirty. Abnormal occurs when there is some sort of uncontrolled water intrusion issue. Water equals mold, water is abnormal, and mold is abnormal.
What is Clean?
There are four levels of clean for non-porous surfaces; Removal, Sanitize, Disinfect, and Sterilize. The areas must be cleaned in this order to be effective. Microorganisms can hide behind debris and be missed. Many biocides will be “used up” by debris and lose its potency thereby being less effective on the mold. Cleaning mold is a multi step process; removal, sanitize then if necessary disinfect. Common sense tells us to wear gloves and an N-95 paper mask when cleaning up mold for personal protection. Spend the extra dollar and get the mask with the one-way air valve. They are far more comfortable to use. The ‘N95’ designation means that the respirator blocks at least 95% of test particles. When properly fitted, the filtration capabilities of N95 respirators exceed those of regular paper facemasks.
Removal: Technically, removing contaminated material is not cleaning but it is a necessary first step. Most standards recommend removing stained or contaminated material prior to cleaning. The mold is usually so deeply embedded in these areas as to be economically impossible to reclaim. The standards recommend removing the stained areas anywhere from 6” to 24” past the stain to insure the mold has been removed. After removal, the areas can be cleaned.
Sanitize: To reduce the surface microorganisms to a normal ecology. This level can be reached by using soap, detergents and scrubbing. Gently spray the detergent all over the mold; this will help stop the spoors from being released, that is to say that the spoors are glued to the surface and stopped from contaminating other areas of your home. Gently scrub the area to remove the mold. The mechanical action of scrubbing is important. It pushes the detergent deep into surface of the material and floats the debris to surface. The debris can now be washed away. This level of clean is what would be found in a modern kitchen and is recommended by the EPA and CDC. This will remove all the visible mold and almost all of the mold that is embedded in the infected material. For all practical purposes the material is now mold free.
Disinfect: To reduce the surface microorganism level to a point where infection is almost impossible to re-infect. This is usually accomplished by using biocides after the area has been sanitized. The EPA and CDC only recommend this level of clean when recommended by the on site indoor Environmental Professional (IEP). Sometimes it is impossible to satisfactorily clean a difficult area and biocides are the only reasonable method to remove the last bit of mold. It is generally recommended to clean or remove contaminated material. Introducing a biocide, i.e. a poison into your home is not generally recommended for fear of long term exposure to harmful compounds. Beware of foggers and other biocides that purport to control mold forever. If they work forever then your family will be exposed to these poisons forever.
Sterilize: This is the highest level of clean. All microorganisms are removed or killed. This is accomplished with heat or specially designed biocides well beyond the ability of the typical homeowner. This something found in clean rooms or in medical facilities.
The S520 Standard and Reference Guide
for Professional Mold Remediation
The mold remediator’s bible, the ICRC S520 states that, “the primary goal is to safely restore Condition 2 or Condition 3 structures, contents or systems to Condition 1.”
Condition 1 (normal fungal ecology): an indoor environment that may have settled spores, fungal fragments or traces of actual growth whose identity, location and quantity are reflective of a normal fungal ecology for a similar indoor environment.
Condition 2 (settled spores): an indoor environment, which is primarily contaminated with settled spores that were dispersed directly or indirectly from a Condition 3 area, and which may have traces of actual growth.
Condition 3 (actual growth): an indoor environment contaminated with the presence of actual mold growth and associated spores. Actual growth includes that which is active or dormant, visible or hidden.
What about Porous Materials?
Porous and semi porous materials are difficult to deal with. It is an exercise in cost vs. value, or diminishing returns. Inexpensive porous materials are generally discarded. Expensive furniture or things like rare books can be saved with a great deal of effort. It becomes a process of diminishing returns to determine which items to save. Things like pillows or upholstery will literally suck the mold way down deep into the matting and become impossible to completely remove. Many times the client is willing to accept less than satisfactory conditions in order to keep the items. Drywall is a common material that is contaminated with mold. Mold grows roots into its food source and on the case of drywall these roots extends into the drywall about the thickness of a sheet of paper. So on drywall that has not been painted with waterproof enamel mold may grow into the surface and be impossible to remove. In these cases, the drywall must be removed from the building and discarded. Processed wood is considered to be semi porous. Cabinets, baseboards, and some moldings are semi porous and are almost always removed and discarded. I am unaware of any rated biocide for porous surfaces. Many biocides are rated for non-porous surfaces. In my opinion there is way too much uncertainty regarding porous surfaces. There are too many scenarios to be covered with too much liability for the manufacturer; there are some biocides that purport to work on semi porous materials in specific conditions but using these poisons should be used when recommended by an Indoor Environmental Professional (IEP). Clothes and towels can be washed in the washing machine with hot water and detergent. A little bleach works for materials not subject to discoloration. If in doubt, wash them twice.
Here are some comments regarding EPA listings and approvals. Professionals must abide by the EPA regulations. Homeowners are not bound by such laws.
“All EPA-registered antimicrobial pesticides include the statement: "It is a violation of Federal law to use this product inconsistent with its labeling." It is very important to clearly understand this statement. EPA-registered labels will generally specify "sites" or intended surfaces to which they can be applied.
Most antimicrobial pesticides will have in their directions for use the statement "for use on pre-cleaned, hard-surface non-porous materials." If you use such a product on a porous material like carpet, cushion, wood or drywall, you have violated Federal law and exposed yourself to significant liability. If you use EPA-registered products on porous materials, the instructions should be included in the label directions.”
Carpets are Porous: Carpets are little more than horizontal settlement filters. It is ridiculous to believe that such a system should not be designed to be periodically cleaned. In the old days, floors were almost exclusively hardwood and linoleum. After the invention of nylon, carpet became the low cost alternative floor covering. It has a life span of 20 years or more and it collects debris for all of those 20 years. It is impossible to clean carpet and the pad is impossible to clean. All this plus the off gassing carpet introduces into a home during the first few months after installation. The carpet system traps dust and dirt in place until some disturbance causes the dirt to become again airborne to settle in another location. It is interesting to note the increasing use of carpet roughly matches the increase in childhood breathing disorders. Carpets are considered to be a lifetime system with no provisions to clean the bottom side of the matting or the pad. We have been convinced by the carpet industry that this is a good thing. As a society, we accept this incongruity, out of sight, out of mind. No wonder why little Johnny is always sick? If you have allergies or other breathing disorders then choose a hard surface floor like hardwood or tile. Then use throw rugs that can be removed and really cleaned.
Sealing or Encapsulation?
What’s the difference?
The difference makes me crazy!
Get the terms right. Sealing is primer or underlayment installed in anticipation of painting a surface. Encapsulation is a process of trapping un-cleaned areas under a covering that contains poisons to inhibit additional growth. They are not the same thing! In my early days as an apprentice carpenter the old timers would say, “Measure twice, cut once then seal all six sides…” Many times a master carpenter can be found by how he prepared the wood prior to installation. Sealed wood will last longer than raw wood and sealed manufactured wood products that are sealed will last many times longer.
Some people will refuse to clean up a known mold condition in anticipation of winning a large settlement. Occupants have a moral duty to clean up their homes. They also have a contractual duty under their deed of trust to maintain their home. Renters have a contractual obligation to keep their unit clean. We all have a duty to protect our children from all dangers including mold. If you are aware that there is a mold infestation somewhere near your children then you must take actions to protect your family. If you get sick you may have recourse but that will not relieve the health issues that the mold condition caused in your family. Clean up the mold.
A legal rule that although a plaintiff is entitled to recover damages from a defendant, he or she is also under a duty to avoid their escalation. A court may penalize a plaintiff who fails to take all reasonable care in halting or preventing avoidable damages.
Under construction. I need some Inspiration
What About Air Sampling?
You had to ask…
It depends on the circumstance. Both the EPA and CDC do not recommend air sampling unless there are special circumstances. The first and best indicator of mold is a visual inspection of the property by a qualified inspector. The occupant interview and the visual inspection provides information for about 80% of the report. Sampling represents only 20% and air sampling is only one part of the sampling strategy.
Outside sample vs. inside sample
Species outside inside
Uncertainty outside sample-nothing to compare inside.
Number of samples
Long Term Homeowner: If you are a long term homeowner who is knowledgeable about your property then air sampling is probably not indicated. If there is not any visible mold, and there are no odors then there is a low probability of mold being present and sampling is a waste of money.
New Home Buyer
Water Intrusion Event
What about Bleach?
Follow the money.
Bad InformationUnder Construction. I will have something up in a few days.