Unchecked mold can lead to serious indoor air problems

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Published: December 17,2007

It doesn’t take a natural disaster such as a flood or hurricane to cause mold problems in buildings. Wherever there is heat, water and oxygen, mold can grow causing people in the building to experience coughing, sneezing, irritated eyes, a stuffy nose and skin irritation. People with weakened immune systems may also experience mold infections in their lungs, said DeJonnette King, senior principal, Advanced Environmental Consultants, Jackson, which provides mold cleanup of homes and businesses.

Mold problems often are a result of long-term moisture situations.

“It usually has been a slow water leak that has occurred for a while before you really see the growth of mold,” King said. “The main thing with mold is anytime the component of water is removed, the growth of mold will stop.”

If one suspects mold, King recommends a microbiological assessment to identify the problem. The assessment will tell where the mold is coming from and what type of mold it is. Once the problem is accessed, one can determine what needs to be done.

“Not all mold is toxic,” King said. “There are different types of mold. There is allergenic mold. It makes you feel bad if you are prone to allergies. It is non-toxic but makes you feel bad. Then there is pathogenic mold and toxic mold, which is the worst. If you suspect there is a potential that mold does exist in your building, at a minimum I would do a microbiological assessment to find out what type of mold it is. We do swab samples as well as air samples. Swab samples show what is in the building. If we can’t see it, we do it air sampling that will tell us if something is hidden behind the walls.”

Mold remediation can be very expensive. And if it isn’t done properly, the mold can come back. That is why experts like King recommend a clearance check after the work is completed. Using another firm to do sampling after the work is done can be a good check and balance.

A preventative is just good housekeeping and maintenance. Immediately correct any leaks in the plumbing. Fix roof leaks, and not just by putting a band-aide on the problem.

“The HVAC system is another crucial area,” King said. “It is a good housekeeping practice to clean the HVAC system. Change out your filters monthly, and clean your air ducts on a regular time schedule. If simple things are not done, you can have condensation in the HVAC system that creates an environment for mold to grow.”

Serious mold problems aren’t for the do-it-yourselfer. Most people don’t have the proper protective equipment to prevent health problems from being exposed to the mold.

Steve Hudson, owner, Mold Remediation, Saltillo, said he is on an oxygen machine because he didn’t use protective equipment when he started in the industry 20 years ago.

“Personal protection equipment (PPE) is a must to protect people working in it,” Hudson said. “People shouldn’t do it themselves because they don’t know the protocol and don’t take precautions by wearing PPE. When you take mold out of a house, you must put up containment barriers and double bag the waste going out of the house. Depending on the amount of mold and the type of mold, there are different protocols on how to treat it. Some is as simple as to spray mildicide on it, and some requires demolition of the area with air scrubbers to make sure that the mold doesn’t spread to other areas of the building.”

Hudson said 20 years ago, people primarily used bleach to kill mold. Now it is more involved. Mold problems are worse for some reason. Hudson predicts in the future people will be required to have a mold clearance test before a building is purchased.

Most people may recover quickly from mold exposure. But others can have lasting problems. Hudson said the elderly, babies and people with weakened immune systems are particularly at risk.

Coast attorney Steve Mullins, a partner at Luckey & Mullins, Ocean Springs, has represented almost 1,000 clients in Alabama, Mississippi and Louisiana on mold-related cases including insurance bad faith, construction defect and product liability. Mullins said a lot of “sick building syndrome” that was originally blamed on outgassing of chemicals in tight, energy-efficient buildings was discovered to have been caused by mold.

Mullins said the “perfect storm” has been brewing during the large nationwide construction boom in the past 20 years. He said the quality of construction isn’t as good as it was previously, and there have been a lot of problems with HVAC systems. There have also been new, more toxic forms of mold found. Some people are suspicious because mold has been used as a chemical weapon. And there is a mold theory similar to the hypothesis that the overuse of antibiotics has bred “superbugs” that are resistant to antibiotics. The overuse of bleach and mildicides could have created “supermold.”

“Have we accidentally created a more advanced mold?” Mullins asked.

“The rate of childhood asthma in this country is doubling every 10 years. We are at 20% children born now classified as asthmatic. We are in a pandemic being seen in this country and western Europe only. In two or three decades, a majority of kids born may have asthma. No one knows for sure why, but one theory is what is called the ‘too clean syndrome.’”

Since people with asthma are more sensitive to mold, this could become an increasing issue for businesses in the future. If someone has a business, does she want something that is going to cause problems for half her customers? Carpets and other furnishings that hold dust and dust mites are also problems for people with asthma.

“If you can get the American Lung Association stamp of approval for air quality in a new home, let me know because I can get you a billion in financing,” said Mullins, whose son recently had his first asthma attack as a result of water in the base of the Christmas tree becoming moldy.

Other issues from businesses could include lower productivity because workers and/or their children are sick all the time and paying higher rates for health insurance and medical care. Mullins said indoor air quality at businesses is important because people work 10 or 12 hours a day.

Mold remediation can be extremely expensive. Mullins said in some cases it costs even more than asbestos abatement. And employees shouldn’t be in the building while the mold problem is fixed or they are likely to get ill. Most businesses can’t just set up offices somewhere else while the work is completed.

Mullins has a case right now where remediation of mold in a $120,000 home cost $80,000. The remediation wasn’t done properly, and it cost another $30,000 to fix it. In other words, it cost nearly as much to remediate the mold as the home was worth.

You would think after Katrina there were be numerous mold lawsuits going on along the Gulf Coast. But Mullins said he hasn’t seen many Katrina mold lawsuits.

“I don’t think the hurricane increased mold litigation, but it may have increased the number of respiratory infections because there was so much pollution in the air,” Mullins said. “No one knows what caused the Katrina Crud. I don’t think mold causes legal problems people need to panic over. There just aren’t that many cases of Katrina mold lawsuits. I have a few Katrina mold cases but none involving serious injury.”

Contact MBJ contributing writer Becky Gillette at bgillette4@cox.net.

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