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Volume 31, Issue 2

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Toxic mold is becoming “the next asbestos.” It can grow where there is high humidity or dampness. From an innocent toilet leak to a small basement flood, water damage that isn’t properly attended to makes matters worse once this toxic mold begins to grow. This nightmare, combined with the increasing chance of mold-related lawsuits, is why contractors must recognize potential situations for mold growth. Contractors must also know when it’s necessary to bring in remediation and decontamination experts.

There are more than 100,000 species of mold (with at least 1,000 species common in the U.S.), and these microscopic fungi are found naturally in the air. Needing only moisture and a food source to survive, molds flourish in damp environments where humidity is over 40 percent.
Water damage is one of the main causes of mold growth in commercial and residential buildings. The areas around pipes and fittings, wet pipe insulation, roof leaks, crawl spaces, water closets, or anywhere that has been flooded can be a breeding ground for mycotoxins produced by toxic molds such as stachybotrys chartarum (“black mold”), penicillium, and others.

 

 An increasing number of doctors and experts are associating mold/microbial contamination with sicknesses ranging from normal cold-like symptoms to shortness in breath, headaches, respiratory infections, rashes, fatigue, or even brain, kidney, and liver problems and weakened immune systems.

Public awareness of toxic mold is increasing, with high profile cases ranging from schools and hospitals, apartment complexes following the 2001 Houston flooding, and public buildings such as the Ronald Reagan Office Building in Washington, D.C. Even celebrity Ed McMahon has been making headlines with his recent lawsuit regarding sickness caused by mold contamination in his home, and Erin Brockovich is on the case. Along with this awareness is an increase in public fear of toxic mold and the need for contractors, building owners, and occupants to gain first-hand knowledge of what to do should an emergency response to microbial contamination be necessary.

Identifying the source of mold contamination is the first step in ensuring a water-damaged building is safe before the microorganisms are isolated, contained, and treated with chemicals.

Mold remediation experts are trained to do this, secure the contaminated areas, and treat the mold with anything from diluted bleach or dry-cleaning chemicals to gamma rays and UV light, depending on the severity of the contamination. The decontamination process may include dehumidification, negative pressure containment, and HEPA-vacuuming. Mold may be toxic, therefore it is important to bring trained professionals onto the job, to ensure proper decontamination and disposal of contaminated materials.

The need to remediate toxic mold is being discovered all across the country, especially in regions with extremely warm and humid climates, such as Texas, Florida, California, and practically everywhere in the northeast, southwest or southeast United States. Unfortunately, while agencies in California, New York, and Texas are some of the regions that have defined best practices for mold remediation, there are currently no nation-wide industry standards in place.

The U.S. Toxic Mold Safety and Protection Act, introduced into Congress this summer, is calling for prevention and remediation standards, while some contractors have taken it upon itself to develop their own standards that ensure their workers are properly trained, able to respond to mold or any other similar environmental emergencies at moment’s notice, and successfully decontaminate infected buildings.

More and more, industrial hygiene firms are being called upon to remediate toxic mold from residential and commercial buildings – and too many of these projects are a result of a contractor incorrectly assessing water damage, the potential for mold contamination, or not properly remediating the problem. It’s easy to imagine a simple plumbing problem turning into a mold disaster: a pipe freezes or a fixture cracks, causing a leak and a small flood; the leak is fixed, and water is cleaned up, but mold spores have already started to grow and infect the building. Since many mold spores replicate after several hours, in a few days the contamination resulting from what initially was thought to be negligible water damage can turn serious. If a contractor fails to call in remediation experts or hygienists that are specially trained to deal with toxic mold, he can find himself on the wrong end of a serious lawsuit.

Experts in the insurance industry are predicting premiums to rise by as much as 40 percent to offset the recent increase in mold claims. Also, property damage and personal injury suits – where juries are often likely to award tobacco/asbestos-like damages to the plaintiffs – are also on the rise. Faulty design, poor construction, maintenance, or repairs are all blamed in these cases. This accentuates how important it is for contractors to learn as much as they can about the dangers of toxic mold, be conscientious in any repairs they make where mold may be a potential problem, and understand the nature and extent of their possible liability.


Burton T. Fried is the president and CEO of LVI Services (www.lviservices.com). Under his leadership, LVI has established itself as the leading environmental firm in the nation, successfully completing more than 20,000 projects and carrying out $1 billion in contracts.