Special Expertise is Required for Chemical Contamination in Indoor Environments

“You have got to be kidding” is what I really wanted to shout when a homeowner recently called to inquire about the appropriateness of a restoration contractor using an ozone generator to mitigate a pesticide spill in her small home.   Do these purported professional mitigators not know that ozone is a respiratory irritant, and can react with some other chemicals to create toxic intermediaries?   I struggled to control my rage as the elderly caller further described her symptoms of difficulty breathing, sore throat, heavy chest, and irritated eyes that developed while she occupied the home during the ozone “treatment”.   To avoid frightening her, I calmed myself down and recommended that she see an occupational and environmental physician.

The lady called back and requested testing of her house, as the doctor had recommended she leave the homeuntil clean-up could be performed and verified.   She reported that the doctor diagnosed her with a chemical on-set asthma.   Her recovery would require clean indoor air.  The doctor’s prognosis was that she would recover from the acute asthma, but long-term sensitivities that would require avoidance of environmental toxins.

Since several months had passed since the ozone was generated, I did not anticipate finding ozone when I tested the air.  Based on the sweet solvent type odors that remained in the house, I expected to find chemicals that were breakdown products of ozone and carrier compounds that would be typical in aerosol pesticides.   However, although the results verified that a chemical “soup” remained in the air, only a few compounds were consistent with ozone oxidation of solvents.

The primary ingredients in the chemical soup were paint-related products in concentrations that exceeded recommended residential concentrations more than three-fold.   Since no painting had been done in the home for many years, the only conclusion that could be derived from the results was that solvent-based cleaners had been used in addition to the ozone.  My client confirmed that the contractor did use some chemicals for cleaning after the ozone was ineffective.   Since the chemical fingerprint was similar in various rooms of the home, but was higher in the room with the spill, I was quite concerned that porous furnishings, clothing, and bedding had adsorbed the chemicals.  If this issue was not addressed, cycles of off-gassing and re-absorption could continue for years.

The ultimate clean-up of the home will entail a combination of forced off-gassing with heat, ventilation, and carbon-based filtration.   To comply with the doctor’s request for clean-up verification, the project could be costly, as testing will likely be required at various phases.  The ultimate test of remediation efficiency will be the ability of the homeowner to re-occupy without adverse health complaints.   However, ethically, we must confirm that the targeted chemicals are non-detectable before allowing the client to use the “canary test”.

The costs associated with alternative living expenses, clean-up, and repeated testing could have been avoided if the contractor would have consulted with a qualified industrial hygienist or indoor air quality scientist prior to generating ozone.  More importantly, appropriate consultation would have prevented the client’s adverse health effects.   This case not only illustrates the importance of contractors practicing only within their areas of expertise, but also underscores the importance of consumer education regarding environmental toxins and contractor qualifications.

Additional ozone information http://www.epa.gov/iaq/pubs/ozonegen.html


Dirty Secret: Foreclosure Bargains Can Result In Serious Health Hazards

THE NUMBERS ARE STAGGERING: RealtyTrac reports foreclosures continue to grow unabated at 2.8 million nationwide. In Michigan, one in every 225 households is in foreclosure. The dirty little secret adding to foreclosure miseries is the enormity of serious health hazards that often exist for new and unsuspecting occupants. Even more alarming, if left unchecked, these mold-infested foreclosures will become significant burdens on our already stressed health care system and bog down our courts for years to come.

It’s a buyer’s market and many buyers are eager to capitalize on these so-called great deals. Unfortunately, they’re jumping in to grab up a tempting bargain home, condo or income property with their eyes shut, oblivious to the potential heath risks or simply interested in flipping the property to make a quick buck with total disregard for the legal liabilities.

Knowing as much as you can about a home before purchasing is important, but for a foreclosed home it is vital. Water-damaged and moldy homes are increasingly the subjects of lawsuits that involve non-disclosure, negligence and personal injury. Often foreclosures are sold ‘as is’ which means the bank has no prior history of the home and has nothing to disclose. Hence, buyers have no idea what is waiting for them once they take possession. This makes it all the more imperative for buyers to do their due diligence in hiring unbiased, ‘independent’ professionals to alert them to any health risks or potential legal liabilities that may be lurking.

A pre-emptive inspection by a certified indoor air quality specialist can be made on the foreclosed property prior to the sale, and an accurate assessment of the indoor air quality can be made yielding peace of mind for the owners and any occupants as well as preventing serious problems and significant expenses later on. Inspections average $600 and consist of a detailed physical inspection, assessment, prescription and scope for remediation if mold, lead or other hazards are indicated. Further testing, sampling and thermal imaging can be performed on site if hidden water damage or microbiological contamination is suspected.

Hiring an experienced trained and certified professional to conduct a mold and moisture inspection can help to determine if the property is habitable or worthy of restoration. The reason: many homes in foreclosure have been sitting vacant for many months and sometimes years without any climate control, proper

weatherization or upkeep. In some cases, disgruntled homeowners who had to walk away have vandalized the homes. Without the proper climate controls and maintenance, water damage from high relative humidity and water leaks that are neglected can create the ideal conditions for mold growth and proliferation in new homes as well as old. Not only does this pose a potential structural problem with the home, compromising the integrity of the home’s walls and foundation, but it could also pose significant health risks, potentially toxic, for occupants. Many times the mold contamination can go unnoticed until someone moves in and that’s when the real trouble begins, trouble that can take the form of serious health and/or legal issues. It’s important to understand that while a qualified independent home inspector will likely recommend further investigation if they suspect mold, most home inspectors are not trained to analyze mold hazards, correct serious problems and prevent future mold build-up. Unscrupulous or uninformed service providers performing mold tests may not carry insurance for any such testing or assessments, leaving a homebuyer exposed and vulnerable to legal action. To be sure that you’re working with a qualified and experienced indoor air quality professional it is wise to find out how the person was trained, what degrees or certifications he or she has and how many years the person has been working in the field, because the quality and usefulness of the information you receive can impact your health and investment.

Does it Matter if it is “Black Mold” or Mold that is Black?

While some mold investigators avoid taking a position on this question, I strongly believe that the existence of the slimy black mold, Stachybotrys, is of greater concern than most other black colored molds.

My office is flooded with frantic phone calls whenever headlines such as “Killer Black Mold Closes School,” or “Deadly Black Mold Forces Evacuation of Court House,”  hit the press.  For the most part, the dangerous “black mold” in the media was Stachybotrys. Some of the calls our office receives raise strong concerns regarding exposure hazards from large areas of black colored mold on drywall and other water damaged building materials.  I am much less concerned when callers report black mildew on bathtub grout.

The hazards of the toxigenic black mold, Stachybotrys, have been debated in the legal and medical communities for more than a decade.  The controversy over “black mold” gained momentum around 1994 when a physician attributed a cluster of infant deaths near Cleveland Ohio to hemosiderosis (bleeding from the brain) as a consequence of exposure to toxins produced by the black mold Stachybotrys chartarum.  Initially, the Centers for Disease control and other entities, including the New York City Department of Health, issued strong warnings about this slimy black mold.  Ultimately, the CDC stated that although Stachybotrys and some other molds were known to produce toxins, they did not believe sufficient evidence existed to link the mold with the infant deaths.

Many reputable physicians and toxicologists strongly support the contention that toxins produced from Stachybotrys can cause various multi-system disorders, including cognitive impairment, chronic fatigue, immune suppression, and gastrointestinal disorders.   There are an equal number of doctors who discount the toxigenic effects of mold.

As an investigator, my focus is on diagnosing buildings, not people.  However, to effectively and ethically practice my professional, an understanding of the potential health effects of mold exposure is essential.  Questions regarding health symptoms are part of Sanit-Air’s mold investigations.  Allergic reactions are the most common symptoms reported from individuals with exposure to common black colored molds such as Alternaria and Cladosporium.  However, when the health complaints include chronic fatigue, muscle aches, fibromyalgia, gastrointestinal disorders, tremors, memory fog, and immune suppression, Stachybotrys chartarum is almost always found within the indoor environment.

Refreshing Water Damage Restoration Experience

I am feeling renewed after a recent water damage restoration project.  In today’s economic climate, I often encounter restoration contractors that are willing to cut corners to get a job.  Many times, the first line item that is omitted from a water restoration project is containment when the loss involves unclean water, mold, or even regulated hazards, such as asbestos.    I was called in to consult on a recent loss in which the contractor suspected that the water damage had affected asbestos pipe wrap.   In spite of threats of being removed from the job, this ethical contractor stood his ground.  Ultimately it was discovered that large areas of asbestos, lead paint, and mold had been affected by the large scale water loss.   Had the contractor moved forward with an adjustors request to employ air movers, he would not have compromised the health of the occupants, but could have taken on huge legal liabilities.  The restoration industry has excellent standards of care that have a greater intended purpose than collecting dust on a shelf.  Hooray for those that take the high road.

AQS reports outdoor air affected by indoor air after Hurricane Katrina

Yikes!!!  This a little scary, but not surprising.  A recent News Update by AQS reports that they will present a paper at the annual meeting for the AAAAI,  2010 American Academy of Allergy, Asthma and Immunology’s (AAAAI) annual meeting   The presentation involves a two year study of indoor and outdoor allergens after Hurricane Katrina.  The findings demonstrate that outdoor mold counts were elevated for nine months after Katrina.  The types of mold were related to composting and water damaged building materials.  This study underscores the importance of creating clean and safe indoor air to provide relief from outdoor contaminants.  This study raises concerns regarding residential and commercial building demolitions after fires and water damage.

Healthy Homes: Testing and Remediation of Mold and Water Damage are Essential to Good Indoor Air Quality

Whenever I leave a mold inspection project feeling like I have just been struck in the forehead with a baseball bat, I wonder if the time has come to retire to the healthy clean nest that my husband, Tom, and I have created in our own home. After nearly two decades and more than 6000 mold investigations, we not only gained empathy for our clients, but were forced to design an optimum indoor environment that could provide relief for the classic mold-related illnesses such as allergies, chronic sinusitis and asthma that were consequential to our profession.

Since the inception of our company Sanit-Air in 1994, our team of scientists, mold inspectors, remediators, and healthcare professionals have been recognized as the leaders in the field of indoor air quality by providing consultation and solutions to healthcare facilities, commercial buildings and industrial settings. Although controlling workplace exposures remains a significant focus for Sanit-Air, our experiences have demonstrated that mold related exposures are frequently more intense in residential dwellings. Keeping in mind that most people have little or no control over the biological and chemical toxins present in workplaces, shopping centers, schools, and other public venues, Sanit-Air has developed CleanliNEST™, a division that is dedicated to optimizing indoor air quality in residential buildings.

My deeply held values include:

  • Protection of human health takes precedent over financial and business relationships.
  • Finding answers is not always easy or popular, but we must do what is right.
  • “Green buildings” are not necessarily healthy buildings.
  • Preservation of natural resources without regard to the impact on air quality could be a very unhealthy trend.
  • Water damage and mold can make people very sick.
  • Tunnel vision can botch an investigation and lead to erroneous conclusions.
  • Egos have no place in scientific investigations.
  • Seeking answers becomes most effective with a team of experts from varying disciplines.
  • Similar to human bodies, buildings are a complex interaction of multiple systems that must operate in a synergistic, balanced matter to achieve optimum health.
  • Any job worth doing is worth doing right.

I hope you find my CleanliNEST™ blog of great interest and value. I’m eager to hear your stories and welcome your questions, thoughts and comments.

Meaningful Mold Investigations Involve More Than Just Sucking Air

Water Damage Investigations – More Than Sucking Air

Far too often I receive calls from homeowners requesting that I make some sense out of another mold consultant’s report.  Usually the report consists of concentration results for a few indoor spore trap air samples and one outdoor comparison sample.  The report might include some general information about the types of mold that were found and how the indoors compared to outdoors.  My gut reaction to these inconclusive reports is usually, “So what , YOU’VE GOT MOLD, now what are you supposed to do.”    Of course the bewildered homeowner is already thinking the same thing, so I try not to rub salt in the wounds.

In defense of the consultants, who are frequently home inspectors that rent air sampling pumps, they did what the homeowner requested, which was “test the air.”  However, I do object to consultants working outside of their areas of expertise.  A qualified mold investigator would have first asked why a homeowner wanted the air tested for mold.  When I ask this question, the response is usually something along the lines of “I just want to know if I have a mold problem” or “I see mold and want to know if it is the dangerous kind.”

With these responses, a qualified mold investigator would advise the homeowner that taking a few air samples in the home probably would not answer their questions and would likely be an unnecessary expense.  This is because ninety-nine percent of the time, a qualified mold investigator can determine if a mold problem exists by conducting a detailed visual evaluation that would include moisture mapping, inspection of common problematic areas, and collecting information on the history of water damage and prior repairs.    Air sampling equipment is not the most important tool for a competent mold investigator, but he or she should come equipped with a moisture meter, thermo-hygrometer (to measure termperature and relative humidity), good flashlight, camera, pry-bar, and needle-nosed pliers, along with protective clothing and a respirator.  Not only will the qualified mold investigator assess the moldiness of the home, he or she will provide a scope (i.e prescription for remediation of the mold) and correcting the underlying cause.

Although mold sampling is not necessary to assess and remediate mold, under certain circumstances, sampling is advisable.  However, sampling should only be performed to answer a specific question (scientifically, this means to test a hypothesis).  Of course, the hypothesis can only be developed after a detailed mold inspection is completed.

When testing is performed, an investigator must understand and apply the appropriate testing methods.  For example, the spore trap sample mentioned in the first paragraph cannot differentiate certain types of mold.  Case in point is the group of mold species that are in the genera Penicillium and Aspergillus; these molds show up as the same spore type in a spore trap air sample, and can only be differentiated with culturable air samples.  Both of these molds are commonly found in homes that have experienced water damage.  However, some species in this group can also be found outdoors.  Since comparison of the types and relative concentrations of mold indoors and outdoors is a primary criterion for interpretation of sample results, simply reporting that a certain number of Penicillium and/or Aspergillus indoors and outdoors could be misleading,  inconclusive, and possibly dangerous.  For example, suppose Aspergillus versicolor, a mold that can cause infections and produces carcinogenic toxins is present indoors, and Penicillium chrysogenum is found outdoors at a similar concentration.  The spore trap sample would simply report the similar concentrations of “Penicillium/Aspergillus”, which would lead to the wrong conclusion that the outdoor air was the source of indoor airborne molds.

I could provide numerous examples of how simply “sucking air” could not only be useless, but misleading.  However, understanding what to ask for when requesting a mold assessment is far more important.  Homeowners should clearly identify why they want mold information prior to calling a consultant.  Information they should be prepared to provide includes: (1) do you see or smell mold; (2) is anyone experiencing symptoms that might be related to mold exposure; (3) is your doctor requesting the information,  (4) have you had water damage in the home; (5) how old is the home, (6) how long have you lived there; and (7) do you anticipate litigation.  In some circumstances, no testing will be required.  For others, such as litigation or physician requests, a well designed sampling plan could be essential.

Once the objectives of testing are identified, understanding the qualifications of the appropriate mold consultant is paramount to avoid wasting time and money.  An investigator performing a detailed visual assessment should possess extensive knowledge of building science (how buildings are constructed), ventilation, mold remediation, the principles of mold growth, and water damage restoration.  Although certifications in mold remediation or mold investigations can demonstrate that an individual has passed the minimal qualifications, extensive experience (minimum five years) is recommended.  Passing a one-week certification course does not guarantee that an investigator is qualified.

Relative to mold testing, in addition to the requisites for a mold investigator, a consultant who develops and executes mold sampling plans should have a minumum of a bachelor’s degree in biology, chemistry, environmental health or industrial hygiene.   Extensive knowledge of exposure hazards, quality control, data interpretation, statistics, and sampling methods are also required.   If testing is conducted, a sufficient number of samples must be collected, both spore trap and culturable air samples are required; and surface samples of dust and suspect mold growth are usually necessary.  No sampling is better than inconclusive sampling.

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