Can This, Not That: How To Preserve Contents After Mold Infestation

There are no simple answers to questions that arise regarding saving personal belongings and furniture after an indoor environment is contaminated with mold.  Generally, from an insurance perspective, only items that are directly impacted by water from a covered water loss are covered for cleaning or replacement.  However, contents that are impacted by spores, mold fragments, mold toxins, and volatile organic compounds that are liberated from areas of actual mold growth must be addressed to prevent cross-contamination when moved to a new environment or returned after a structure is remediated.   Decisions on restorable must be made on a case by case basis, and are dependent on numerous factors, including:

  • The severity of the airborne contamination
  • The effectiveness of capture and containment methods if contents are present during structural remediation
  • The length of time in which the contents were exposed
  • The origin of the water loss, clean water versus sewage or other contaminated water source
  • Humidity control
  • The sensitivity or susceptibility of occupants

The primary objective of remediation, whether for structure or contents, should be protection of health. Financial practicality might be considered for low level contamination, but should not be a major criterion for immune-compromised or other sensitized individuals.  Compared to the devastating emotional and health consequences that many people experience with repeated exposure to contaminated contents, financial concerns are inconsequential.

Some people are unable to salvage any items from a contaminated home, while some individuals experience no adverse health symptoms if all items are saved.  For the majority of the population, a combination of cleaning and discarding proves to be effective.

The following guidelines are designed to address content restoration for healthy individuals in homes with low to moderate contamination.

CONTENT DECISION MAKING

 A.  Separate contents according to porosity.

    1. Hard surfaced items, such as metal, plastic, sealed wood, and glass.
    2. Semi-porous items, such as unsealed wood, stone, leather.
    3. Porous items, such as cardboard, paper, fabric, and canvas.
    4. Items to Discard
      1. Items that display visible growth
      2. Porous padded items, such as pillows, upholstered furniture that are exposed to a highly contaminated environment or exposed for extended time
      3. Mattresses that are exposed to a highly contaminated environment or exposed for extended time
      4. Books, paper, and stuffed animals that are exposed to a highly contaminated environment or exposed for extended time

B.  Porous, padded items with short exposure to low concentrations of mold

  1. Agitate books, papers, photos, etc. over the inlet of a HEPA-filtered air scrubber.  HEPA-vacuum.
  2. Porous padded items, HEPA-vacuum, agitate/compress, HEPA-vacuum again.

C.   Hard Surfaced Items

  1.   Clean by HEPA-vacuuming and damp-wiping
  2. Use compressed air to clean cracks and crevices
  3. Submerse glass, dishes, pots, pans, or clean in dishwasher

D.  Clothing

  1. Launder washable item with detergent, dry in dryer
  2. Select several representative items (fluffy sweater, wool coat, silk blouse) for dry-cleaning.  Select a dry cleaner that uses special procedures for mold-contaminated items.  The procedures should include filtering of the fluid to remove mold spores.  Once cleaned, items are to be tested using both direct exam and culturable dust sample method.  Test results should demonstrate that target fungi, such as Penicillium, Chaetomium, Aspergillus, and Stachybotrys, are not present. 

E.  Appliances

  1. Items with insulation are not likely salvageable if exposed to high concentrations of mold or if exposed for a long period.   If exposure was short and concentrations were low, the items should be professional cleaned by disassembly, using a combination of compressed air, HEPA-vacuuming and damp-wiping.
  2. Items without insulation should be disassembled and cleaned using compressed air, HEPA-vacuuming and damp-wiping.

F.  Art Work

  1. Remove craft paper backing and discard
  2. Clean by positioning the painting of the inlet of a HEPA-filtered air scrubber.  Starting at the top of the painting, use an art brush to systematically brush toward the bottom.  Repeat with a clean brush.  HEPA-vacuum and damp-wipe the frame.

Making decisions to discard items with high intrinsic or monetary value, such as antiques, memorabilia, and photographs, can be especially troubling when someone is already dealing with the health, emotional, or financial consequences from a mold infestation.  When possible, questionable items should be stored in sealable containers so that decisions can be made at a time when health and stress levels have improved.   

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Blogger’s Choice – Top Ten Indoor Air Quality Tips

    1.        Make sure no one smokes indoors.

    2.        Vent gas-burning stoves, dryers, and other appliances to the outdoors.

    3.        Keep rain and groundwater outside.  Have an inspection that includes moisture monitoring to document conditions.

    4.        Control indoor relative humidity (preferably between 35% and 60%)

    5.        Have your home checked for radon and lead (if built before 1978).

    6.        Install and run exhaust fans in the kitchen and bathroom.   Make sure they are vented to the outdoors, not the attic space.

    7.        Open windows and use extra exhaust fans when you’re working with paints or chemicals indoors. 

    8.        Store paints and chemicals in well sealed containers away from heat.  Purge the home of old products.

    9.        Don’t idle your car in an attached garage. 

  10.        Make sure the attic space is appropriately ventilated.  If you see mold or discoloration on the roof deck, hire a qualified mold inspection company.

Home Based Toxins Can Cause Serious Injuries

Based on scientific studies, there are huge compelling pieces of evidence that support the validity of adverse environmental neurotoxic health effects of toxigenic mold and mycotoxins.   If this statement sounds like scary science, it’s because it is.   Exposure to the toxins produced by certain molds that grow on water-damaged building materials can cause neurological disorders that manifest as difficulty concentrating, memory loss, and other symptoms of cognitive impairment.  These adverse effects have been shown to occur in adults and children.

On another toxic note – Lead poisoning in children can reduce IQ, cause learning disabilities and impair hearing. Lead can damage a child’s kidneys and central nervous system, and cause anemia, convulsions and even death.

According to the US Dept of Housing & Urban Development (HUD), nearly one million U.S. kids under age six have blood lead levels high enough to impair their ability to think, concentrate and learn.

Thirty-five percent of all houses in the US have lead-based paint.  As little as one gram of lead dust from sanding a wall can contaminate an entire house.  Lead-based paint was banned in 1978.

 Imagine the excitement of moving into an older home that you purchased at a bargain price because it was about to go into foreclosure.  You move your family into the home and proceed with repairs that include ripping out water damaged walls and ceilings.  Several months after moving in, your seven-year old child begins to fall behind in school.  The pediatrician determines that the child has lead poisoning, with the possibility that treatment to remove the lead might not completely reverse the learning disabilities.

Also imagine that you purchase your family’s dream home, which is a ten year old four thousand square foot “mansion” with ample space for the kids to have a recreation room and you to set up an exercise room.  About six months after moving in, your twelve year old’s report card shows D’s in subjects where he previously had A’s and B’s.  After almost a year of doctor visits and testing, you learn that the child has suffered from exposure to toxigenic mold that is growing within wall cavities.  Inspections show that the house was very poorly constructed.

Both of these scenarios are true stories from my clients.  In addition to the physical symptoms, the psychological aftermath in both families was devastating.  The only positive outcome is that these families spread the word to their families, friends, and colleagues.  These referrals helped numerous families avoid the purchase of “dream home” nightmares, and provided the necessary information for many other families to corrected hazards before moving into houses with problems that could be mitigated in a cost-effective manner.

Raising the Bar Promotes Peace of Mind for Remediation Contractors and Homeowners

While attending a certification course for EPA’s new Renovation, Repair, and Painting (RRP) Rule, I tried to empathize with contractors that were outraged that the government would “force them out of business” due to the increased costs associated with requirements for notification, certifications, documentation, and environmental controls that would be mandatory with the RRP, which was enacted April 22, 2010 .  Understandably, the new lead law, which applies to all residential jobs in homes built prior to 1978, raises concerns that certified contractors could not compete with the bids from the “chuck and a truck” one-man contractors that operate under the radar of building inspectors and state regulators.   However, based on the devastating and permanent damage that lead exposure can have on small children and unborn infants, I would have felt much better about the restoration industry if the expressed fears dealt more with being concerned about causing harm.

I am not fully confident that governmental agencies should be regulating professional standards of care.  Over the last ten years, the uninformed attempts that many state governments have made to set standards for mold exposures convinced me that politicians should not be allowed to “spin” scientific data for the purpose of getting votes.    However, if as professionals, we cannot police our industry, some governmental intervention is necessary to raise awareness and protect the public.

I admit that numerous creative suggestions regarding avoidance of the RRP Rule arose during the class.  One contractor suggested that the demolition part of a job for a home built before 1978 would be performed at no costs, while the re-build portion of the proposal would be elevated to cover the “free” demolition.  This would supposedly eliminate the need to comply with the lead rule because the law applies to work performed “for compensation. “   Another attendee suggested that we should ban together as an industry and protest to Washington about too much governmental intervention.   Too bad the same effort was not spent on trying to figure out how to expedite “doing the right thing”.

The bottom line regarding lead or any other hazards that might be present in the homes where contractors perform any type of repair, renovation, restoration, or remediation is that we have a professional obligation “to do no harm.”    Ethically, this mantra should be part of every contractor’s written or implied mission statement.  It is in fact, the number one cannon in the Code of Ethics for most professional indoor air quality associations, including the Indoor Air Quality Organization and American Industrial Hygiene Association.

Doing the right thing provides peace of mind, which is priceless.

Additional Information at

www.epa.gov/lead

www.cdc.gov/nceh/lead/tips.

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