BASEMENT FLOODS: Primary Damage and Secondary Mold Growth

Flooding of basement, whether the water travels through foundation walls, is caused by a broken pipe, or backs up from a drain, requires immediate action to prevent exposure hazards from mold, bacteria, chemicals, pesticides, and other contaminants. Just as families should prepare and rehearse plans for addressing fires, pre-emergency preparedness is essential to safeguarding health and property values after flood events.
Flood Preparedness
I. Identify the source of water. This is important for several reasons:
• The severity and types of contaminants in flood situations are defined by the origin of the water. For example, if the flood water has fecal material, toilet paper, etc. that are indicative of a sewage back-up, the water has the potential to cause significant harm to exposed individuals. In addition to mold, bacteria, toxins, and human pathogens, sewage water can be contaminated with viruses, chemicals, and pesticides.
• The origin of the water can define whether or not insurance coverage is available. Many homeowner insurance policies include riders for sump pump failures and drain back-ups. Homeowners should be aware that the coverage is not always mentioned by the agent. The cost is typically less than $100 per year, but most consumers don’t know that it is not included in the general policy. Additionally, most insurance policies do not cover damages associated with ground water intrusion that enters through foundation walls or basement windows.
• The origin of the water could determine if liability is to a municipality for negligence, such as insufficient maintenance of storm drains or pumping stations, can be demonstrated.
• The origin of the water can assist in developing an appropriate remediation scope. If flooding is from ground water or sewage, high velocity fans should not be utilized for drying until decontamination is completed. The fans can blow contaminants from affected to non-affected areas. If the water originates from a clean water source, such as broken supply line for a washing machine, high velocity air movers and dehumidifiers should be employed as soon as possible. If surfaces are dried within 24 – 48 hours, mold will not likely grow.
II. When to call your insurance company
In most cases, the insurance company should be called sooner than later. Delaying notification could cause denial of claims or delays in appropriate structural drying, which could promote mold growth that might not be covered by an insurance policy.
Homeowners should know in advance what types of water losses are covered by their insurance carrier. Knowing what the deductible and other out of pocket expenses are for a claim , as well as understanding whether additional riders are needed for mold, drain back-ups, and sump pump failures, is imperative to making wise financial and risk assessment decisions. Also, knowledge of what is and is not covered will assist in decision making regarding whether making a claim is advisable, as making claims that are not covered might compromise the insurability of a home or could cause rate increases.
III. When to call in professionals
The answer to this question depends on the origin and severity of water damage, as well as the type of building materials that are affected by water. If sewage, ground water, or storm water affects large or inaccessible areas, gets into a furnace, reaches depths that require wading through raw sewage – call a professional.
If storm, sewage, or ground water does not recede within a few hours – call a professional.
If porous cellulose building materials such as drywall, plywood, insulation, and carpeting is affected – call in a professional. Scrutinize contractors in advance and call immediately.
Since insurance companies usually require that homeowners take action to mitigate losses, having on hand the phone numbers of pre-vetted restoration contractors can save time and money. After major storms, contractors get booked up quickly. If possible, do not rely on your insurance company to pick the contractor. Choose your own independent third party that has a good reputation and appropriate certifications in water damage restoration. Information on certification can be accessed at IICRC.org.
IV. Quick responses
If water recedes to the extent that electrical and biological hazards are not imminent, healthy homeowners can don protective clothing and take action to protect their belongings and the indoor environment. With appropriate precautions, drains should be verified to be open, pumps should be used to remove standing water, and dehumidifies are to be put into operation. Removal of non-restorable contents reduces indoor contamination and minimizes secondary damage from high relative humidity.
Items to be discarded include affected papers, cardboard, books, stuffed animals, stuffed furniture and other non-restorable items immediately. Disposal should be documented with photos and lists, or items should be placed in receptacles until they are documented.
Wet carpeting should be removed as soon as possible. All wet items should be bagged or wrapped in heavy gauge polyethylene. Transport items only after they are bagged or wrapped. If possible, discard through a basement window or door to minimize cross-contamination to living spaces. Be mindful that contaminants are present, and healthy individuals with no history of breathing disorders are the only candidates for self-remediation. Protective water resistant overalls, gloves, rubber boots, and P100 respirators should be worn.
V. Habitability
If occupants experience adverse health symptoms such as headaches, itchy eyes, sore throats, congestion, gastrointestinal disorders, dizziness, or other flu-like symptoms, the home should not be occupied until decontamination is complete and verified by an independent third party consultant. Infants, elderly people, diabetics, people on immune-suppressive drugs, respiratory illnesses, or heart conditions should be removed from the home until decontamination is complete and verified. A physician should be contacted if symptoms develop after exposure.
VI. Independent third party consultant
If a homeowner suspects litigation, confrontation with the insurance company, or serious health issues, it is strongly advised that an independent third party mold and water damage consultant be hired to assess damages and develop an appropriate remediation scope. It is a good idea to have names and numbers of vetted consultants available in advance.

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Cladosporium is Not Always Harmless

Cladosporium cladosporioides will frequently colonize on damp wood, while Cladosporium sphaerspermum will colonize on damp insulation

Recently, I reviewed several reports from other consultants who discounted the presence of Cladosporium in spore trap air samples, claiming that this mold was not of concern because it was the most common in the outdoor sample.  Following are a few reasons why their conclusions could be faulty:

  1. Cladosporium found in air samples is often considered non-problematic because Cladosporium is generally the most common mold found in outdoor air.  However, if there is actual growth of Cladosporium indoors, which would require excess unplanned moisture, other contaminants that are inherent to water damaged buildings will also be present.  When conditions exist for indoor mold and bacteria growth, endotoxins, mycotoxins, spores, glucans, and other allergens and inflammatory agents will be present.
  2. Generally, the first molds to colonize on wet building materials are Penicillium and Aspergillus.  These two genera cannot be differentiated in spore trap samples and are often under-reported.
  3. When only the genus can be identified in samples, as with spore trap methodology, indoor and outdoor fungal ecologies cannot be conclusively compared.  Cladosporium found outdoors might be Cladosporium herbarum, which is commonly found on decayed vegetation, while the Cladospoirum indoors could be Cladosporium sphaerospermum, which grows on water damaged insulation.
  4. Even if Cladosporium is the same species as outdoors, sensitized individuals could react when concentrations are elevated indoors.

Lesson learned:  Spore trap air sampling alone is a very inconclusive tool for assessing the moldiness of an indoor environment.  Claims that Cladosporium is not a problem can be faulty.

Recommendations:

A detailed visual investigation is the single most important part of a mold investigation.  Sampling should only be performed to answer a question.  Spore trap samples cannot conclusively answer most questions.  A combination of air, dust, and surface samples that are analyzed by culturing or MSQPCR (Mold Specific Quantitative Polymerase Chain Reaction) is typically necessary.

The Shortcomings of Shortcutting A Mold Remediation Project

My mom’s words of wisdom, “Any job worth doing is worth doing right,” never rang

Contaminated drywall must be removed under controlled conditions.

truer than in situations where partial remediation is viewed as being better than no remediation.  Contrary to this misconception, no remediation is better than substandard remediation.  Case in point – a family inherits a home that has been unoccupied for an extended period, and had not maintained for more than ten years.  Water intrusion into the basement and attic caused mold growth to building materials that were in contact with water.  Sustained high humidity resulted in secondary mold growth due to condensation on interior drywall.  Testing revealed concentrations of Penicillium and Aspergillus in the range of 80,000 to 100,000 counts per cubic meter of air.  Outdoor concentrations of spores in these genera were less than 1,000 c/m3.  Toxigenic mold species, such as Stachybotrys chartarum, were also identified.

In the throes of financial difficulties versus living rent-free, the family made a decision to move into the contaminated home and perform remediation in a piecemeal fashion.  They believed that small efforts to remove mold would cumulatively achieve the desired end product of good indoor air quality.  However good their intentions might have been, the reasoning was flawed.  Unlike cosmetic or structural renovation projects, mold remediation cannot safely be performed “a little bit at a time”.  Effective remediation requires removal of mold contamination along with addressing spores that are liberated from areas of actual mold growth.

Attempting to live in a contaminated home while performing remediation one step at a time is similar to paying minimum monthly payments on a high interest rate credit card.  There is no light at the end of the tunnel, and the problem compounds over time.  If one area is effectively remediated, yet contamination remains in other locations, re-contamination to the cleaned area will occur.  Additionally, with ongoing exposures, individuals become sensitized and progressively react to  lower concentrations of mold.

DEAD MOLD CAN CAUSE ADVERSE HEALTH EFFECTS

Mold in Wall Cavity Can Enter Living Space

I was recently surprised in several situations where consumers were told that dead mold is okay because it does not cause adverse health symptoms.  The fact that dead mold, toxins, and mold by-products can cause adverse symptoms is not a new concept.  It was certainly included in all of the beginner mold training classes that I attended more than fifteen years ago.  Also, in 2001, EPA published information on the adverse health symptoms that can be caused by dead mold (Mold Remediation in Schools and Commercial Buildings).

Overhearing this kind of information relayed to a customer at “big box” store where the associate told a consumer that killing mold with a certain product was all that was needed to remediate a moldy attic caused me cringe.  Listening to a remediator argue this point with a homeowner who was sick after a botched remediation job made my blood boil.  Consumers look to professionals to guide them.  Mis-information is not only unethical, it can cause serious health problems.

Allergic type reactions from dead mold, mold spores, fragments of molds, and mold metabolites (toxins, volatile organic compounds) has been widely accepted in the medical field for decades.  Some of the health effects from mold, whether it is dead or alive, include:

  • Irritant reactions, such as itchy eyes, sore throats, and rashes
  • Suppression of the immune system
  • Inflammatory responses that affect the liver, kidneys, and other organs
  • Multiple chemical sensitivities
  • Chronic fatigue
  • Brain fog

The ability for dead mold, mold fragments, and mold metabolites to cause adverse health symptoms is one of the primary reasons that mold remediation standards of care from EPA, OSHA, the Institute of Inspection, Cleaning, and Restoration Certification require containment barriers, engineer controls, and HEPA vacuuming when moldy building materials are disturbed.

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