MOLD TEST KITS: Why You Should Not Do-It-Yourself

Using a “do-it-yourself” (DIY) mold test kit to evaluate whether a home has a mold problem makes about as much sense as replacing an annual doctor exam with using a thermometer to take your temperature.  Just as a person could be very ill while maintaining a normal temperature, a home could have a serious mold problem, even though a DIY test was negative.

Designing, executing, and understanding a comprehensive indoor mold assessment is difficult enough for professional mold consultants.  The best ones understand that building dynamics, hidden mold, historical damage, sampling techniques, analytical methods, and many other factors can influence the accuracy and effectiveness of diagnosing indoor mold problems.

Unlike chemical testing, no dose response curves have been developed for mold exposure.  Therefore, sample results will often raise more questions than answers.  Mold spores are always present in indoor environments. They enter buildings through doors and windows, and usually are not a problem unless they have suitable nutrients for growth.  All building materials can support mold growth IF sufficient moisture is present.  Moisture can come from leaks, floods, or excess humidity.

When sufficient moisture is present, certain molds that are usually minor constituents of outdoor air grow disproportionately to predominant outdoor molds that grow on decayed vegetation.  The molds that grow indoors on wet drywall, wood, and other cellulose materials are most frequently in the genera, Aspergillus, Penicillium, Stachybotrys, and Chaetomium.  These molds can present health problems when they grow indoors.  In addition to allergic reactions, triggering of asthma, and infections, many molds that grow indoors produce secondary metabolites, such as toxins.   The tightness of indoor environments can promote exposures and adverse health to occupants of water damaged buildings.

The single best tool in a mold assessment, whether it is performed by a professional or a do-it-yourselfer, is a detailed visual inspection.  The simplest inspection involves observations of mold growth after a water damage event.  If you see it, yes it is there, and must be addressed to prevent air quality problems.  More involved inspection that require professionals are those in which prior unmitigated water damage has been concealed or construction defects result in hidden water damage in ceiling, wall, or floor cavities.

For the do-it-yourself mold tester, the best that can be expected from a home test kit is to identify the type of mold is visibly growing on a surface.  However, if it is growing, the source of moisture must be corrected and the mold must be removed under controlled conditions.  Since remediation procedures are not dictated by the type of, testing is usually a waste of money.  If the area of growth is small and a low likelihood exists for hidden mold, addressing the mold according to EPA guidelines found in A Brief Guide to Moisture, Mold and Your Home (epa.gov) is sufficient.  If the mold covers a large area or hidden mold is suspected, a professional remediator is usually required to avoid hazardous exposures and cross-contamination to unaffected areas.

The worst outcome from a do-it-yourself mold test kit is that negative results will give a false sense of security when in fact hidden mold problems do exist.   False negative are common in culture plate kits (petri dishes) that instruct the user to place the open plate in a room for a specified period of time to collect mold that settles from the air.  The lab reports for settling plates might list several types of mold that grew the petri dish.  However, the data is usually inconclusive at best.  One problem with “settling plate” is that all molds do not settle at the ratio in which they are found in the air.  Therefore, many species can go undetected.  Another issue is that the actual concentrations of mold spores per volume of air cannot be calculated because the sampling method cannot quantify the amount of air to which the culture plate is exposed.  Additionally, the methodology does not address whether the molds entered from outdoors or were from areas of actual indoor mold sources.

Another type of test that might be recommended for the culture plates is to tape the open culture plate to a supply register to allow the air from an operating HVAC system to impact the plate for a specified time.  Unfortunately air exiting from the airducts does not necessarily represent air within the home because the air that passes through a filter before impacting the culture plate.  Additionally, the likelihood that contaminants would actually be released from an area of growth, enter the air stream, be sucked into the return ducts, pass through the filter, and ultimately end up on the culture plate is very low. 

Swab type test kits are commonly available for DIYers.  Directions generally instruct the user to wipe the swab over a small area (usually 1 sq. inch) of suspect mold growth.   The resultant lab report might list several molds that were found in the swab sample, but this method cannot differentiate between settled spores and what might have actually been growing on the surface.   In either case, the results should not be mistaken to represent the moldiness of the whole house.

Still another type of surface sample that can be found in home mold test kits is a tape lift sample, which involves using clear cellophane tape to “lift” suspect mold from a surface.  This type of sample can be useful in identifying not only the type of mold that is present on a surface, but can also differentiate between actual mold growth and spores that settled from the air.   But the sample would be representative of the tested area only and would not provide information on the overall mold conditions in the indoor environment.

Mold testing can be a useful tool in the hands of a knowledgeable investigator that designs a sampling plan to address a question that cannot otherwise be answered.  Unfortunately, even within the mold assessment and remediation industries, few investigators understand the principles of microbiology, building science, engineering, and scientific methods that are required to conduct a meaningful mold investigation.  With so many variables and limitations in mold testing and analytical methods, “do-it-yourself” mold test kits are generally a waste of time and money.

Mold Remediation: Standards of Care are More Important than Regulatory Requirements

Painting over mold is not appropriate remediation

“Since mold is not a regulated contaminant, contractors have the freedom to create their own methods and products to treat or remediate mold – Right”?  This argument, which is often disguised as a question) is frequently touted by inexperienced, ignorant, or unethical mold remediators and remediation wannabe’s.  In asking such a question, they are supposedly seeking my professional opinion.  However, the questioner becomes argumentative when my answer does not agree with the desired response. 

Interestingly, individuals asking this question seldom sustain successful businesses, and often become defendants in negligence lawsuits.  Napoleon Hill in Think and Grow Rich teaches that successful people do not reveal what they hope to hear when asking questions.  Instead, successful people are those that seek truth, have vision, and refuse to accept failure.  Successful mold remediators are those that choose to align themselves with masterminds within industry, professionals that not only provide great services, but work to promote ethics and knowledge.    Ethical contractors seek out the most discerning industrial hygienists for pre and post remediation assessment, and they also insist upon doing a job the right way (source removal and detailed cleaning) regardless of who pays the bill.

State licensing for mold remediation contractors will not halt charlatans who use fear tactics to sell quick (but inappropriate) fixes.   The building industry is an excellent example of how licensing fails the consumer.  Poor construction practices are a primary cause of mold problems in residential and commercial buildings.  Unfortunately, licensed contractors that cause mold problems due to substandard building practices receive little more than a slap on the wrist from the state licensing departments.   

Excellence in the mold remediation industry is achieved by:

  • Hard work, both in job performance and promotion of ethical practices within the industry
  • Consumer education
  • Training
  • Alliances, both within the remediation industry and with sister industries, such as builders, HVAC professionals, engineers, architects, and the medical community
  • Accountability in the form of policing within professional organizations in the indoor air quality industry

DAMMED ICE: MARCH IS TIME TO CHECK THE ATTIC FOR MOLD AND WATER DAMAGE

Dammed Ice

In winter months, they can be spotted throughout the northern regions of the United States.  At first they might seem harmless.  Some even sparkle as the winter sun reflects from the stalactite-like structures.  They are ice dams, and these giant icicles are surefire predictors of damned indoor air quality.

Ice dams are caused when the temperature on the upper part of a roof is warmer than on the lower edges.   The melting snow freezes at the colder lower edges, creating dams in the eaves troughs (gutters).  Problems start when the dammed ice begins to melt, and water backs up under shingles, seeking the paths of least resistance.

Water that backs up under shingles and runs into the attic, insulation, walls, and ceilings often remains undetected.  However, hidden within the wet cavities are feeding frenzies for mold and other nasty microorganisms.  Sustained  moisture causes structural damage, odors, and biological growth.       

Consequences of Dammed Ice  In most regions of the US, ice dams melt before March, and signs of  water damage begin to appear.  Some indicators of water damage from ice damming include:

•             Curling and cupping of shingles

•             Stains on ceilings and walls

•             Stains on the underside of a roof deck

•             Mold growth on wood structures in the attic

Drip stains on the topside of insulation and drywall ceiling

•             Drip stains on insulation in the attic

•             Oxidized nails on the underside of a roof deck

•             Musty or mold type odors

 If signs of damage from ice damming are discovered, a qualified professional should be called upon to evaluate structural damage, assess mold growth,  and develop a safe remediation plan.   A qualified consultant will not only provide recommendations for addressing visible mold and water damage, but will also identify areas that should be evaluated for hidden damage. To prevent cross-contamination during invasive investigations into suspect cavities, personal protection, HEPA-filtration, and partition barriers should be used.   An ounce of prevention is priceless when hidden mold contamination is found, especially in a home with immune compromised individuals.

  Remediation

Effective remediation involves two components: (1) removal of the mold and (2) addressing spores in the air and on surfaces.  Removal of attic mold caused by ice damming typically requires removal of the affected roof decking, as the growth is not limited to visible surfaces.  Trusses, joists, and other wood roof members can usually be cleaned using some type of abrasive cleaning.  One of the best abrasive cleaning methods for attics is dry ice blasting.  This method is not only less labor intensive than sanding or scrubbing, it is more effective because the dry ice freezes the surface of the moldy substrate.  Dry ice blasting also facilitates cleaning of crevices and hard to reach areas.  As with all mold remediation, appropriate containment measures, personal protection, and engineering controls must be employed.

  Remediation after ice damming generally requires removal of the attic insulation.  Insulation that is directly impacted by water loses its efficiency.   Insulation in proximityof mold growth must be removed because of cross-contamination.  Aerosolizing of mold spores, fragments and other propagules that settle onto insulation can cause adverse health effects.  After insulation is removed from an attic, surfaces must be cleaned to remove particulate debris and settled spores.

Removal of attic insulation also allows for a thorough inspection of the topsides of drywall ceilings.  Assessment of staining patterns can provide clues about areas of potential hidden water intrusion into wall cavities.  Drywall with visible mold growth on the topside of ceilings must be removed under appropriate containment.

 Appropriate mold remediation after ice damming is necessary to protect the air quality within an indoor environment and prevent structural damage.  Re-construction after remediation must be executed in a manner to correct the conditions that caused ice damming in the first place.  The most common approaches to preventing dammed ice involve installation of appropriate insulation, ventilation and vapor barriers.  Roofing contractors should provide warranties and be held accountable for these issues.

Mold and ice crystals on the underside of a roof deck

From Our Video Archives: Sanit-Air Featured On PBS “The Business Page” Television Program

The nationally recognized Public Broadcasting System affiliate in Detroit, WTVS Channel 56, produced and aired a wonderful local business program titled “The Business Page.” Sanit-Air and our team of environmental IAQ experts and technicians had the distinct pleasure of an extensive feature on “The Business Page.”

Producer Mike Echols narrates this business feature that serves as a nice introduction to the basic understanding of the workings of Sanit-Air and the foundation for our CleaniNEST™ brand and consumer crusade. We hope you find “The Business Page” feature on Sanit-Air informative.

Sanit Air & CleanliNEST™ Featured in Today’s C & G News

Connie Morbach Suited Up Examining Mold

That's me all suited up and taking mold samples...

We’re excited to announce we were featured in today’s C&G News in an insightful feature written by the C and G’s Christa Buchanan. Click on the link to read and learn more: http://www.candgnews.com/Homepage-Articles/2010/06-23-2010/Indoor-contaminants.asp

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.   

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.

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