RENTERS BEWARE: APARTMENT HVAC CLOSETS CAN BE SOURCES OF MOLD AND DEGRADED IAQ

Furnace on water damaged OSB platform.  The return plenum is located beneath the platform.

Furnace on water damaged OSB platform. The return plenum is located beneath the platform.

A common practice in multi-story apartment and condominium complexes is to house the furnaces in closets that are located on the patio or balcony for each unit. The closets are aligned vertically in each building. Although the orientation is convenient for plumbing access, numerous water damage issues are inherent to this type of HVAC set-up.
Water damage from plugged condensate drain tubes or malfunctioning condensate drain pans is common. Slimy biological growth in PVC tubing and drain pans pan causes overflows. Current or historical overflows from the pans will appear on the sheet metal plenum under the A-coil. Drips and mold growth from malfunctioning units above a closet are commonly apparent as drip stains or growth on the ceiling and walls of the closet.
Water damage caused by freezing and thawing of the AC coils is common in apartment HVAC systems. Filter changes are often left in the hands of uninformed tenants. Plugged filters prevent sufficient air flow to the coil, causing it to freeze. As the coil warms up, the ice thaws, releasing large amounts of water into the return plenum, floor system of the apartment, furnace platform, or furnace closet below the damaged unit.
Another issue associated with stacked HVAC closets is the installation of the furnace on a platform, which is commonly constructed from plywood, drywall, or oriented strand board. When wet, all of these materials support the growth of mold and bacteria, which can produce various toxins. Additionally, the glues and resins in these materials can be liberated when wet.

Ceiling of furnace closet showing water entered from HVAC  closet above.

Ceiling of furnace closet showing water entered from HVAC closet above.

The return plenum in furnace closet systems is located beneath the platform, with the underside of the platform being the top of the plenum, a concrete slab serving as the bottom, and the walls of the platform forming the sides of the plenum. In addition to being difficult to clean, a water damaged common plenum provides both a contaminant source and transport pathway.  Dust mites, insects and their fecal material, garbage, cigarette butts, contaminated chunks of paper, and rodent feces are just a few of the treasures that have been recovered from plenums under furnace platforms.
When damage does occur, the underlying cause of water must be corrected. This involves replacing plugged drain tubing, cleaning drip pans, cleaning coils, and changing filters. For consistency, preventive measures in the form of routine inspections and HVAC maintenance should be the responsibility of the management company or maintenance staff.
Addressing the consequences of the water damage, whether it manifests as biological growth or deteriorated building materials, is imperative to appropriate HVAC hygiene and good indoor air quality. Contaminants on water damaged plywood, OSB, and drywall in the furnace closet and on the furnace platform can cause adverse health effects, whether the growth is active or historical. Once dried, mold and bacteria engage in survival mechanisms that can include toxin production and increased sporulation. When dry, the contaminants are easily liberated into the airstream.  Mold remediation is required when building materials in furnace closets become contaminated. The remediation involves two components (1) removal of the mold or contaminated building material and (2) addressing spores that are released from areas of actual growth. Engineering controls, containment barriers, HEPA filtered air filtration devices, personal protective equipment, HEPA vacuuming, and damp-wiping are all essential for safe and effective remediation in water damaged furnace closets.

Return grille located inside of the apartment behind the furnace platform.  Stains show repeated wetting fo tack strip.

Return grille located inside of the apartment behind the furnace platform. Stains show repeated wetting fo tack strip.

MOLD CLEAN-UP AFTER A HURRICANE IS NOT A DIY PROJECT

Hidden mold on underside of sub-floor after a flood

Hidden mold on underside of sub-floor after a flood

http://www.thedoctorstv.com/videolib/init/8286_

The above link provides some good information on the hazards that are inherent to flooded buildings. Good information in the clip includes:
• Chemicals, such as pesticides, gasoline, hydrocarbons, rotted food, and other harmful agents can be transported indoors with flood waters.

• Animal fecal material, carcasses and pathogens are inherent to flood waters.

• Fungi (mold) grow indoors on drywall, wood, and other cellulose contents.

• Mold that grows indoors can make people sick.

• Moldy drywall must be discarded.

The overall message that water damage to buildings is unhealthy was very clear in the news clip. However, due to the shortness of the clip, information was limited. The public should be aware of that many hazards exist after floods. As reported by the World Health Organization (Dampness and Mould, 2009), other harmful agents in water damaged buildings include bacteria, endotoxins and exotoxins from bacteria, mycotoxins from mold, chemicals released from wet building materials, insects, and other contaminants that can be transported indoors with surface and ground water.

The media clip does fall short relative to its discussion about clean-up. The recommendations from the interviewed mold expert do not emphasize that flood clean-up is not a do-it-yourself project. Although the reporter and expert donned protective gear prior to entering a flooded house, the importance of hazard training and medical clearance for using personal protective equipment is not addressed. This could turn into a situation where a little knowledge could be dangerous.

The issue of restoring wood after a flood was misrepresented in the clip. The expert suggested that unless wood was rotted, abrasive cleaning would effectively restore mold contaminated wood after a flood. This is information is not correct. Wood that has been in contact with the flood water is contaminated with the same chemical and biological agents as the drywall that the expert states must be removed. Abrasively cleaning of wood will only address the outer accessible surfaces. Wood has six sides. Ignoring the surfaces that cannot be accessed for cleaning (interface between bottom plates and flooring, stacked studs, etc.) are typically the most contaminated because they remain wet for the longest periods.

The surfaces with trapped contaminants can cause exposure hazards long after restoration and re-build are complete. Contaminants that remain on wood in floor, ceiling, and wall cavities can be liberated with pressure differentials, physical disturbances, and normal living activities. Since people can react to dead mold and other contaminants that remain after a flood, failure to address the “hidden” surfaces could be quite dangerous, especially to people to young children, elderly people, asthmatics, or those that are immune-compromised. Appropriate remediation scopes for damages from catastrophic water losses, such as those caused by Hurricane Sandy, are paramount to preventing future indoor air quality problems.

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.

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.

HOW TO IDENTIFY HIDDEN MOLD, CHEMICALS, AND OTHER IAQ PROBLEMS BEFORE RENTING

Buying or renting an apartment, office or condominium in a multistory building presents challenges beyond the structural and indoor air quality issues that are anticipated when purchasing a single family dwelling. Most prospective home buyers understand the importance of hiring an independent third party home inspector before the purchase of a house. If a buyer has previously experienced illnesses associated with mold, bacteria, and other contaminants in water damaged buildings (WBD’s), a mold assessment is often requested in addition to the home inspection and seller’s disclosure statement. Although the same types of due diligence can be requested for multi-story apartments and condominiums, numerous complexities associated with these multi-family dwellings diminish the likelihood of gathering accurate information.

Identifying issues that could negatively impact indoor air quality can be especially troublesome in rental properties due to policies, practices, and procedures that hinder accountability. Some of these inherent issues include frequent tenant turnover, less stringent disclosure requirements, tenant abuse, poor maintenance, low quality building materials, property management by outside contractors, bylaws of home owners associations, and delayed or unreported damages. Thoroughness and persistence are required prior to signing a rental agreement. Potential health hazards include mold, pesticides, animal and pest allergens, lead, and asbestos, as well as volatile organic compounds from paint cleaning products, carpeting, and building materials.

How to Spot Telltale Signs of Concealed Damage

1. Specific Unit Inspection: Many rental properties can be removed from a list of potentials during an initial walkthrough. Of course this requires that a prospective renter see the actual that he/she would rent. Many property owners have “models” that can be initially viewed, but available rentals cannot be inspected until current tenants move and repairs are completed. A lease should not be signed until the renter (and his/her inspector if desired) approves the unit to be occupied.
2. Uneven Paint: Cracks in drywall seams, different shades of paint, blistered paint, or bumpy textures, especially in the lower corners of

Cracked paint in upper corner of exterior wall signifies water damage and hidden mold

exterior walls, under upper unit bathrooms and kitchens, at the lower corners of windows, and along the lower walls outside of bathtubs and showers, should raise red flags about insufficient water damage repairs, with the likelihood of underlying mold and bacteria contamination.
3. Under Sinks and Vanities: Water stains, visible mold growth, delaminated bases in cabinets, drip stains on walls, and musty type odors are indicative of historical water damage, with the possibility of hidden damage to the flooring below the cabinets, as well as in the wall cavity behind the cabinets. New cabinet bases under sinks can also signify that the base was severely damaged and the floor might remain damaged.
4. Peeling or Uneven Paint in Ceilings above Kitchens or Bathrooms: Uneven paint might represent repair from a toilet overflow or leak, pipe break, insufficient caulking, or other condition that caused top-down water intrusion from an upper unit. Since water from a bathroom can be especially contaminated, extra care should be taken to inspect the ceiling. A flashlight shined at an angle will often reveal the damage. If the drywall appears to have been replaced, documentation should be requested to confirm that joists, subflooring, and other damaged structural members were also appropriately remediated.

Hidden mold behind new baseboard molding

5. New Baseboard Moldings in Bathrooms, Laundry Rooms, and Kitchens: Installation of new vinyl, composite, or wood baseboard moldings is a common practice to cover up the lower edges of walls that were previously affected by a flood, persistent leak, or chronic water damage. When new baseboards are present, check for signs of uneven paint above the baseboards that might indicate that paint was applied over water damaged drywall.
6. Stains under Vinyl Flooring around a Toilet, Tub, or Sink: Chronic water seepage under vinyl flooring will often show up as a slightly darker plume around the source. The stain is usually apparent from the topside, but top surface of the vinyl is not usually altered.
7. Damage to Window Sills or Along the Lower Edges of Doorwalls and Windows: Drywall and wood around doorwalls and windows that have been repeatedly or chronically wet will typically display signs of damage, such as cracks, blistered paint, bumpy or uneven surfaces, and crumbling or weakened drywall. The underlying structures and backsides of drywall are likely to be contaminated if such conditions exist.

Mold on drywall around furnace was caused by leaking condensate drain pan

8. Damage around the Furnace: In most multistory apartments and condominiums, the furnaces are located in closets within the apartment or in a closet area on a balcony or patio. Check for signs of leaks from units above, as well as on and around the furnace, which is often on a wood platform with attached drywall. Damage is frequently caused by leaks from the condensate drain pan, which can get plugged with particulates. Drip stains and rust can often be seen on metal along the outside of a furnace that has not been properly maintained.
9. Rust on Vents and Registers: Excess moisture on vents and registers can be caused by condensation in the indoor environment and/or excess moisture the HVAC system.
10. Chemical Type Odors: New carpeting odors should not be detectable after a few weeks if proper ventilation is provided. If odors are present, find out when the carpeting was installed and request information from the manufacturers’ of the carpet, pad and glue. If no new carpet has been installed, ask about cleaning solutions and type of paint. The MSDS (material safety data sheets and manufacturers’ specification sheets should be made available.

Questions to Ask

  • Request the service and repair logs for the specific unit, as well as the unit above.
  • What is the policy for reporting and repairing water damage? Are procedures in place for handling mold after the source of water is repaired? Who removes mold if found?
  • How are emergency situations reported after offices are closed?
  • Does the property owner’s insurance policy cover personal injuries associated with water damage and mold?
  • Does the property owner or his insurance cover contents that are damaged by water? If so, what is covered, and what are the coverage limits. The answer is likely to be no. Renters should have insurance to cover contents.
  • What types of pesticides are applied? How are tenants notified of pending application? Who does the application? If the building was built prior to 1975, have lead and asbestos surveys been performed. If so, ask to see reports. If not done, and the building is old, the property should not be considered for rental.
  • What is the policy for inspection of the HVAC system and for filter changes?

“Sufficient epidemiological evidence is available from studies conducted in different countries and under different climatic conditions to show that the occupants of damp or mouldy buildings, both houses and public buildings, are at increased risk of respiratory symptoms, respiratory infections and exacerbation of asthma. Some evidence suggests increased risks of allergic rhinitis and asthma. Although few intervention studies are available, their results show that remediation of dampness problems can reduce adverse health outcomes.”

Dampness and Mould, World Health Organization, 2009, section 5.1

http://www.euro.who.int/__data/assets/pdf_file/0017/43325/E92645.pdf

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

Connie Morbach To Be Featured In October “Women’s Health” Magazine!

Women's Health | July/August CoverI’m elated to announce I will be featured in the October issue of the nationally published “Women’s Health” magazine. I had the opportunity to speak with Women’s Health writer Kate Bowers giving my views on the importance of indoor air quality: what are the risks of household pollutants and what can people do to improve indoor air quality and more.

I’m excited to declare the CleanliNEST™ Crusade is picking up national steam. Here’s to everyone breathing easier!

Take a moment to check out the free iPhone and iPod Workout App from Women’s Health at the link below. Nice workout tool at an even nicer price!

Click here for the Women’s Health Workout Lite App

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