When Mold Attacks

During the past few years, mold - and customers’ reactions to finding it - has caught the full attention of the building community.

March 31, 2002


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Controlling moisture in older homes can be difficult and often is one of the problems homeowners want to solve when they begin a remodeling project. When you regularly replace leaking faucets, tear out tiled showers and remove old roof flashing, mold becomes a familiar if disgusting fact of life. But during the past few years, mold — and customers’ reactions to finding it — has caught the full attention of the building community.

Last year, a Dripping Springs, Texas, family was awarded $32 million by a jury that ruled that the homeowner’s insurance company had failed to cover repairs properly after a leak caused the growth of the mold stachybotrys. In California, mold received significant coverage after crusader Erin Brockovich testified to a state Senate committee that her newly built Agoura Hills home was infested with mold. The committee is considering legislation that would determine health standards for mold infestation and require the state to oversee remedies. A host of other lawsuits and legislative options are under way in other states, with none having produced anything yet except for a few sporadic court cases.

“Dealing with mold is a very real issue today for builders and remodelers,” says Mary Lynn Pickel, environmental policy analyst with the NAHB. “The most real part is dealing with customers’ concerns and their perceptions of what the contractor has done to resolve their concern.”

These legal actions are different from lawsuits builders have dealt with before, she notes, because they make claims for personal injury as well as damage. “The litigants don’t want just money and actions to fix the problem, they also want damages for health problems, and those are far higher.”


Kowalski Construction’s mold-remediation workers use full respirators with HEPA filters and negative air-filtering machines to clean the air. Photos courtesy of Kowalski Construction.

Only three of the more than 100,000 species of mold have been linked to health problems. Even then, research shows no conclusive evidence of a causal relationship between mold and poor health. So why has mold suddenly become such a concern?

For one, changes in construction standards and approaches have made mold a more likely household inhabitant. Jim Kowalski, co-owner of Kowalski Construction in Phoenix, began to see a “tremendous” increase in mold problems beginning about 1994, when his com-pany began to offer mold-remediation services as part of its fire-restoration program. A key reason, he says, is that homes have become more energy-efficient, with tighter seals around windows and more insulation to prevent drafts. That has resulted in less air exchange.

In addition, media reports of homeowner distress, large insurance payouts and legislative hearings make consumers more aware that there could be problems and more skittish about how their builder or remodeler handles the situation.

As a result, it has become imperative for remodelers to understand how to deal with mold when they encounter it and ensure that their work doesn’t encourage mold growth after construction is complete.

After his market suffered through major flooding problems last year, Dan Bawden, CGR, of Legal Eagle Contractors Co. in Houston became well acquainted with how to handle mold. “Don’t unnecessarily panic when you find mold,” he says. “I’ve torn out plenty of moldy bathroom walls and flashings around fireplaces, and I’ve never been affected by any mold I’ve found.”

Scott Sevon, CGR, president of Sevvonco Inc. in Palatine, Ill., adds, “The media has blown up mold exposure, but there are things that can be done if it occurs. Mold in one cavity of the house doesn’t mean the entire house has to come down.”

If mold isn’t specifically a problem, customers’ reaction to mold is.

Mold basics

Most molds are harmless. The three types of mold — aspergillus, penicillium and stachybotrys chartarum — that might cause reactions in humans don’t affect everyone. Those who are affected have varying reactions depending on their health, allergies, sensitivities and period of exposure. Commonly claimed symptoms are headaches, blotchy skin, watering eyes, appetite loss, breathing problems and coughing. In the Texas case, the couple claimed neurological damage from mold. And in Cleveland in 1993-94, the Centers for Disesase Control and Prevention investigated a cluster of cases of pulmonary hemorrhage in infants, originally suggesting that stachybotrys might be the cause.

Despite these claims, scientific studies have not established a causal relationship between inhaling stachybotrys spores and any disease, says Dr. Abba I. Terr of the Department of Medicine at the University of California at San Francisco. A CDC panel that reviewed the Cleveland investigation wrote in the April 19, 2000, Journal of the American Medicine Association that the original study was flawed and the results not conclusive.

“Mold is not like lead-based paint, which is a very clear hazard in specific ways that research supports,” Pickel says. “I’m not saying that mold isn’t a problem, but there’s no data to support that it causes specific health hazards.”

But the suits are not using science as their basis, so it’s hard for contractors to defend themselves against negligence, according to the NAHB’s A Builder’s Guide to Handling Mold Claims & Litigation.

Mold is difficult to eliminate from a home: It lives everywhere on earth and reproduces by sending out tiny spores that enter and leave homes routinely with daily air exchanges and regular traffic through the house. They settle on surfaces and require only water, food and a moderate temperature to thrive. “There is no practical way to eliminate all mold and mold spores in the indoor environment,” reports A Builder’s Guide to Handling Mold Claims & Litigation. “The way to control indoor mold growth is to control moisture.”

Detection, remediation and construction

Building to avoid mold growth
Building to avoid mold growth
Building to avoid mold growth
Building to avoid mold growth
Building to avoid mold growth
Building to avoid mold growth
Building to avoid mold growth
Building to avoid mold growth
Building to avoid mold growth
Building to avoid mold growth

Changes in building products and techniques have led to more moisture and mold growth in newer homes, says Jim Holland, a certified restorer in Sacramento, Calif., with Restoration Consultants Inc., which provides a variety of restoration, remediation and consulting services. Plaster doesn’t retain moisture, he notes, while paper-coated drywall does. The addition of air conditioning to more homes means doors and windows stay shut more during the summer and people stay inside more often. The push to reduce construction times for new homes, he says, has resulted in less drying time for concrete in slab-on-grade designs, along with more problems with leaking flashing and window seals.

“Those homes constructed 15 years ago with more insulation are now reaching the age where they need to be remodeled, and those are the ones where we’re finding more mold,” Bawden agrees. “The way they were built invites mold to grow faster if a moisture problem develops.”

The time to be concerned about mold is before demolition, as demo is when mold spores can be stirred up and distributed throughout the house, turning a small problem into a large one. Upon first entering a room, see if you can detect an odor, says Holland. “You have to check right away because you will quickly become desensitized to the smell.”

Kitchens and bathrooms are the most likely sources of mold problems, he notes, especially places with little airflow such as the tight space between the back of a kitchen or bath cabinet and the wall. Look for signs of previous moisture conditions, such as water stains or rust, and ask the homeowners about past conditions. “The key is to know as much as possible about the history of water damage in that area before you open it up,” Holland says.

The appearance of a mold growth doesn’t immediately distinguish what kind it is. If you encounter a severe growth and are unsure what type is present, the best recourse might be to reseal the wall, inform the clients of the problem and tell them to call their insurance company to have a remediator evaluate the problem. That’s what Bawden does, even though, as he says, it “stops work on the project for weeks and is a pain in the butt.”

You can send samples to a lab for testing to determine whether the mold is one of the three known to be potentially harmful, but “testing is sketchy, and determining the types of mold is difficult,” Pickel says. “There are so many various kinds that it’s hard to isolate them, and we don’t know what each one can do.”

If you decide the problem is small enough that you can deal with it, take every precaution to prevent spreading the spores. “Isolation of the airborne materials is the key concern,” says Tom Kenney, senior engineer with the NAHB Research Center. A series of tarps can isolate the area if it’s small enough, and respirators and gloves should be used.

There are no federal regulations on how to deal with mold, says Pickel, but some rules, such as the U.S. Occupational and Safety Health Administration’s respirator standards, might apply as in any situation. “There are no requirements except to use common sense,” she says. “If you encounter an entire wall of mold, talk to a remediator. Overall, when in doubt, be cautious.” New York City has established a set of guidelines, she notes, but they are only suggestions, not regulations.

Kowalski’s remediators use full respirators with HEPA filters along with Tyvek suits and gloves. They also install a negative air-filtering machine that cleans the air while ensuring that the area has the lowest air pressure in the house, preventing air currents from moving into other rooms. Kowalski removes the moldy materials in bags that are taken out through a series of three air chambers with negative air-filtering units to ensure that the outside of each bag is cleaned as well.

Once out of the home, however, the bags simply are taken to the dump. There are no regulations for disposing of mold, and once it’s in the outside air, it disperses, Kowalski explains. “Mold has been around for a long time and is part of nature,” he says. “It’s only when it’s part of our living space that it’s a problem.”

Remodelers also face the potential danger of having mold grow within their remodeling and new construction projects. That can be a time bomb waiting to go off many years later.

“In older homes, the window seals and siding aren’t efficient, but they were ‘washing’ the home’s air by being drafty, so mold didn’t get a chance to build up and become intolerable,” says Sevon, whose company last year built Illinois’ first Health House per American Lung Association criteria. “Now a remodeler puts an envelope on the home that takes it from Swiss cheese to a submarine. It can be an issue to be airtight.” In some cases, he recommends an air exchanger to ensure that air in a tight home doesn’t become stale.

Other techniques used in the Health House home include insulating and sealing the walls as well as using under- cabinet lighting. Natural materials were used almost exclusively, including flooring and countertops. The home provides not only low heating and cooling costs but also a safe, healthy environment that isn’t sterile, Sevon notes.

Extensive sealing and insulation methods were used on all windows, doors and other penetrations to seal out moisture. They work in conjunction with advanced HVAC equipment, including an air-filtration and ventilation system, to keep fresh air moving through the home to cycle out any mold spores that enter. Sevon also waterproofed the foundation by spraying the walls and footings with a natural rubber material, eliminating another potential source for moisture penetration.

Protection against litigation

Ensuring that mold problems don’t occur, however, is out of remodelers’ hands because homeowners have the most control over maintenance issues that can encourage mold growth. Bawden has added a section to his standard remodeling contract that outlines his responsibilities versus the homeowner’s. These portions are included under sections covering other environmental hazards such as lead and asbestos.

A section on long-term responsibility assures the client that Legal Eagle has exercised reasonable care to ensure that the remodeling is free from harmful molds, but it stresses that proper maintenance is required to continue that status. It outlines the homeowner’s responsibil-ity to investigate and remedy any moisture accumulation and points out that any repeated spills, including those from a pet dish, can create a breeding ground. The goal, Bawden says, “is to put a duty on the homeowners to maintain the proper conditions and ensure they understand they’re responsible for proper maintenance.”

No contract will alleviate all problems, he says. “If a homeowner calls with a problem five years later, be sweetness and light and show your concern,” Bawden advises. Visit the home with a camera to examine and document the problem, checking for its source to determine causation. In many cases, he notes, no matter what caused the problem, the remodeler will be well-served to fix it. “Whether it’s out of warranty or not, you’re probably best off repairing the problem, even if it costs $1,000. That’s a lot cheaper than getting those legal papers in the mail.”

The chances of remodelers’ facing a mold problem, either during a project or in a concerned call from a past client, will continue for some time, all agree. “We’ll probably see this area grow as awareness among homeowners grows and lawyers become involved,” Bawden says. “But I believe that when people see the rarity of it affecting anyone, it will go back to normal again.”

Whether the concerns are born out by science, affect only a handful of people or fade away completely, the potential for problems remains. Knowing the dangers, staying aware of the potential and taking precautions — both in the home and in contracts — can protect homeowners, crews and remodelers from any dangers presented by mold.

Online information

Centers for Disease Control: Information on the health effects of mold, www.cdc.gov

Environmental Protection Agency: Mold resources

NAHB: A wide range of information for members and nonmembers through www.nahb.com (members)

New York City Department of Health: Guidelines on the assessment and remediation of fungi in indoor environments

Restoration Consultants: A variety of background on mold remediation and mold dangers, www.restcon.com

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