Concerns That Can Arise from Water Induced Losses

February 02, 2009 Photo
Both large-scale catastrophe-induced losses and small-scale single event losses have the potential to impact employees, individuals, insurance personnel, general contracting restoration firms and associated property loss. In addition to the actual water-loss event, secondary losses can become equally as devastating depending on pre-existing and/or event-related building conditions, and the role the insureds take as part of required catastrophe restoration activities. During the water loss event, all project-related information and environmental data generated is an integral part of the decision making process that may be disclosed at various stages to inform all the various parties involved with the project. All in all, a well-executed restoration project can minimize the common delays and expenses of an ill-conceived and ill-managed project.

In the event of a water loss, an often overlooked aspect of the restoration is Asbestos Containing Building Materials (ACBM). Based on regulatory constraints, it is imperative that restoration contractors are made aware of the presence of ACBM prior to beginning restoration activities. The mere presence of ACBM does not require that abatement activities be implemented immediately. However, the improper handling of ACBM can lead to an exponential increase in the number and cost of claims unrelated to the initial water loss, but attributable to the restoration activities implemented in response to the water loss. These claims and expenses can manifest themselves in both the short and long term. Asbestos contamination caused by uninformed contractors and improper restoration activities can lead to the need for the removal and disposal of building materials, carpeting, furniture and other personal items that would not be affected by the initial water loss otherwise. That is an example of the potential short-term additional cost. The health effects of asbestos exposure are well known and well documented. Whether it is the restoration worker, building occupant or anyone that comes in contact with airborne asbestos fibers caused by the mishandling of ACBM, the potential for liability is present. The latency period for the development of asbestos related diseases (10 to 40 years) leads to the potential for future health related claims, and is an example of the long-term potential costs. The potential for these additional costs is real and avoidable.

When initially investigating a claim that will lead to the disturbance of building materials present in buildings constructed before 1980, it is prudent to engage a qualified, properly trained Asbestos Inspector to complete an asbestos survey. In many states, a Licensed Asbestos Inspector is required to perform this work. In the case of water losses, an Asbestos Inspector with additional training and expertise related to mold investigation and remediation would be preferable. The Asbestos Inspector will develop a sampling plan and then sample all suspect building materials that potentially will be impacted during the restoration. In the unfortunate event that ACBM is present and will be impacted by the restoration, the sampling results will determine the proper response needed. A minor investment in time and the expense of an asbestos inspection will help to avoid major clean-up, replacement, and health related costs.

In addition to materials containing asbestos, mold growth is also an important concern following a water loss event. The difference between water damage and mold contamination is time, and the difference in the costs of addressing each can be staggering. Ideally, when water damage occurs, building occupants or the restoration contractor should act quickly to control the source of the water and limit the extent of the affected area. This first step is often one that does not get the attention it deserves. In many instances, the water damaged area is dried properly and mold remediation is conducted, but the problem recurs when the wind blows from the same direction during a heavy rain storm or when a storm drain becomes blocked again. The source of the water problem, whether it is water infiltration through the building envelope, condensation issues, or blocked condensate drain lines, must be identified and repaired to minimize the potential for repeated water damage claims.

Significant accumulations of water usually are removed from the facility using drains, pumps, wet/dry vacuums or any other available methods. Once this is completed, the extent of the water damage must be determined so that fans and dehumidifiers can be placed to maximize their effectiveness. There are several brands of relatively inexpensive moisture meters on the market that can simplify the process of delineating the water damaged area by detecting residual moisture in wallboard, carpeting or other building materials that are not readily apparent by touch. Current EPA recommendations state that building materials that are not thoroughly dried during 48-hours should be considered for removal and replacement due to the potential for mold growth; however, this is only a guideline and there are numerous instances where the drying process took longer than 48 hours with no visible fungal growth and no measurable negative impact on air quality.

One common problem is that site representatives respond to the leak promptly and do all of the proper steps exactly as instructed, but stop before they are completed. Sometimes it is as simple as not removing the vinyl cove base from the gypsum wallboard to allow for drying of this portion of the walls. Other times file cabinets and other furnishings are not raised off the carpeting or moved away from the walls to allow for sufficient air circulation for those areas to dry thoroughly. The problem also could be that the affected walls are covered with vinyl wallpaper which tends to trap and hold moisture, providing a perfect environment for mold to reproduce. Often these problems are not recognized until the drying equipment has been removed from the site, the insurance claim is finalized, and the area occupants begin to complain of allergic reactions and air quality problems. Again, the key to avoiding these problems is in the use of experienced water damage inspectors and restoration contractors who have learned how to identify and address these problems. Some states have started to establish minimum training and licensing requirements for mold consultants and mold remediation contractors. Using these trained and licensed firms is critical to minimizing potential liability.

Sometimes, despite the best efforts, a moisture problem is not identified promptly. This often results in mold contamination either directly from the water damage or from prolonged elevated humidity in an indoor environment. This is when the use of an experienced mold inspection consultant is essential. It is true that most types of mold grow on building materials with high cellulose content, such as gypsum board, ceiling tiles, wood, paper, cardboard, and carpet tack strips. However, given the proper conditions, mold can grow on any surface, using dust and even the oils in human fingerprints as a food source. Areas that retain moisture, such as wall cavities with interior insulation or sound proofing, insulated attic areas, or even wallpaper covering the wallboard can complicate the process of finding the mold growth and correcting the problem. In general, if there is visible mold growth on the surface of a wall or ceiling, there will be much more growth inside the wall or ceiling cavity.

Finally, there is a tendency for some consultants, contractors and owners to spend too much time and money focusing on identifying the specific species of mold growing in the water-damaged area. Most mold remediation projects do not need to become science research projects as well. There are literally thousands of species of mold in the outdoor air, any of which can begin to proliferate in an indoor environment under the proper conditions. A few of these species have been labeled as “toxic” or “carcinogenic”; however, scientific evidence is not conclusive, and there is no federal definition of acceptable indoor concentrations of fungi in an occupied indoor environment. It should be noted that all types of mold are potentially allergenic should a sensitive individual be in the area. Current EPA recommendations state that any visible mold growth should be addressed using the same procedures, regardless of species. Nonporous surfaces, such as hard wood, metal, concrete or plastic typically can be cleaned using commercially available detergent solutions. Porous surfaces, such as gypsum board, ceiling tiles, carpeting, fabric, or paper products usually require removal and replacement. Some people also focus on trying to kill the mold with a bleach solution and then just paint over the affected area, but this does not resolve the problem. Dead fungal spores are also allergenic, and the emphasis needs to be on the physical removal of the fungal growth from the indoor environment.

There have been specific incidents where one person in a large open office area was complaining of allergic reactions while the other people in the room had no problems. In one such instance, testing in the area revealed elevated concentrations of airborne fungi that were eventually traced to a nearby pipe chase that had unidentified condensation problems. In a similar situation, the carpeting in one portion of the office was found to have high fungal concentrations, likely resulting from roof leaks that were not properly addressed. Every building will experience various types of water damage. It is how the owner responds to these situations that determines whether a simple water damage claim spirals into a major mold remediation project.

Richard Byrd ( is a district manager for EFI Global. He is a licensed asbestos inspector, project designer, and management planner, as well as a certified mold remediation supervisor. Jon Schatz ( is a senior project manager with EFI Global. He is a certified environmental specialist, and a licensed asbestos inspector and project designer.

About The Authors
Richard Byrd

Richard Byrd is a district manager for EFI Global. He is a licensed asbestos inspector, project designer, and management planner, as well as a certified mold remediation supervisor.

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