Understanding Mold

A Primer for Insurance Professionals (Part 2)

October 22, 2008 Photo
Moisture intrusion and mold are important issues facing an adjuster. Since mold investigation reports frequently result in conflicting details and in massive payouts, an adjuster must make sense of evidence which may be difficult to understand in detail.

In part one of this article we discussed general concepts about mold, explained the chaotic state of mold certifications, defined the term Mold Assessment, and detailed some of the procedures used in moisture and mold detection. Here, we will cover other important issues such as mold remediation, legislation, and health effects.

We defined the term Mold Assessment as the inspection, testing, data collection or other analytical methods used in determining biological conditions within buildings. Remediation is the physical removal of contaminated materials and the subsequent return of buildings to a habitable condition.

At first glance, it may not seem that there is a clear cut distinction between assessment and remediation since both services appear to contribute to the same goal. However, when we look at the costs involved with a mold project, or more specifically cost containment, it readily becomes obvious that the two services are distinct from each other. In fact, they are very much at arm’s length and represent a serious conflict of interests when performed together.

First let’s look at typical remediation procedures to understand why remediation projects can be expensive. Removal of materials might seem like a simple handyman demolition project utilizing hammers, saws, and other implements. But that is not the case where mold is concerned.

Fungi consist of living mycelium and reproductive spores. It is nature’s design for spores to become airborne and propagate. Even small outbreaks of mold can propel hundreds of thousands or even millions of spores into the surrounding air space. Spores on the surface of contaminated materials readily become airborne with physical agitation. If you have ever stepped on a common garden puffball, you may have seen the cloud of brown spores that are liberated. Like a puffball, huge amounts of spores are liberated from contaminated building materials when disturbed. Additionally, since wall cavities can remain wet for longer periods due to lack of ventilation and drying, populations of spores can be extremely high in those areas. The removal of contaminated wall surfaces can expose the interior of buildings to extremely high concentrations of spores.
When sections of contaminated wallboard are transported, the agitation can release even larger quantities of spores. Since spores are invisible when airborne, workers typically are unaware this process is occurring. Under still conditions, spores settle to the ground or adhere to various surfaces. However, currents from air conditioning systems or agitation from foot traffic can keep very high concentrations of spores in the air, thereby exposing building occupants to continuous inhalation exposure.

A professional remediation contractor must prevent the spread of spores by erecting containment. This involves the use of plastic sheeting or other means to fabricate a kind of sealed room around the work area. Within the contained area, air purification devices continuously filter the spores and dehumidifiers may be implemented to dry wet materials. Contaminated materials are typically cut into small pieces and placed into multi layered, heavy plastic bags that are sealed prior to being removed from containment areas.

Remediation work can be very slow, tedious and unpleasant for workers. Often, full body personal protective equipment (PPE) is worn—the “moon suits” we see in magazines, ads, or on television. These suits protect the workers from contact or inhalation exposure to biological particulates or dust from the demolition. Working under these conditions can be extremely unpleasant. PPE can be very hot to work in under good conditions, but factor in the heat of a building without A/C in the summer and one can appreciate the difficulty involved. Breathing through a respirator has to be learned and is laborious. These factors contribute to the high cost of remediation projects.

As with assessors, there are no regulations pertaining to remediation. While many certifications exist, none of them are truly regulatory. Certifying organizations can, at best, only publish recommended policies or ethical guidelines. In reality, they have very little enforcement power. Therefore, when selecting a remediation contractor, an adjuster should look beyond certifications and request references, business history, professional affiliations, and other tangible evidence of competency and ethics—and should check for possible conflicts of interest.

It is a universally recognized conflict of interest for any remediation contractor to provide assessment services for a property they propose to remediate.

The results of air testing and other assessment services frequently determine the extent of remediation services. The cost of these projects easily can be tens of thousands of dollars. It is amazing how many remediation companies advertise testing and other assessment services. These are like oil and water; they don’t mix. And in some states, like Florida, performing both services will become a criminal offense when new legislation is enacted.
Florida Mold Legislation
Several states have enacted laws which license or otherwise regulate mold professionals. Despite many contractors’ claims of being licensed and certified, the bottom line is that mold services are completely unregulated in Florida at present.

Fueled by the acts of unscrupulous contractors, Florida passed legislation in 2007 to license and regulate mold professionals. Unfortunately, the new law won’t be enacted until 2010, so the mold industry will continue to be completely unregulated until then.

The legislation recognizes assessment and remediation as separate entities. Separate licenses will be issued for each profession, and each will have different experience and educational requirements. Most importantly, the legislation provides stiff penalties for those performing assessment and remediation on the same project, which can be punishable as a felony criminal offense. Additionally, provisions related to referrals, kickbacks, and other interactions between assessors and remediators are defined. The law is included under Florida FS 468. Interested parties can research the new statutes through the Florida Senate Web site at www.floridasenate.gov. Search the statutes under the keyword “mold.” (An interview about the bill’s major points can be found at www.impactvids.tv/wise.)

This legislation will address many of the problems and conflicts which exist within the mold industry and will establish minimum competency levels for practitioners of mold assessment and remediation. Mold services can be confusing and arcane to the typical individual or adjuster.

Assessment-remediation conflict is probably the most common problem resulting in fraud. Assessment reports provide the scope of work required to remediate a project. They typically contain air and surface sampling results, moisture analysis, visual observations, and other procedures. Given a lack of standards related to how remediation specifications are determined, significant subjective judgment is placed on the assessor to specify the work needed to bring buildings back to a livable condition. The type of procedures specified can include: removal of wall, floor and ceiling surfaces; replacement of air conditioning systems, cleaning of salvageable surfaces and personal property, and extensive air purification techniques as well as other procedures.
Biological test results are reported in biological particles per volume of air, or area of surface material. Be aware that these results easily can be manipulated to show worse conditions than actually exist. When testing for air sampling, an unscrupulous operator could run the sampling pump for much longer than reported to the lab. The result would be a lab report showing very high airborne spore levels. Additionally, surface samples with swabs could be touched to heavily affected areas but be represented as having come from areas which were not heavily affected. Using this data, a remediation specification could be drafted which logically would recommend an excessively large, and unnecessary, remediation project.

The unscrupulous devise many ways to put a wrench into good and fair process. For example, a pest control company that was promoting a mold control chemical (as a preventative measure in buildings) had their personnel routinely find mold in the course of pest control inspections. Then they would have a professional perform an assessment and write a remediation specification which would include treating the entire complex with their product.

Health Effects
No other area of the mold debate is quite as contentious as health effects resulting from exposure to mold. Amongst microorganisms, fungi are unique in that they form visible colonies. By contrast, the existence of tens of millions of cells of the most infectious bacteria would be completely invisible. Even on a Petri dish, bacteria are quite innocuous looking. Yet even tiny areas of visible mold growth can cause near panic reactions in building occupants.

The heart of the debate about health effects due to mold exposure is the issue of whether or not exposure to mold presents a widespread and consistent hazard to building occupants. Conditions which are favorable to mold growth (e.g. damp, wet, or unsanitary) have been shown to be conducive to disease conditions from other sources. Less well documented are specific exposure standards pertaining to individual species of mold. Fungal organisms can and do cause adverse effects to humans. Fungal infections or allergic reactions predictably can occur from certain species or groups. Studies have shown that individuals with compromised immune system function or other physiological conditions can be susceptible to common mold. Additionally, individuals exposed to constant high levels of fungal spores can have an elevated incidence of health problems.

Much of the concern about mold has led to the term “toxic mold.” While not scientific, toxic mold is used to describe the nature of some fungi to produce chemical toxins. For certain, some fungi do produce powerful toxins. The most prominent example of this is the deadly Amanita mushrooms which cause a high rate of fatality after ingestion. Some household molds, such as Stachybotrys chartarum, produce powerful toxins—this organism is fairly common and is responsible for the widespread fear over black-colored molds. For more information on toxins produced by molds, Texas Tech University has become a leader in research on the topic (www.ttuhsc.edu).
Biological Warfare & Soy Sauce
Unfortunately, simple answers about health effects do not exist. Air sampling results, which are inexact, typically identify only general biological groups and not species. For example, the groups (genera) Penicillium and Aspergillus are commonly found as natural components of interior and exterior air spaces. Species of these groups also are seen in very high levels in investigations of significant mold outbreaks in buildings. Are species of these groups hazardous? Well, some Penicillium and Aspergillus species can produce powerful toxins. Aflatoxin is extraordinarily toxic and the most powerful natural carcinogen known. Used as biological/chemical warfare agents, aflatoxin is produced by some strains of Aspergillus flavus. However, Aspergillus oryzae is used to make natural soy sauce, miso, and sake. Some species of Penicillium produce serious toxins which can render apples and apple juice poisonous. However, Penicillium roquefortii and Penicillium camenbertii are used to make bleu cheese and Camembert cheese. The blue veining in bleu cheese is actually spores of Penicillium roquefortii mold. [Hungry?]

Clearly, health effects from mold exposure are a complex issue. Cases should be evaluated on a patient by patient basis by a physician, and generalizations regarding exposure to mold should not be made. Interested parties should consult health related organizations such as the CDC (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention), National Institutes of Health, the EPA (Environmental Protection Agency), and others for the latest opinions about exposure to mold.
Jeff Deuitch is a microbiologist and owner of International Microbiology and Mold Group in Palmetto, Fla.. He can be reached at moldgroup@aol.com
About The Authors
Jeff Deuitch

Jeff Deuitch is a microbiologist and owner of International Microbiology and Mold Group in Palmetto, Fla. moldgroup@aol.com

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