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Mold: When Is Enough, Enough?

September 19, 2010
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If you are in the cleaning and building maintenance field, you have, at some point, seen mold growth large enough to trigger concern or even fear.

There is no middle of the road here.

You are either a believer in the "killer mold" or a naysayer who could care less.

There is precious little reasoning and commonsense when it comes to mold contamination in occupied areas of a structure.

Decisions, Decisions

This polarization not only hurts the industry, but it also costs tens of thousands of Americans who suffer from either decision.

Believers will pay for more services than they actually need, while naysayers could cause themselves or others to suffer needless illnesses.

In your business, being smart means understanding the challenge of dealing with mold contamination in your area of responsibility.

A mistake here could cost you plenty.

Personal injury lawsuits are becoming more prevalent as employees hear more and more about negative health effects from exposure to mold.

Closer Look At Mold

There are more than 100,000 unique types of molds in the fungal kingdom, but only a couple dozen are most prevalent.

Closely related to mushrooms and yeasts, molds can be beneficial.

However, the human experience with mold usually results in a negative reaction.

This is because all mold is allergenic.

Some mold also produces toxins, and a few are even infectious.

The problem is that exposure limits cannot be established because there are so many variables.

Like fingerprints, everyone''s immune system is unique.

What causes one person to sneeze may not affect someone else.

Likewise, contact with a toxic or infectious strain of mold by an immune-compromised person could actually result in death.

When Is It Too Much?

Since there is always some amount of mold in the air we breathe, both indoors and out, it boils down to how much mold is present compared to normal and what kind of mold is it.

Obviously, a wall completely inundated with black mold growth would likely be too much to ignore.

But what about smaller areas? Is what we are seeing all that there is? Or is much more lurking within the walls?

There are several credible documents now published that provide guidance for properly remediating mold.

Although each has a slightly different take, most agree that mold is often problematic and should be dealt with properly.

One source recommends that property maintenance staff — with mold awareness training — turn all contamination sites larger than 10 square feet over to a professional mold remediator.

Another document states that even one square foot of heavy contamination can be very dangerous to a person with a weak immune system.

Some experts, including myself, agree with the latter.

As an option, use a "dinner plate size" analogy and then follow that advice with the question, "Where is it?"

If it''s in an attic, fix the roof and wipe off the mold.

Put that same 12-inch colony of mold on the wall in a hospital''s pediatric ward and I would prescribe a dramatically different protocol.

You get the picture.

Act Accordingly

Take a mold problem seriously, but don''t overreact.

Rumors only make matters worse.

If the mold growth in an occupied area is small, you know the reason it''s there and feel confident you can take care of it, then do it.

Don''t make a bigger deal out of it than it is.

However, if you''re just not sure, get a supervisor involved and make the decision whether or not to have it looked at by a professional.

From a liability standpoint, there are lots of things that can go wrong if you don''t know what you are doing … especially when you peel some paneling back and find a lot more contamination than you first thought.

If you do decide to tackle the job, there are four very important steps you need to remember.

  • Stop the source of the moisture. Mold needs water to grow. Repair all slow leaks, drips and condensate overflows or burst pipes, and if you don''t see visible mold, thoroughly dry the area.

  • Contain the area to avoid cross contamination and wear protective gear such as respirators, suits, gloves, etc. Once you disturb the mold in any way, millions of spores are released into the air. Seal off the area with poly sheeting, cover HVAC registers and set up exhaust air from this space to the outdoors.

  • Remove non-structural contaminated organic materials, such as drywall, carpeting, cardboard and cabinetry. Use a HEPA vacuum to tend to the affected area both before and after removing contaminated materials. Work slowly and carefully, capturing debris in a heavy poly bag right at the source.

  • Clean the remaining framing well by scrubbing with detergent and hot water and dry it thoroughly.

Coatings and disinfectants can be applied prior to reconstruction to help inhibit future growth, but often are not necessary.

Things To Not Do

There are some things that you shouldn''t attempt or practice when dealing with mold.

For instance, end users should not "spray" something on it.

The air pressure "front" will fill the room with spores.

Also, do not use bleach on it.

Bleach is the last product some experts, including myself, would choose for mold; its use can be dangerous.

Here are some other things you should not do:

  • Try to paint over it without complete removal. It will just come right through the paint
  • Blow air on or around the mold growth
  • Use anything other than a HEPA-filtered vacuum cleaner to clean it up
  • Attempt clean up without personal protective equipment.

During the work, airborne mold spores will amplify dramatically.

You must protect yourself, your co-workers and other occupants from exposure and avoid needless contamination of unaffected areas.

It Is Simple … Get Rid Of The Moisture

Keep a sharp eye out for damp areas.

Leaky pipes and drain pans or toilet overflows are obvious culprits, but even beverage spills on the carpeting can cause mold to grow.

When checking for leaks and wet materials, an inexpensive pin probe or penetrating moisture detector is a handy tool to have around.

Additionally, the internet is a fairly good place to start if you stick to the government sites.

For accurate and comprehensive information, the ANSI/IICRC S520 is now the gold standard for professional mold remediation.

If you know how to prevent, identify and take care of mold, you''ll be able to negotiate for proper procedures without being overcharged when you do have to call in the pros.


Jim Pearson is the president and CEO of Americlean, and has operated this full-service restoration business in Billings, Montana, for nearly 30 years. He is a certified mechanical hygienist specializing in indoor air quality (IAQ) issues and is currently the chairman of the IICRC S520 standard writing consensus body.

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