Being in the environmental consulting field, we encounter all sorts of situations and all types of people. We regularly work with homeowners who believe they may have a problem and help them to set forth a course of action when issues are found, we assist people after cleanup projects have occurred in verifying that work was performed correctly, we work on behalf of property owners to ensure their tenants environments are safe, and we oftentimes are called in by the tenants themselves who believe they are at risk due to mold and moisture issues that are not being properly addressed by the property owner. Regardless of who our client is in any of these situations, we follow the same guidelines and provide recommendations in an unbiased manner.
In certain cases, we are lucky enough to actually be a part of bettering people’s lives, and I can tell you those are the projects that we appreciate the most. We have encountered people and situations that when all is said and done, we can go home happy with our head held high knowing that we did something good.
When I think back over all of the thousands of people we have worked with over the years, one story always comes to mind that puts a smile on my face, and I wanted to share that with all of you. This one happens to come from a renter’s point of view.
We were originally contacted by the mother of a renter. Her son was an aspiring college student who was living in a student rental home. Unfortunately, he had been dealing with pretty significant health issues that his doctors were having a hard time pinpointing the source of. Eventually, the idea of potential mold exposure was brought to the table, and some advanced testing confirmed that he was being exposed to mold, and the first question that typically comes up in these situations is what are the living conditions like. Apparently there were a lot of known moisture issues in his rental home that were not being addressed properly by the landlord, so it appeared that was a potential source of the mold exposure.
The mother then made many attempts with the landlord and eventually the associated city inspectors to have the home properly assessed and any potential issues resolved. But, as we hear from many of our clients, she was told that her concerns were not justified and that the home appeared to be safe.
Frustrated, the Mother in our story continued her pursuit of addressing the problem, and decided that having an independent assessment of the home performed on her behalf was her next best option which is obviously where we come in. She hired us to perform a detailed mold inspection and testing of home, and through our methods we were able to confirm that there was in fact a mold problem within the home where her son was spending large amounts of time. Additionally, at the request of her son’s doctors we performed highly specialized DNA based method testing within the home which was able to definitively link the mold within the home to the son’s specific mold exposure.
With this new proof in hand, our client was able to remove her son from the unsafe environment without fear of penalty and get him on track with getting healthy. But, our mother wasn’t done there. She also used the information to prove that the home was in need of professional cleaning and as a result actions were reportedly taken which prevented any other students from going through what her son had to.
Often times we don’t hear back from our clients once we assist them in identifying mold and moisture problems and the issues are addressed. In this case though, our client ended up reaching out to us months after the fact. She went out of her way just to thank us for the help we provided, and she also wanted to tell us that her son was on a steady track to recovery and was doing very well. She actually gave us proof of our goal with all of our clients, which is making a difference through ethically sound business practices.
I wanted to start our series by discussing the different ways in which homes and businesses were affected by the moisture. A lot of situations were unique, but I think we can summarize them into three main categories, the first being rainwater:
Many structures were affected by the rainwater directly. What I mean by that is the actual water falling from the sky. From September 9th through September 16th, 17.15 inches of rain fell in the Boulder area, over 9 inches of that total was on Thursday, September 12th alone. We saw a lot of homes that were affected by roof leaks, leaks at doors and windows, and water intrusion issues at siding and wall coverings. Many of these homes had never had a previous issue, but with the amount of water that fell in such a short amount of time overwhelmed some systems. We also saw similar conditions in homes where there may have been a very small issue prior to the storm, but had not yet become readily visible or known. But once the rains came, it quickly became apparent.
Be sure to check back in for the next entry in which we will discuss how groundwater seepage affected many homes.
In early September of 2013, Colorado was struck by intense rains and flooding. It was a once in a lifetime event (or at least we hope) for most of us who were present and witnessed the events first hand. The National Weather Service sure seems to think so, calling the storm a once-in-a-millennium event. Rains fell almost continuously from September 9th to September 15th, and as a result natural waterways and manmade water control systems were overwhelmed, causing widespread damage. Many parts of the state were affected in varying degrees, but perhaps the most densely populated area affected, and therefore one of the hardest hit was Boulder County, CO.
Boulder just happens to be one of the locations where Mold Inspection Sciences has called home for many years, where I work as one of the Lead Project Managers. The company has been around since 2002, and has been serving the Boulder community for a large part of that time. The owner is actually a current resident of Boulder and graduate of CU. We specialize in coming in as an independent, 3rd party consultant in situations where water and/or mold have impacted homes and businesses. It is our goal to identify if problems exist, if so what caused them, provide proper cleaning and restoration recommendations to address the issues, and then ensure that any necessary cleanup work was performed properly. So, when the September disaster occurred, we were here to help as many CO residents as we could. Because we were on the front lines, we saw the different ways in which people’s home were affected by the moisture, how people dealt with the issues they were confronted with, and what people can expect to see in the long run in regards to homes that were previously affected.
Please stay tuned for the next part in the series in which we will start discussing the different ways in which homes and businesses were affected by the moisture.
A complete mold investigation typically consists of two parts, 1) the physical investigation and 2) the collection of microbial samples (mold sampling). The physical investigation should be performed by a certified microbial investigator who not only takes into account the visual evidence but also uses specialized moisture detection equipment in an effort to understand conditions throughout the home. Then, based on the findings of the physical inspection, microbial samples are collected and analyzed. The samples aid in determining if hidden mold sources exist, determining the extent of contamination, and definitively showing what types of molds are impacting a home.
There are many different types of microbial samples that can be collected, but the most helpful and commonly used are surface sampling, ambient air sampling and wall cavity sampling. Appropriate samples are recommended and collected based on the physical conditions found during the inspection, and are then sent to a certified laboratory to be analyzed.
Surface Sampling – Surface sampling is useful first off to positively identify suspect materials as mold. Mold’s appearance can be similar to common household materials such as lint, dirt and staining, therefore positively identifying suspect materials is important. Additionally, surface sampling will determine the type(s) of mold that are present. For the most part, any mold growth within a home is a bad thing. However, there are certain types of molds (under certain physical conditions and when caused by certain sources of moisture) that do not require professional remediation (removal) and can be dealt with through normal housecleaning techniques. So when you consider that having a surface sample could mean the difference between spending thousands of dollars on remediation, or instead just pulling out a washcloth and getting a little dirty, a single surface sample starts to make a lot of sense. Surface samples are collected in one of three ways:
1) Swab Sample –Swab sample media is in simple terms a sanitary Q-Tip. It is a rod that has a cotton-like media on the end of it. The media is rolled or pushed into the suspect material and the porous nature of the media collects the suspect material. This is then placed in a sealed container with a specialized fluid inside to preserve the sample.
2) Tape Lift Sample – Tape lift samples are pretty much what they sound like. It is a plastic or glass clear slide that has an adhesive on one side of it. This is placed on the suspect material and it is captured in a mirror image of its natural state. This is then placed in a closed case for protection.
3) Bulk Sample – Bulk sampling is actually the preferred method of surface sampling, but is not always feasible. Bulk sampling is where an actual piece of the impacted material is removed and used for the analysis. It is preferred because the suspect material is undisturbed from its natural state on its growth media and as a result provides the most accurate findings. It is not always feasible though because in some cases it may mean the removal or demolition of finished building materials such as drywall or baseboards for example.
Ambient Air Sampling – Air sampling is utilized in many different scenarios. It identifies the presence, types and quantities of airborne mold spores in the area where it was collected. This is done by pulling a metered amount of air through a spore trap, which will collect any particulate within the air including microscopic mold spores. All indoor samples are compared to an outdoor control or baseline sample to determine if the indoor conditions are excessive or “elevated”. This sampling method is useful in determining the overall air quality in a space specific to mold spores, determining the overall extent of contamination in an impacted space, and is also used as an indicator to help determine if hidden mold sources are present.
Wall Cavity Sampling – Wall cavity sampling is useful in determining if hidden mold sources exist within inaccessible spaces of home such as within walls or ceiling cavities. It is collected using the same methods of an ambient air sample, but only air from within the cavity in question is pulled through the spore trap. This is done by making a small hole in the wall (usually about 3/8”), inserting a sanitary wall cavity tube into the hole, and then connecting the other end of this to the spore trap. After the collection the sample is analyzed to determine the spore types and quantities that are present within the cavity. This can be a useful indicator as to whether hidden mold sources are present within a cavity. However, a wall cavity sample is not always feasible. For example: an exterior wall with insulation inside of the cavity is not an ideal location for a wall cavity sample because the insulation fibers can cloud the sample and may make it unusable.
Mold sampling is an important part of performing a mold inspection of a property. However, sampling is not a tell all. Mold sampling should always be done in combination with a thorough physical inspection of the property in an effort to avoid false positives and/or false negatives. Additionally, both the inspection and the sampling should only be performed by a certified, professional microbial investigator. A good investigator will be certified to perform mold investigations and collect microbial samples, be able to think outside of the box and be diligent in examining specialty situations, and have background knowledge in areas like construction, water restoration, mold remediation and indoor air quality.
Unfortunately, there are a lot of “Scare Tactics” used within the microbial investigation and mold remediation industry. As with any industry, there are always going to be people out there who try and scare people into using their services. They may do so by embellishing facts, giving misinformation or by simply telling you things that are completely untrue. I want to give you, the consumer, a couple tips for what to watch out for if you are ever in a situation of having to enlist services within the microbial and mold remediation industry.
1) Pay close attention to each company’s website. Most companies have a website nowadays, and that can give you a good insight as to what type of company you will end up dealing with. Some companies websites are littered with misinformation and pictures geared towards scaring you into using their services. I have seen websites with embellished pictures of microscopic mold spores, but in reality just about anything looks scary when you magnify it 500 times. Also, if anywhere on their website you see the terms “Black Mold” or “Toxic Mold”, consider that a big red flag. Those terms were created by the media, and it wasn’t for their feel-good story of the evening if you know what I mean. It was to create interest as a result of fear. After all, who isn’t afraid of the term “toxic”? You don’t hear many stories that start with toxic and end with a smile. You may also want to avoid companies that over emphasize the potential health effects of mold on people. Although it is good to be informed of potential signs of mold exposure and basic information regarding health, if a company’s main content of their website is to make you believe that you are definitely going to get sick after being around mold, it is probably another thing to be cautious of. And lastly, if somehow you have come across a company that does not even have a website, approach them with caution. If a company is not willing to provide basic information about them including their contact info, certification and affiliation information and a basic company profile it may be for good reason. They may be attempting to fly under the radar, or be quite new to the industry and have not yet put any effort into a website. I don’t know about you, but I don’t think I would trust a mold problem to the new guys on the block.
2) Be wary of remediation companies that do their own testing. Within our industry it is a direct conflict of interest for a remediation company to perform their own testing. A large majority of the public has never dealt with a mold problem, or had to interpret a laboratory analysis of microbial samples. Therefore, it could be somewhat easy for a remediation company to embellish sample results. It is not uncommon to hear about a remediation company coming into a home and pulling some microbial samples, and upon receiving the results inform the client that the home is completely contaminated and they must vacate immediately or pay for expensive remediation. I had a client once tell me that a remediation company told her that she was being a bad mother because she was allowing her family to live in a mold infested home. And that was based on a visual inspection alone. Upon further investigation by an independent third party microbial investigator it was revealed that yes, they had a minimal mold problem but it was far less intense than the remediation company would have had her believe. You have to remember that a remediation company makes money off of cleaning up mold. Therefore, the more they have to clean or the larger the project, the more potential money they will make. So avoid being scared into expensive work that may not be needed and have an independent party look at the situation.
3) If you are ever in the middle of a microbial investigation and the inspector or contractor attempts to tell you what type of mold is present just by looking at it, be very cautious. I have heard multiple stories about contractors or inspectors coming in to look at a mold problem and attempting to identify what type of molds are present just by looking at it. Unfortunately, this is just not possible. There are literally tens of thousands of types of molds, many of them grow to be similar colors and textures and may display consistent growth patterns. The reality of it is, the only way to determine what type of mold is present is to analyze the growth under a high powered microscope, and this should only be done by a mycologist or technician within a laboratory setting. We hear about these tactics not only being used to scare people into remediation work that is not necessary, but also to deter people that really have a problem from realizing it. For example, it is not uncommon for people in rental situations to be informed by maintenance personal that whatever microbial growth they have in their apartment or home is not the “bad kind”, or not toxic. I guess we would call this scenario an “Anti-Scare Tactic”. But again, the only way to know is to have microbial samples collected and properly analyzed. So unless the person you are dealing with just so happens to have microscopes for eyes, which would actually be pretty cool, watch out for this one.
If you really believe that you may have a mold problem, it is important to know that whomever you turn to for advice has your best interest in mind. The safest way to ensure this is to make sure that you always deal with an independent third party that has nothing to gain from finding a problem. You should also do all you can to research any companies that you may be considering using. Make sure they are a legitimate company, they are properly certified and they should have a positive track record through organizations such as the Better Business Bureau. You may be surprised what you find after doing a little investigation, for better or for worse.
The Basics of Mold Remediation – Part III of III – Final Cleaning of the Containment and Affected Areas
See my posts “The Basics of Mold Remediation – Part I of III – Containment of the Affected Area” as well as “The Basics of Mold Remediation – Part II of III – Gross Removal of Mold Growth and Impacted Materials” for background information important for understanding this part of the mold remediation process. At this point in our process, the mold impacted area has been isolated from all non-affected adjacent living spaces. This was accomplished by establishing containment of the area, which included the installation of HEPA Filtered Negative Air machines and installation of physical barriers which, in turn, would have created a negative pressure environment. Gross removal of all impacted non-structural materials would have occurred as well as the removal and cleaning of mold growth from all of the structural materials. The next step is to perform the final clean of the work area.
Part III of III – Final cleaning of the containment and affected areas.
Now that the nitty gritty portion of the removal has been accomplished, the work area has typically seen a fair share of debris. Not only does the removal of building materials create lots of dust and debris, but the disturbance and removal of the mold source itself typically creates very large quantities of microscopic mold spores. So, how do we make sure we account for all of those spores that we can’t even see with our naked eye? Well, the simple answer is by cleaning everything, and doing it very well. That means every crack, crevice, cavity, ceiling, wall, floor and the air itself must be cleaned.
The first step in the final cleaning is typically a complete HEPA vacuuming of the entire space. Every surface within the containment area will be HEPA vacuumed to gather any dust, debris, and yes, lots and lots of mold spores. The vacuums used are not the typical vacuum you can find at the hardware store, but specialized HEPA vacuums that prevent those microscopic spores that are being sucked up from being re-distributed throughout the space.
Once the area has been HEPA vacuumed, the remediation contractor will typically perform a wet wipe of the area at this time. They will use a cloth that is wetted with some sort of antimicrobial agent or cleaner, and every hard surface will be wiped down. The rags are kept wet not only to aid in the cleaning process, but to help in picking up mold spores and preventing them from becoming airborne.
At this point, some remediation contractors may choose to repeat the previous two steps, and HEPA vacuum the entire space as well as do another wet wipe to ensure that every surface has been accounted for. And after all, it’s better to be safe than to be sorry, or at least that’s what they say.
During all of the previous cleaning efforts, the HEPA filtered negative air machines have been running the entire time. As a result, airborne mold spores have been pulled out of the air and into the filtration device. As the cleaning has become more and more detailed, the airborne mold spore quantities should have been continually getting smaller. Unfortunately though, the quantities of airborne mold spores at this time will typically still be in excess of actual clearance standards. So, at this time the negative air machines are swapped out for HEPA filtered air scrubbers. Instead of air continually being drawn out of the space and as result unconditioned air being drawn into it, the air within the space will now be recycled through the HEPA filtered air scrubbers. As the air is continually pulled through the HEPA filters over and over again, it will become “cleaner” as more and more of those microscopic mold spores are trapped within the HEPA filter. This process is usually continued for a minimum of 24 hrs, and depending on the amount of contamination in the space may go on for multiple days.
At this point, the remediation project has come a long way. We have gone from a mold contaminated area, to what we hope is considered to be a “normal” living space. But, to truly verify whether the space has been returned to normal a Post Remediation Verification Inspection should be performed. This should be performed by an independent mold inspector who has no financial ties with the remediation contractor. They will perform a visual inspection of the space to ensure that all of the impacted materials have been removed and/or cleaned, test the moisture content of the building materials to ensure that everything has been adequately dried, and ensure that the area has been properly cleaned. If the visual inspection is adequate, then they will perform ambient air sampling of the work space. This will test for the presence, types and quantities of mold spores within the space and will be compared to an outdoor sample taken at the same place and time. If the sample is within clearance standards, the project will be considered successful, and the mold remediation project complete. All that is left at this point is reconstruction of the space to return it to a normal living space. After all that we have gone through, that should be a walk in the park…