Really Moldy Homes

Usually I seem to be ok in clients’ homes. Every once in a while, I’ll react to a cat. The car exhaust on the road going home seems to bother me more than the mold does. However, there are a few houses…whew. I’ll start with a story, not from a house I inspected:

Story: Potential consequences of walking around a moldy apartment without a respirator

A Florida colleague told me this story. There had been a flood in an apartment building, and no one realized that the water had extended into this other apartment. The owners of the apartment were snowbirds, i.e., spending the summer up north, so they were not in Florida at the time of the flood. The day came when their son stopped by the apartment just to do a routine check. The mess that greeted his eyes when he opened the door shocked him.

What he should have done was to leave. Close the door behind him and place a call to his parents. Anyone subsequently entering that apartment should have been wearing a respirator.

Instead, what the son did was to walk around through the apartment gauging damage here and mold growth there. As he walked, he inhaled multitudes of Aspergillus spores. He inhaled too many for his immune system to deal with. The consequence for him was a fungal infection of the lungs. From his short walk in the moldy apartment, he likely faced lifelong treatment with antifungal medication.

  • Lesson: It’s always amazed me that Stachybotrys has received all the press coverage, while Aspergillus is much more common and can create havoc in the human body. Aspergillus can prove lethal for individuals whose immune systems are compromised from organ transplants, chemotherapy, etc., or who have very delicate health. The lesson is to protect your lungs and sinuses by wearing a respirator. Prevention of a fungal infection is much easier than treating a fungal infection.

Should mold inspectors wear respirators?

I and other mold inspectors have struggled with this question. If I wear a respirator, I can’t be talking with my clients, and I’m talking with them throughout the inspection. A big part of what I do is teaching. So no, I don’t usually wear a respirator – but on the other hand, most of the houses I go into aren’t that bad compared to really, really moldy houses. If I go into a really, really moldy house, certainly I wear a respirator. The mold inspector typically would have less exposure than the remediator who is carrying out demolition.

You might ask how I judge what is a really, really moldy house. Some are easy to judge. You can smell the mold 20 feet from the front door. Or, there has been a flood, and mold is visible all over interior walls. Those are the must-wear houses for respirators. Occasionally, though, there is a sleeper house. An older man lived in one of these houses, and the house probably hadn’t been cleaned since his wife died 30 years before. I took a sample or two at ductwork, in addition to air sampling the rest of the rooms. A week later, when I saw what grew on the Petri dish from the ductwork sample, oh my…. I wished I had worn a respirator for those samples. Fortunately, years have passed, and apparently my body dealt with the spores that must have been inhaled.

I wrote up my recommendations for the house, but don’t know how much, if anything, was done. This was the house I had spoken of before, where there was a half-inch of white fuzz on the basement walls. The fuzz turned out to be just mineral deposits, and I had referred the homeowner to a basement concrete specialist for a structural assessment of the foundation. A couple of years later, I got a call from the man’s daughter, telling me that her father had passed away. She was the force behind scheduling my initial inspection, and she continued to believe that mold had played a part in his demise. She said that he had dismissed my report and there hadn’t been anything further she could do.

Some really, really moldy houses that I have seen

Four come to mind. One house had been abandoned, with a hole in the roof. The inside of the house was like having mold wallpaper. You bet I wore a respirator and goggles and a Tyvek suit there. Plus, the electricity was off, the windows boarded up, and I had to maneuver around this ghostly (and ghastly) place with a flashlight. Brrrr. I was glad to get out of there! My report called for a knockdown of the premises. I also had to write up remediation guidelines, in case the owner didn’t agree with the knockdown suggestion.

House number two was a fixer-upper, the first house just purchased by a young couple. They moved their things in and then took off on a two-week vacation. Shortly after they left, the hot water pipe in the basement burst. The house was a steam chamber until they returned.

I was called for an inspection to try to determine the extent of the damage. All the walls were toast, as were the wood floors. Unfortunately, mold was even growing in wall cavities and on the house sheathing. If it was growing on one side of the sheathing, it may have been growing on the other side under the siding. The only place I didn’t find mold was in the attic, but everything below was a loss.

Naturally, the homeowners called their homeowners insurance company, only to hear that their policy didn’t cover mold, but that the homeowners insurance would pay for repair of the burst pipe. Yikes. The house was totaled.

I didn’t hear the end of this story either, but I had referred them to a now defunct  resource to help homeowners with homeowners insurance which denied mold coverage. Who would I refer the homeowners to now? maybe an insurance adjuster? maybe an attorney?

House number three was a house on top of the hill. A mold sensitive young couple wanted to purchase this house, and they figured that a house on top of the hill would not have water intrusion or mold issues. Wrong. This house turned out to be on top of a very moldy root cellar-like crawlspace. Maybe there was a spring in the vicinity. At any rate, moisture must have migrated upward sufficiently to foster mold growth on just about everything in the house.

I started testing in the kitchen sink cabinet. The tape sample from the plumbing area was examined under the microscope and found to have high levels of Aspergillus. My first thought was that there had been a plumbing leak. Then, just out of caution, I sampled some neighboring cabinets. They were totally moldy, too. The only way that they could be moldy, unless the house had flooded, was from ambient dampness. If dampness was sufficient to cause mold growth on pressed wood cabinetry in the kitchen, then I figured I’d better go looking elsewhere. Everywhere I looked, I found mold. I found mold on furniture, on wall hangings, under base molding, in closets, on flooring and subflooring, etc. I found so much mold just working with the microscope that the couple decided against the house then and there, without any air testing done.

Not only was this a moldy house, but the single man who lived there with his collie apparently never cleaned. There was dust galore, dog hair everywhere, and on top of it, the man was a smoker. Oh my, was the air bad in that house! I felt sympathy for the dog. The man had a choice, the dog didn’t. My lungs hurt for about two hours after leaving the house. At that house I should have worn a respirator, but sometimes you don’t realize how bad things are right off.

The fourth building was actually a dormitory for nonprofit organization. This was a very long structure, with a very long and very moldy crawlspace under it. The smell of mold was bothersome in the rooms. My investigation confirmed high levels of mold in the crawlspace, although air samples in the rooms were reasonably okay. Apparently here, the gases from the mold in the crawlspace were disseminating upwards and provoking allergic and asthmatic responses in susceptible individuals.

The nonprofit organization wanted to do the right thing. The problem was that the crawlspace was huge, and professionally treating it for mold would have been way beyond what their budget could handle. We discussed options, but it was their maintenance crew that actually came up with an option that solved the issue for minimal money. Here’s what they did:

They put two exhaust fans on one of the short ends of the crawlspace and opened two events far down on the other short end of the crawlspace. These exhaust fans created cross ventilation, carrying out the mold gases. Once there were no more mold gases to permeate upstairs, the problem was solved. Ideal? Of course not, but workable and reportedly effective.

Interestingly, I had one of the worst asthmatic-like reactions I’ve ever had from being in this dormitory. I hadn’t even gone into the crawlspace, but just reached down for tape samples on nearby ceiling joists and subflooring and dropped an air sampler down to the floor. Symptoms took about two weeks to finally dissipate. One physician colleague warned me to be careful about future exposures, because if these reactions passed into hyperactive airway disease (I think that’s what she said), that can not only be hard to control but debilitating.

I’ve wondered, since the air samples in the rooms didn’t show much mold and since I was only briefly at the top of the crawlspace, whether I was reacting mostly to mold gases. I still don’t know the answer to that. I’ve been told that some creative research on health issues linked with exposure to mold gases started in the early 2000s but was curtailed when insurance companies stopped paying lab fees. Lab fees to study gases might be 10 times more than lab fees to count spores in the air. So, although it is well-established that gases are biologically active and troublesome to many individuals, there is not much published in this area of mold studies.

Gases, incidentally, are not removed by room air purifiers with HEPA filters. You have to have a filter with a lot of carbon to remove mold gases. The problem is that mold grows in carbon, as do bacteria. Your room air purifier can get contaminated if run in a moldy area and start to discharge mold spores in gases into room air.

So there were 4 buildings where respirators should have been worn – one building with flooding, one with a persistent leak, one with ambient dampness, lack of cleaning, dog’s hair, and tobacco smoke, and one with mold gases. P100 or N95 respirators would be fine for removal of mold particulates. To remove mold gases, a cartridge for organic vapors would have to be added.

A warning

With many mold situations, the mold is hidden. Air samples and even DNA-level testing would not show elevated levels of mold, even though the gases from the mold could be permeating room air.

Walls or ceilings may have to be taken down during remediation. Once demolition starts, the picture changes abruptly. Very high levels of mold particulates would be released to room air. If these particulates are not confined and removed, they can spread throughout the house – turning a good house with a mold issue into a house with high levels of mold in air test results. I wouldn’t hesitate to go into a house before demolition, but if improper or careless demolition is done…then that is an environment where a respirator should be used.