Monthly Archives: May 2012

Autoimmune Disease and the Built Environment

Craig Whittaker founded Environmental Solutions Group in 2002 to provide impartial evaluation of properties relative to environmental health. A doctoral member of the American Academy of Environmental Medicine, he is frequently asked to speak on the topic of unsuspected toxins in the home, he has conducted hundreds of assessments in a wide variety of building types.

Environmental professionals should be taking note of a relatively new area of medical science – autoimmune disease. This condition occurs when the body’s immune system responds against substances and tissues that are normally present as if they were a pathogen or invader. The treatment of the wide variety of autoimmune diseases is typically through immunosuppression, or medication that decreases immune response.

Readers who have been diagnosed with autoimmune disease and their medical practitioners may also be interested in environmental testing that is becoming more widely available. We have found that our office gets more calls each year from individuals whose physicians have suggested getting their house assessed for an environmental pathogen or toxin. Perhaps it’s due to the popularity of television’s ‘House’ series, or maybe environmental illness is being taught in medical school and at conferences. The reason is not what’s important – it’s the resulting thought and action that could lead to a clue that may help someone who struggles with a debilitating disease.

I have been encouraged by others who practice environmental science and have noticed a similar trend – physicians and environmental practitioners working together to help people who suffer from often-unexplained illness. Carl Grimes has written about this in Indoor Environment Connections a few times, and I pay close attention to Carl as he has a keen understanding of the relationship between buildings and health. On one hand, the environmental investigator is not a medical professional and cannot diagnose. On the other hand, the medical professional is not trained to assess buildings for microbial and chemical pathogens or toxins. Both sides need to understand the capabilities of the other and communicate their findings in a way that can assist the patient.

Autoimmune disease is extremely complex, but so is the relationship between the thousands of chemicals we (often unknowingly) bring into our homes. Add moisture from a water leak or high humidity and the chemicals change. Your home and bodies living in it become a chemistry experiment that sometimes goes wrong.

I am not suggesting that autoimmune disease can be eradicated through environmental assessments and improvements. I do believe, however, that some people can be helped through the knowledge that can come from a basic health hazards screen of the home and/or workplace.

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In Support of Sampling for Mold

Craig Whittaker founded Environmental Solutions Group in 2002 to provide impartial evaluation of properties relative to environmental health. As a Certified Indoor Environmentalist, he has conducted hundreds of environmental assessments in buildings ranging from apartment units to medical buildings to military installations. 

I frequently read that it is not necessary to collect surface or air samples for analysis of mold spores when conducting an air quality assessment. The justification seems reasonable: if mold is visible, just clean it up or replace the item on which it’s growing. If mold is not visible, it’s probably not present and testing with lab analysis of samples is a waste of resources.

Consider argument #1- “if mold is visible, just clean it up”. The problem is that many property owners have paid hundreds, thousands and even 10s of thousands of dollars cleaning up something that was not mold. One of our investigators was in a house this week where a contractor calling himself a mold remediator quoted the female owner $1300 to remove the ‘toxic mold’ from her crawl space. This fee did not include the cost to replace all the floor insulation. It turns out that the staining on the wood wasn’t mold at all, but insect feces. Even if the homeowner decided to have the stuff cleaned up, it would have cost a fraction of the fee quoted and she would not have to replace the insulation. Here’s the interesting part of the story – the contractor told the homeowner that he knew mold when he saw it and testing was a waste of money. Wrong. Believing nonsense from a contractor who is about to charge a fortune is a waste of money. Thankfully, the homeowner called for a 2nd opinion from a reputable firm that did not perform remediation.

How about argument #2 – “I don’t see anything, so there’s no need to do testing”. I wish I had a nickel for every time an insurance adjustor, landlord, builder, or family friend told one of our clients that testing was not necessary. This argument is even easier to dismiss than the first one. Fact: mold spores are too small to be seen without a microscope. When you see green, white or dark fuzzy stuff growing inside your house or office, you are seeing the mold colony, which contains millions of sprouted spores. Another reason you may not see the mold is simply because it’s not growing where you can see it! Mold likes dark, damp places  – places like wall cavities, crawl spaces, and underneath furniture, carpet and hardwood flooring. Testing air quality in a suspicious area can often identify an issue that needs to be tested in a lab, especially if someone’s health is being affected.

I want to be clear that taking samples to a lab for analysis is not always necessary, especially if the investigator knows how to properly assess a building for moisture damage. There are tools the experienced professional can use to measure moisture levels and air quality to help determine if a mold issue is likely. Collecting samples for a lab to analyze may prove that a mold issue does not exist or show that mold is present at an abnormal level. Either way, the result is very important information that could have a significant bearing on the next step.