Tag Archives: mold

Mold in a Crawl Space

This is a slightly revised re-post from our very popular June 2012 blog about mold in crawl spaces.

Summer is almost here, and with the warm temperatures comes more homeowner activity in the yard. A few will even open the door to their crawl space and peak inside. What happens if you find a bunch of mold that seems to be growing on the wooden floor joists under your house?

First, understand that a few different kinds of things that look like mold can also stick to joists. Second, understand that some mold on the wood under your house is normal and to be expected, especially if your crawl space is an ‘open’ design with foundation vents that allow outdoor air into the space. Some mold under the house may be defined as ‘normal fungal ecology’, especially in the southeastern U.S.

If you are reasonably sure that your floor system has mold on it and want to know if something needs to be addressed, you may want to consult with an expert, or be prepared to buy a few measurement tools and learn how to use them. An expert is best defined in this case as someone who can assess the crawl space without bias (i.e., they do not sell sealed crawl systems or perform mold remediation).

The optimal time of year for an expert opinion of a crawl is during summer months. This allows the expert to view the crawl when mold is most active, outdoor humidity levels are up and when the house is using air-conditioning.
Here are the steps your expert should take:

  1. While wearing protective gear, crawl through the entire underside of the house and document conditions with photos of the vapor barrier, foundation walls, floor insulation, joists/sub-floor, and any mechanical equipment (especially air handler & ductwork;
  2. Collect wood moisture measurements of several joists and the sub-floor, especially near plumbing penetrations and near the foundation if moisture is observed;
  3. Check the vapor barrier for tears or gaps that could allow soil moisture to evaporate onto the floor system;
  4. Measure soil moisture content if it appears to be damp. Note if all the soil is damp or just certain areas;
  5. Note any strong musty odor. A crawl space should smell earthy, not musty;
  6. Note any debris such as old pipes, insulation or ductwork lying on the floor. These should be cleaned out;
  7. Warn the homeowner of the danger of storing gasoline-powered yard tools under the house, especially if they are near a gas-fired furnace (we have seen this hazard all too often);
  8. Observe the level of air movement through the crawl space. We often find a ‘dead zone’ near the center of larger crawls, which is usually home to more than the typical amount of fungal growth.

Your expert should be able to provide a report that includes a list of observations & recommendations. Here comes the tricky part – how do you know if the mold in the crawl space is at a normal level and is unlikely to harm the family living in the house?

This is where experience plays a large role. Someone who is new to crawl space inspections may miss something important, make a big deal out of something insignificant, or not know how to communicate their findings very well. Other variables that come into play are the tightness of the duct system under the house, the number of occupants who are sensitized to mold and  claim to be experiencing health effects, and the air quality inside the home. It is important to understand that bacteria or mold in a crawl space will find their way into a house through gaps in the floor system and HVAC components and on thermal air currents that naturally travel upward from the crawl to the attic. An expert should be able to measure the likely impact of mold on your indoor environment or be able to direct you to someone who can.

A final note about the collection of samples from suspect mold in the crawl space. It is not always necessary to know the exact level or species of mold (information lab analysis will provide), however, sample collection is often useful, especially if someone in the home suspects a health issue that could be related. Ask your expert to explain their sampling method and what information they hope to gain by sending a sample into a lab for analysis. An experienced individual will be able to clearly explain why sampling is necessary and how it will guide the process of determining if the crawl space has a normal fungal ecology.

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Mold in the Closet

Mold in a closet

Visible mold near the base of a closet wall

Have you ever opened a closet door to be welcomed by a stale or musty odor? Maybe you have found some spots growing on leather shoes or a jacket that have been stored in the closet for a while. Worse yet – you’ve seen some dark spots on the painted walls or ceiling of the closet.

Our office receives lots of calls each year from people who believe they have a mold issue in a closet. Unfortunately, the caller is usually correct as once we are on site, the problem is very real. Whether on personal goods or walls, it is not acceptable for mold to grow in a closet or anywhere else indoors.

There are several reasons why mold likes to take up residence in closets. First, these are often dark, cool spaces with little air movement. Add a damp coat, pair of sneakers, a wet umbrella or an exterior wall and mold will seize the opportunity to grow. Many closets are repositories for the ‘stuff’ we don’t want others to see, and some are literally stuffed to capacity with clothes, games, luggage, old shoes, gym bags, you name it. Think of stuffed closets as huge petri dishes for mold and bacteria to thrive.

What can you do to prevent mold in a closet? You guessed it! Avoid the urge to stuff the closet to capacity. Keep the closet door open as much as possible so air can flow in and out. Make sure items are dry before you put them in the closet.

What if you already have mold on your stuff? Chances are some of your goods can be cleaned and used without a safety issue. If you have a mold allergy, it may be best to replace items that have become moldy, especially soft goods such as clothing and shoes. Consult with a professional if you are not sure how to handle your moldy stuff.

If the closet walls have visible mold on them, you will want to verify that there are no plumbing leaks. If you’re confident that nothing is leaking, you should carefully remove everything from the closet and place items in airtight containers. If the mold is thick and/or covers a fair amount of drywall, you should consider having the drywall replaced. It’s best to avoid cleaning and painting over drywall where mold has grown.

If your closet is on an exterior wall, controlling dampness becomes more of a challenge. It may be necessary to use a dessicant or dehumidifier to keep dampness in control.

When Do I Need an Indoor Environmental Professional?

Perhaps you’ve had a pipe break or a roof leak, or maybe have noticed something that looks like mold growing on your basement furniture. The next step is often an important one in determining the outcome of your moisture issue. Most of the time, a property owner will contact their insurance carrier, who will typically arrange for an adjustor to visit the property. The adjustor will usually be making a decision as to the validity of a claim to be covered under the property’s insurance policy.

From there, you may be advised to contact a moisture or mold mitigation contractor. This is where the process can become a challenge. First, it is important to know that, as the property owner, you have the right to use the contractor of your choice. You do not have to work with a contractor recommended (or seemingly required) by the adjustor. Second, the contractors may offer up vastly different opinions on what needs to occur and the cost to follow their opinion. If your property claim has been approved by the insurance company, the latter may not seem to matter but my advice is that you consider the quotes as if you were going to be paying for them out of pocket.

What happens if your claim is denied or you don’t involve an insurance company for some reason. You may be tempted to opt for a ‘free’ assessment from a contractor. While this is not a bad idea, keep in mind that the contractor is providing a no-cost assessment with the goal of selling you one of their services, many of which are costly.

This is one of the times when an independent assessment from an Indoor Environmental Professional (IEP) can be very important. I like to explain that an independent assessment will keep the contractor honest….not that they are not honest, but it’s like having a mechanic not associated with the car dealer there to advise you when being told by the dealer that you need a new transmission. While the dealer may be providing good advice, it provides peace of mind to know that you really need to spend thousands of dollars on your vehicle.

An important point to remember is that no fewer than 30% of people who contact our office for a mold assessment end up needing to hire a mold contractor. We have saved property owners a lot of money when there is a simple and inexpensive solution to their issue. While there is no substitute for a quality mold mitigation contractor when one is required, the independent IEP will guide you so that your resources are used in the best way possible.

One last word of advice – be sure your IEP is truly independent with no ties to the contractor(s) they recommend.

Having a water loss or mold problem is enough of a challenge for any property owner. The suggestions above will hopefully help you understand the process of getting your issue resolved in an affordable and safe manner.

Can Mold Cause Cancer?

Craig Whittaker headshot smallCraig 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 about toxins in the home and has conducted hundreds of assessments in a wide variety of building types.

Our environmental investigators are in hundreds of residences and commercial buildings every year. Years ago, the most common question we were asked was, “Do I have black mold?” Over time, the issue of black mold has calmed down some, however, a new question has entered the minds of our clients: “Can mold cause cancer?”

The short answer is yes. Researchers have known for decades that the aflatoxin present in some species of mold can cause liver cancer when ingested on food. As a result, many crops are sprayed with fungicides to help reduce fungal growth. In this country, the FDA regulates the level of mold in grains such as corn.

This is not necessarily the answer our client is looking for. They want to know if having mold in their home or office could make someone they care about develop cancer. As most people are not going to eat a helping of moldy food, what they are really concerned about is being exposed through the air.

While research is ongoing about the role of mycotoxins from mold and their relation to human illness, the medical community has established that exposure to damp buildings and/or mold causes systemic  inflammation in some people due to repeated activation of immune cells. Dr. Claudia Miller, M.D., and          professor at the University of Texas School of Medicine, has even introduced a term to describe what occurs: TILT, for “toxicant induced loss of tolerance”. The phrase ‘loss of tolerance’ is intended to avoid  confusion with ‘sensitivity’ or ‘sensitization’, terms used by allergists to describe well-defined immune          responses. Loss of tolerance is described as a loss of natural tolerance to low levels of environmental  chemicals from contaminants including mold.

To make the inflammation and cancer connection, one only needs to consult the medical literature. One example is found in Dr. Harold Dvorak’s article, “Tumors: Wounds That Do Not Heal”, published in 1986 in the New England Journal of Medicine. Dvorak, a professor of pathology at Harvard Medical School, was one of the first modern physicians to present compelling evidence linking chronic inflammation to the manufacture of cancerous growths. Twenty years after Dvorak’s article was published, the National Cancer Institute reported that cancer cells need to produce inflammation in order to create the blood          supply vital to their growth. If inflammation already exists, the cancer cells will use the chemicals produced by the inflammation to spread and reproduce.

The feeling of helplessness that often grips the occupants of a moldy property can provide  additional assistance to cancer cells. In his bestselling book, Anticancer, a New Way of Life, Dr. David Servan-Schreiber addresses helplessness and its effect on cancerous tumor when he states, “It is now          known that feelings of helplessness can cause the release of hormones that activate the body’s emergency systems – such as the inflammatory response – which can facilitate the growth and spread of tumors.”

It makes sense to follow the EPA’s suggestion and eliminate mold growth from inside a building, especially if you have a concern about cancer.

Landlords and Tenants – Tips for When Indoor Air Quality is an Issue (Part 2)

Craig Whittaker founded Environmental Solutions Group to help property owners more appropriately contend with environmental health and safety issues. ESG has helped dozens of landlords and tenants sort through air quality issues and reach a fair conclusion.

Our office fields several calls each month from either a landlord or tenant concerning the air quality in a rental unit.  We tend to get more calls from tenants than from landlords, usually due to a child being sick most of the time or visible mold on tile grout or window sills.

The landlord/tenant challenge is often more of a battle as both sides believe they are right.  Here are a few suggestions for landlords when there is an issue. We covered tips for tenants in a previous post.

Tenants often blame any indoor air qualities on the property itself and not their lifestyle. As the property owner, do your part by taking proper care of the building. This should include visiting your property a few times a year to see how the tenant lives and work on any changes before there is a major issue.

Visit the property on a rainy day to be sure rainwater is not ponding near the foundation or getting under the house. You can check the gutters and downspouts for proper drainage as well. A damp basement or crawl space can lead to health symptoms for people living in the house and will eventually cause structural damage.

Fix any leaks promptly and let the tenant know when you find and/or fix a leak. This includes keeping evaporative moisture from the soil under a properly installed vapor barrier in the crawl space and cleaning out gutters so they drain properly.

If the lease specifies no smoking indoors and no pets, enforce the rules at the first sign that the tenant is smoking indoors or has brought home a pet.

Document any issues that could affect air quality with photographs and a written timeline of when the issue first appeared.

Landlords and Tenants – Tips for When Indoor Air Quality is an Issue (Part 1)

Craig Whittaker founded Environmental Solutions Group to help property owners more appropriately contend with environmental health and safety issues. ESG has helped dozens of landlords and tenants sort through air quality issues and reach a fair conclusion.

Our office fields several calls each month from either a landlord or tenant concerning the air quality in a rental unit.  We tend to get more calls from tenants than from landlords, usually due to a child being sick  or visible mold on tile grout, a bathroom ceiling or window sills.

The landlord/tenant challenge is often more of a battle as both sides believe they are right.  Here are a few suggestions for tenants when they have an issue.

  • Landlords tend to believe that the tenant is the cause of any indoor air quality issues. Be sure you have held up your end of the bargain by keeping the place clean, changing air filters if that is your responsibility, and not smoking indoors if that is in the lease.
  • Pay rent on time, and do not withhold payment over a dispute.
  • Know the terms of the lease as well as your landlord knows them. Knowledge is power.
  • Try to avoid ‘blindsiding’ the landlord with a list of grievances and a demand for immediate repairs. Landlords need time to do their own research and to arrange for someone to assess the place.
  • Put grievances in writing and call the landlord to be sure they received your mailing. Use email or postal service so there’s a paper trail.
  • Be mindful of the fact that landlords rely on your rent to pay their bills. Repair costs eat up their profit margin, therefore they want to be sure any expenses are warranted.
  • Be patient but firm. Assign a deadline as to when you expect a response to your issue.
  • Document any issues with photographs and a written timeline of when the issue first appeared and how the landlord responded.

We will cover tips for landlords in a subsequent post.

Home Air Quality Issues After a Storm

Casey Radford earned a B.S. in atmospheric sciences and meteorology at North Carolina State University. Casey is the most recent addition to the ESG team.

In the immediate aftermath of Hurricane Sandy, it is difficult for us to know the exact repercussions of the storm. The death toll is climbing and power was lost for millions of homes, and it may be some time before we have a full idea of the destruction the ‘Storm of the Century’ has left in its wake. Early estimates put the cost of recovery to $50 billion, due mostly to lost business and property damage. [1]

A large portion of such damage is due to flooding. During severe weather, heavy rain can cause leaky roofs and flash flooding. However, the major culprit of coastal flooding during a hurricane is the associated storm surge. The surge’s enormous power corrodes beaches and buildings, as well as flooding homes.  Unfortunately, the worst is likely not over for the homeowners once the water recedes. The flooding leaves behind soaked structures and belongings. This damages lives in many ways, including indoor air quality.

According to the Environmental Protection Agency, after a flood the “standing water and wet materials are a breeding ground for microorganisms, such as viruses, bacteria, and mold.”[2] In addition, the lack of ventilation indoors after a power outage creates a perfect environment for growth.

After Hurricane Katrina in 2005, mold infestation was a severe issue. Weeks of high floodwaters in the warm climate caused widespread mold problems that were still being rectified years later.

Mold may not be the greatest or immediate worry for a homeowner after a disaster, but it is not a problem to be taken lightly. High levels of mold spores trigger asthma, allergies, and many other health issues. Even after thoroughly cleaning the home after a flood, mold may still be present in unseen areas such as behind drywall and in crawlspaces.

If your home is ever a victim of a flood, big or small, check out this publication by the EPA, which gives information and advice on flood cleanup as well as preventing indoor air quality issues. Consider hiring a professional to search and test your home for signs of mold growth. If you do have evidence of mold, be sure to take the necessary precautions to protect yourself and prevent contamination.