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Get rid of indoor mold the right way

BYU professor helps create new industry cleaning standards

Does the space under your kitchen sink smell musty? Do you have any leaky pipes in your bathroom? Was your basement or crawlspace ever flooded?

If so, you may have an indoor mold problem, which has implications for your health. But before you call just anyone to assess and handle the situation, a Brigham Young University health science professor hopes you'll educate yourself about what constitutes proper cleanup.

"It's like that line from the movie 'Ghostbusters' -- 'Who you gonna call?'" said Eugene Cole, who has been instrumental in developing a new industry standard for professional mold remediation. "For your health's sake, let's hope it's not four guys in t-shirts with crowbars in hand to tear out your moldy wall."

In fact, opening a potentially contaminated wall space without following the standard Cole helped create would be the worst thing to do. That good-intentioned act would only spread mold spore everywhere, exacerbating the problem and complicating a proper cleanup, said Cole, who is presenting the new "IICRC S520 Standard and Reference Guide for Professional Mold Remediation" May 5 in San Diego to mold removal professionals, insurance adjusters, attorneys and others.

The health problems indoor mold can create range from annoying to serious: chronic exposure has been linked to constant runny noses, sore throats, headaches, fatigue, concentration problems and allergic respiratory disease. Additionally, there is evidence that asthmatics are at increased risk in mold-contaminated buildings.

As for toxic or "killer" mold, Cole says that although fungal spores may contain toxins, more study needs to be conducted before experts can say for sure if some types of mold threaten human life.

"Regardless, environmental heath and industrial hygiene professionals have generally recognized that the presence of toxigenic molds is consistently associated with the same types of occupant health complaints," said Cole.

Mold has other costs -- because its job is to digest organic material, it destroys a home as it grows. Additionally, it has been and continues to be the focus of costly litigation. In some states, legislation has been enacted to limit claims against insurance companies, construction companies, landlords, realtors and private sellers.

"The catchphrase I've been hearing is: 'Mold is gold,'" said Cole. "And that refers to the money people have made from some of these lawsuits and the fly-by-night organizations that have popped up claiming to be professional mold cleaners."

In many cases, Cole says companies that claim to know how to properly remove mold don't always know what they are up against. Working in conjunction with other researchers, Cole -- an expert on the fungal ecology and health effects associated with the problem -- created a 176-page standard and reference guide for professionals that details the proper remediation of indoor mold and the science behind it.

First published in December, the peer-reviewed guide was sponsored by the Institute of Inspection Cleaning and Restoration Certification in conjunction with the Indoor Air Quality Association and the Indoor Environmental Institute. Since then, Cole and several of his co-authors have toured the country conducting daylong workshops on the new standard to assist with its implementation.

"I explain to attendees that when you construct a building you create an artificial ecosystem," said Cole. "Just like in an aquarium, there is an interaction between the physical, the biological and the chemical components."

Some of the varied places mold can take root and multiply include: carpet, upholstery, bathrooms, pet areas, crawlspaces, food storage areas, heating and air conditioning systems, window frames, wall cavities and attic spaces. Once entrenched, mold feeds off wood, wallboard, wallpaper, ceiling tile, insulation, concrete, fireproofing, and glues and sealants used in construction.

"The key to mold is moisture," said Cole, who volunteers his time to educate others about the new standards of remediation. "If any of these areas get wet and are unattended, we see the germination, amplification and dissemination of mold. People inhale the spores and the health problems begin."

Proper cleanup should never be attempted by anyone other than a qualified, trained professional wearing protective clothing and appropriate respiratory protection, says Cole. The process involves sealing a contaminated area and physically removing the mold contamination under controlled air conditions, followed by cleaning and drying.

"Many people think we don't have this problem out West, but we do -- we humidify buildings with swamp coolers, which can become contaminated," said Cole. "And moisture can still condense -- leaks, bathrooms, aquariums, pets -- they can all contribute to the problem. You open the door under most kitchen sinks and you can sense a musty, moldy smell. People mistakenly try to remedy this with an air freshener or neglect the problem altogether and it gets worse."

Cole recommends that people who have noticed persistent respiratory problems among multiple occupants of a household or office immediately look into locating a qualified professional to assess the problem. Only businesses operating under the standards outlined in the IICRC's guide should be considered competent to properly remove the mold, said Cole. Consumers should always check for references, experience and credentials before settling on a company.

"You really don't want a guy who was a truck driver last week and this week put a sign out saying 'AAA Mold Cleaners' doing the job," said Cole. "I heard of one case where a company told a potential customer they would use leaf blowers to blow the mold out of the wall spaces. That kind of uneducated approach would have spread mold spores everywhere."

Ultimately, to solve the growing problem of indoor mold, Cole says home and office space buyers and owners should focus on three areas:

  • Designing and constructing houses and buildings using methods that correspond with and compliment geographic climate.

  • Using houses and buildings for their intended purpose -- office space for businesses, houses for residents.

  • Maintaining an indoor environment properly, which includes periodic inspection for signs of mold and attention to routine cleaning. "People pay their mortgage for thirty years, building their equity in a building. Yet, surprisingly, very few will take the time to inspect their investment after a severe rainstorm to see if there are any leaks, any standing water or cracks in their foundation," said Cole, emphasizing that if there is any visible sign of mold at all in a home, it needs to be investigated.

    "Homeowners can clean mold using a proper cleaning solution, but the area needs to be monitored. If the mold grows back, or starts to grow in other areas, that's a warning sign that there's major water intrusion, and possible mold contamination, that needs to be properly addressed."

    See a previous BYU news release about Cole's reasearch into the safety of antibacteral cleaning products.

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