The mold that ate Annapolis
We've been making an increasing number of mold-related service calls and inspections, and with them come the questions. "How big of a problem is this? "What caused it and what can be done to fix it? "How much longer are we going to live now that we've found "toxic black mold" in our home!?!?" "Can I sue my landlord?" "What about the children?!? Won't somebody think of the children?!?!" My response is usually something along the lines of "it was already here and will remain here long after our lives are etched as a dash mark between two dates." So, with our current mortality in mind, let's take a deep breath of this killer mold infested air and calm down whilst we discuss a few things.
In the beginning
Around the time that God created the Earth, mold also came into being. This cuddly fungi has been with us before there was an us and it will likely outlast us too. That having been said, mold has contributed to some of our great calmities:
- The mold that has ravaged day old bread and woebegotten cheese since the dawn of time.
- Penicillin. Sure it was a useful medicine since the 30's, but now we have superbugs--thanks a lot Alexander Fleming!
- The Salem witch trials--few things inspire signs of witchcraft like moldy bread!
- Famines worldwide due to ruined crops/food stores.
- Sickness, death, etc. -- quite possibly the basis for the Zombie Apocalypse to come...
Although the CDC and others have summarized mold as aggravating respiratory problems in sensitive individuals, there has yet to be a single documented case of a death caused by "toxic black" or any other type of household mold. The materials sometimes used to treat/clean the mold affected areas though have killed scores of stupid people (for example, chlorine has been used as a weapon of war and it WILL kill you if it is improperly used).
Problem or Symptom?
Mold isn't a problem, it's a fungi. It's spores are all around us. Yes, we're surrounded and there's nothing we can do about it! However, I've learned to make peace with the black death, and you can too. First, mold isn't lazy, but--from transportation to the essentials of life--it has to rely on other environmental influences to get what it needs to survive and thrive in your home. We can make this as complicated as we'd like. For example, I'm frequently asked "what type of mold is this?"... Does it really matter? It's in the house and we don't want it there. It's as simple as figuring out why it is homesteading in your basement/attic/crawl space/bathroom/bedroom; fixing what created the attractive environment; and remediating the area. Mold is simple too. It just needs moisture, something to eat, and shelter from ultraviolet light. Find the areas of your home where there's excessive moisture/humidity, organic material, and darkness, and you'll find the mold setting up claim to your living space. In summary, mold isn't the problem. It's just establishing itself where moisture shouldn't be. Find and correct the problem that is bringing the moisture and humidity into the home, or cozy up to your new, very stubborn room mate. If you try to kill or remediate the mold without correcting the moisture problem, get ready to repeat your efforts sooner rather than later. It might even come back with a greater vengance than before!
What We're Seeing
- Mold in finished/unfinished basements. The primary causes are external hydrostatic pressure/seepage into foundation walls; lack of ventilation; air temp/humidity imbalances; leaking plumbing fixtures; downspouts w/o proper diverters; and defective sump pump installations. Finished basements are much harder to diagnose because of the aversion of most homeowners to tearing up flooring/paneling/drywall during the required discovery phase. The repair expenses can be quite high, but most of the significant damage we're seeing could have been prevented by replacing the sump pump every five years and properly routing stormwater runoff and downspout discharges.
- Mold in attics. The primary causes are inadequate ventilation and roof leaks/water infiltration. Multiple roof layers, discharging of bathroom and kitchen exhaust fans into the attic; over insulating/covering of vents, poor installations or repairs, and roof penetration flashing deterioration are the most common defects. A good home inspection will call out these defects for repair/remediation BEFORE mold can establish a foothold. Once it does, the costs will be much higher.
- Interior mold. The primary causes are HVAC imbalances or inadequate ventilation, condensation, plumbing leaks, water infiltration. Common areas to find mold include under sinks/showers/tubs; behind toilet water tanks and underneath seating flanges; behind refrigerators with ice makers; behind washers/dishwashers; near water heaters or well pump components. We've seen all kinds of contributing factors--from DIY installations gone bad to a supply line puncture caused by a tenant hanging a picture on a basement bathroom wall.
- Have a licensed inspector or contractor find the problems causing the excessive moisture and humidity in the home. Once the diagnosis of the problem is done, obtain a proposal for the cost of the repairs. Please note that I did not say estimate. Estimates are always free because they are typically "guesstomates" that rarely, if ever, wind up being accurate. These are often obtained by homeowners seeking the lowest bidder and it frequently backfires AFTER they're committed to using a particular contractor. To make matters worse, it can result in unbelievable delays and extra charges that ultimately erode any perceived savings the homeowner initially thought they were getting. An accurate, written proposal should cost a nominal fee because it takes the contractor a good deal of time and effort to prepare. Additionally, it is a commitment to do the work for a set, agreed upon price within a specific period of time. It can change due to unforeseen circumstances, but it rarely does. Most of the time, the proposal fee is applied as a credit to the total invoice if the contractor is selected/hired (be sure to ask). What about "free" proposals? All I can say is that you get what you pay for. If it's free, it didn't cost much in terms of time/effort to prepare and is probably not much better than the "free estimate" that could've been obtained from a legion of unlicensed and licensed amatuers and professionals alike. Dealing with mold in the home is stressful enough, paying a $100 or so for a professionally prepared repair proposal is one way to get it handled with a whole lot less stress. A word about referral services. If it's free to you as a member, that means the "professional" is paying to obtain the referral and "reviews" can be suspect. You might want to keep that in mind the next time you're tempted to go to Thumbtack, et al to find a firm to do this work. The best referrals come from others who have had a successful remediation or an established property management company.
- Once the problem is fixed, the clean up tasks will depend on the level of severity. Most of the time, the fix is as easy as following the cleaning tips given on the EPA Web site. Occassionally, particularly when the mold is present throughout the home, professional remediation services are needed. You do not need anything more than a MHIC license to perform remediation services in our state. So, the level of service and performance can vary widely. We recommend consuting an indoor air quality specialist for a inspection report (many licensed home inspectors can produce this report if they are certified by their association to do so). Once you have the report, you have the information needed to find the appropriate professionals to do the work. In many cases, the inspector can also help with referrals and verification of a firm's license and liability insurance status. A final word on selecting an inspector, make sure they have current Errors and Omissions (E&O) coverage. This is not a state requirement, but this type of work needs this optional coverage as the general contractor liability coverage most home inspectors have WILL NOT cover losses caused by significant mistakes or errors.
- For additional peace of mind, have the air sampled/tested following remediation. The inspector can typically make a professional referral or you can find a firm through research on the Internet. Make sure they are licensed and insured and ask to see a sample report before making your decision.