Notes from Discussions with Mold Experts
By Cesar Collado
I recently had the opportunity to discuss the topic of mold inspections in detail with several mold experts coming from different disciplines. These include seasoned inspectors who have performed thousands of inspections in homes, offices, and healthcare facilities. It also includes discussions with integrative physicians who treat mold illness, HVAC experts, and mold remediators.
It is important to note that the mold inspection and remediation industries are not regulated and have a tremendously wide variance in knowledge, competencies, safety protocol, execution expertise, and terminology. This can range from an individual who has taken an internet course for a certificate, to seasoned HVAC and remediation veterans, to highly educated building biologists and Ph.D. level hygiene experts. Just as there are good and bad doctors and lawyers, the same exists for mold professionals. It is a normal distribution, which means that there are very few good ones, very few exceptionally bad ones, and most professionals fit in the middle, while a lay person has limited abilities to differentiate between them.
To that end, mold inspection and inspection reports have many forms and formats, depending on the professional. Some “professionals” do not even perform laboratory tests for mold. This is insane in my opinion. Furthermore, the field of mold and mycotoxins is still in its infancy. More technology does not necessarily correlate with quality. Obtaining testing for mycotoxins is indeed critical information for physicians; however, these tests still have limitations in scope and precision of analytical methodology, and are limited to modalities that are not necessarily representative of the true extent of mycotoxin contamination.
What I have gathered from these professionals, there should be two broad objectives in a mold inspection: (1) to assess the condition of the indoor environment, and (2) to assess occupant exposure potentials. Within these broad objectives, a mold inspection has five basic elements: 1) site inspection 2) incident history 3) visual inspection 4) occupant interview 5) and sampling plan.
My discussions emphasized the importance for the homeowner to get better informed so that they can effectively interview or screen potential professionals. This article has the benefit of learning from experts who have conducted thousands of inspections and “expert witnesses” who have had the opportunity to objectively review hundreds of mold inspection reports in mold litigations. It was surprising to learn that many (if not most) Mold Inspection Reports do not contain the type of quality information required to assess the condition of the home that was inspected for mold, nor to determine potential health effects.
Also, different mold professionals often do not use the same terminology. Regardless, an understanding of the five elements of a mold inspection should be evident when interviewing candidate inspectors. It is important to recognize that the frequent absence of usable information on the exposure potential of the occupants has consequences. If reliable information on occupant exposure is not included in the mold inspection report, then the homeowner will not have the ability to effectively communicate with healthcare professionals. Further, no treatment plan prescribed by a physician will work if the patient returns to a dwelling with contaminated indoor air. This is due to the continuous exposure to the contaminant and the already antagonized immune system. This whole process starts with, and is based on, the mold inspection report.
The homeowner is the one who is most familiar with water-intrusions that may have affected their dwelling (when, where, repairs performed, health impact). Because of the cost of an inspection, some homeowners may prefer to perform a DIY prescreening inspection to identify possible issues. This should then also include a DIY site inspection, incident history, visual inspection, and moisture meter survey (an inexpensive moisture meter can be purchased at many hardware stores or online). The moisture meter should be used to test areas of potential water intrusion, including sink base cabinets, wet bars, bathtubs, showers, toilets, washers, window corners, sliding glass doors, sky lights, etc. Look for dampness, leaks, water staining, visible mold, and musty odors. (It is recommended that owners take safety precautions like using a N95 face mask and latex gloves while inspecting. Tools like a moisture meter and hygrometer can be helpful as well). Learn how to do a DIY mold inspection HERE. This is valuable information you can provide to a professional mold inspector making the process more efficient, and will help to develop an understanding of the required and necessary costs and alternatives. In addition, your knowledge of your home can be helpful in monitoring the inspection to determine competence of the inspector and to prevent being misled or taken advantage of financially. Unfortunately, the mold remediation industry is populated with a fair share of less qualified, trained, and diligent experts. Many often expand the scope for financial benefit. Learn about how to find a remediator and not to be duped by an unqualified expert HERE.
Preliminary mold testing can be done inexpensively by the homeowner. ImmunoLytics Mold Test Kits provide a comprehensive, but simple to use, testing method with instructions and lab results that can be helpful in making a determination of molds present in a conclusive manner. While this technology has existed for decades, proper plate testing, and swab testing of visual mold, is often more conclusive than more technically complicated methods and can be performed by an occupant or homeowner.
Having spoken with several highly regarded experts on mold inspections, I have found that they each have their favored tools for testing. While methods differ, all require testing throughout the home. Many continue to use mold test plates for diagnostic purposes. In the case of spore trap sampling, the spherical spores can be lumped together, making identification of predominant molds difficult. In contrast, mold test plates are tried and true to be conclusive, while remaining relatively inexpensive and easy to use for homeowners. Further, they can be used with swabs or by tapping the plate on suspected moldy furnishings or clothing for a more targeted test result.
Visual plate tests can be done to determine whether there is mold or not. The next steps can include further mold testing to be rapidly sent to our laboratory for analysis. After laboratory analysis a report with summary findings and guides to interpret the findings with a general explanation is provided. Additionally, a free consultation with a mold inspection expert is available. Done properly, this can be helpful in determining the degree of contamination and suggest some immediate mold maintenance using safe, non-toxic agents to reduce mold counts in your air while you are addressing the source of the mold. This can help alleviate symptoms for the short to mid-term. Hot fogging with the Bio-Balance Fog Kit or misting with the Bio-Balance Home Maintenance Mister can be a useful “band-aid” solution while you are gathering information.
I have learned much about these essential elements of a mold inspection during informal discussions. I emphasize that testing for mold is not all the information required. An inspection should be able to draw conclusions on how the mold and levels of exposure can impact occupant health. I will do my best to capture the essence of information that should be presented by a mold inspection professional.
5 Essential Components to Look for in a Professional Mold Inspection
Mold inspection reports come in many forms, levels of detail, and analysis. Most are customized and vary from professional to professional.
It is important that the inspectors focus on the primary objectives of a mold inspection: (1) to assess the condition of the indoor environment, and (2) to assess occupant exposure potentials.
But first, it is important to understand the four categories of mold that can have an impact on human and animal health.
- Allergenic molds affect people who have allergies, respiratory illness, or asthma. These people have a hypersensitive reaction, during which an excessive number of mast cells are activated, resulting in an extreme inflammatory response in the respiratory system. About 20%-30% of the population is susceptible to mold and/or other allergens, which can lead to reactions like allergic rhinitis. Most people without allergies are unaffected by allergenic molds in small amounts.
- Pathogenic molds are capable of causing certain infections or diseases. Most healthy individuals, with their immune systems in good shape, are able to regularly fight off pathogens. However, pathogenic molds are dangerous to people who have compromised or weakened immune systems, which is why pathogenic molds are considered an opportunistic pathogen. Pathogenic molds most commonly affect infants, the elderly, and people with suppressed immune systems.
- Toxic molds produce mycotoxins, poisonous chemicals that are dangerous to humans. Unlike allergenic and pathogenic molds, toxic molds intentionally harm other living things rather than the harm merely being a side effect. Some of the most-deadly chemicals on the planet are mycotoxins. They’re found both on mold spores and other mold structures/fragments. People can get exposed to mycotoxins via inhalation, ingestion, or dermal exposure (skin contact). This can lead to debilitating cognitive symptoms or even organ failure, depending on the individual.
- Anitgenistic molds are those that act as super antigens in the body of a mold sensitive patient. These super antigens are not easily processed by the body and often result in auto-immune symptoms and diseases.
It should be noted that a given mold may exist in one or more of these categories.
These are the five basic elements that should be included in any mold inspection process:
- Site inspection: There should always be a comprehensive visual inspection of the entire home including crawlspaces, attics, HVAC system, and of course, interior spaces. An outside inspection is also necessary. This will determine whether the landscaping, gravity, or uneven foundation is creating a flow of water into the home. The roof, gutters, and any exposed windowsills or door frames should also be inspected for water damage.
- Incident History: The inspector should be prepared to ask many questions of the homeowner about the home. More specifically, the inspector should ask about any knowledge of leaks, flooding, water damage, pluming issues, storm repairs, etc. This will include information about previous incidents, repairs, and the health condition of occupants.
- Detailed Visual Inspection: The inspector will look at each room in great detail. They will look for subtle signs of potential problems as well as generally checking inside cabinets, plumbing chases that are accessible, and appliances that use water. This must be done systematically with adequate controls to determine specific problems. Lab reports alone are not adequate. You don’t have to understand everything, you just have to ask the right questions to determine the competency of the mold investigator.
- Occupant Interview: Some inspectors will have a written questionnaire to be filled out by the occupant and discussed further during the interview. Others systematically ask questions regarding the home and occupant health issues in the context of mold repairs. They will also ask questions about the occupant’s health
- Sampling Plan: The inspector will develop a sampling plan to share with you based on their inspection and the information provided. They will explain the suggested mold sampling that should be conducted using a single or a variety of testing methods including mold test plates, swabs or tape samples, vacuum sampling, area wipe sampling, air filter sampling, or spore trapping methodology. The sampling plan should be able to explain the need for the number of samples and laboratory costs. This is an area where a homeowner can be “penny smart and pound foolish”. It is important to identify all mold sources and also areas where mold is present in acceptable amounts. This is critical information that can impact the scope and the ultimate breadth of the remediation. Additional information can be used to narrow the scope as well and save money. You can ask the inspector to use ImmunoLytics Swabs and Mold Testing Plates to augment their sampling plan so that more testing can be done to insure no potential source is missed.
The Final Mold Inspection Report
Lastly, there should be a final report providing explanation of findings along with a remediation plan outlining the various elements required to make the home safe. When it comes to mold, just doing a portion of the repairs does not get the occupants any nearer to wellness since mold exposure remains. In some cases, short term “band-aids”, like Bio-Balance Fogging solutions can be utilized to delay more expensive remediation projects.
All of these components play an important role in a successful assessment. This final report is essential to provide health and remediation professionals adequate information to complete the remediations and provide medical treatment. It is also critical documentation in the case of potential litigation in the future.
Undermining a Mold Remediation Plan
I have also heard stories where an occupant asks a mold professional to leave certain moldy furnishings in the home, for example, a favorite carpet, rug, furniture piece, or mattress. They may ask for a thorough cleaning instead. If not done properly and tested free from mold, a simple request may defeat the entire effort to remediate. While many businesses can be influenced to take a customer-friendly position, it can compromise quality and safety. When the professional allows mold to remain or tries to clean a furnishing that should be discarded, mold illness can remain problematic for the occupants and the significant financial investment could be wasted. These counter-productive activities do really happen! Mold patients can best manage this process by being informed and asking questions about the process in order to fully protect their health from mold exposure. A good professional will always provide answers and alternatives.
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