CBS News’ magazine “48 Hours” recently ran a segment called “Black Mold: Creeping Destruction” about the alleged devastation of mold in residential areas, plummeting home values and creating health concerns for homeowners. Time magazine’s Web site recently profiled a lawyer who claims to have filed more than 300 moisture- and mold-related cases during the past six years. Even Erin Brockovich, a woman better known for successfully taking on large utility providers for polluting water, is coming out in force against mold, reports USA Today. She has spent upwards of $500,000 to rebuild her dream home after mold allegedly gave her family respiratory problems, and she now is suing both the house’s builder and former owner.

The newest issue to top the indoor environmental awareness charts is mold contamination — both in residential and commercial buildings — and so far, sensationalistic media coverage has left many building service contractors and their customers wondering what to make of the topic.

The general public isn’t sure whether to panic or pull out the bleach. Many contractors, on the other hand, are trying to determine if this is a field in which they could prosper — or if it’s too rife with liabilities.

Media hype notwithstanding, some recent reports of mold contamination seem serious. For instance, several insurance companies in Texas have petitioned the state insurance board to allow them to drop mold coverage from standard water-loss insurance, and instead create a new category. The insurers contend that claims resulting from mold, especially after flooding, could overwhelm them.

While most indoor environmental quality (IEQ) experts disagree on the extent and nature of today’s mold problems, they agree that mold presents a unique health risk and a need for educated contractors to identify and mitigate problems. As with other relatively new specialties, such as crime scene clean-up or disaster restoration, mold remediation can be profitable if done properly. But not every BSC may be cut out for the job.

Fact from fiction
It may seem, from the increased attention paid to mold in buildings, that infestations and related illnesses have recently skyrocketed. That may be true to a point — “airtight” facilities built in the 1970s to save energy costs often don’t allow moisture to escape, creating prime mold growth conditions. But improved science, and an increased effort on the part of the U.S. government and IEQ consultants to educate the public, may be the reason for increased awareness two decades after the problem began.

For instance, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has been collecting anecdotal data for the last 20 years about mold-related illnesses, but only recently has put information on its Web site.

“In my opinion, a lot of people probably have experienced health effects from mold but didn’t know it. Now that we know more about mold, it’s easier to make that connection,” explains Melinda Allen, vice president and education/training director of Video-Aire Enviro-Mold, a mold-remediation and duct-cleaning company in Ft. Worth, Texas.

The problem many building owners and managers have, though, is a lack of well-documented research regarding the illnesses mold exposure can cause. And it’s tough to say just how much of a mold it takes to trigger symptoms. The Centers for Disease Control doesn’t offer long-term-effect information because the topic is too new. In fact, the agency’s reports regarding a recent “bleeding lung” disease incident in Cleveland were reissued multiple times as new information was discovered, leading some mold remediation experts to find the study inconclusive, says Charles Cochrane, principal of Cochrane Ventilation, Wilmington, Mass. He believes that although there are some legitimate cases of mold-related illness, there is some hype.

Mary Smith, director of the EPA’s Indoor Environments Division, believes mold is a problem. However, she also says people shouldn’t panic. In fact, Smith says she recently told a reporter doing a story on toxic mold to stress that not all mold is deadly.

That said, there still are some known, documented potential health risks from mold. The most common symptoms of mold exposure often resemble symptoms of other conditions, such as asthma or hay fever. The CDC reports minor reactions include nasal congestion, eye irritation or wheezing; a school in Illinois recently was shut down and the facility manager fired after students and teachers had these reactions. More serious effects can include fever, shortness of breath and lung infections.

The EPA lists opportunistic infections in sensitive individuals as a threat. For example, if some individuals inhale Aspergillus spores, mold actually could start growing in their lungs. Certain molds also can cause conditions such as athlete’s foot and yeast infections in healthy adults.

A 2000 New York City Department of Health report also states that health effects can be grave when coming in contact with certain dangerous molds, whether with single heavy exposure or more long-term exposure. The report, based on a study including renovation and cleaning workers, states that people may be at risk for developing Organic Dust Toxic Syndrome after a single heavy exposure to dust-contaminated fungi or mold, which will produce flu-like symptoms. Another potential result is Hypersensitivity Pneumonitis, which is an immune-mediated disease that requires repeated exposures to the same causative agent and can result in permanent lung damage.

But such information must be kept in context to not cause hysteria. For example, most mold is not toxic, and most people aren’t sensitive to mold.
However, there is a point at which all people would be affected by mold, says Jim Holland, a certified restorer, water-loss specialist and founder of Restoration Consultants, Sacramento, Calif. He compares mold immunity to sun exposure: People with fair skin burn faster, yet, at a certain point, almost everyone feels some effect. And if there are large amounts of highly toxic fungus throughout a building, all of the occupants might eventually be affected to some degree.

And contractors and customers, alike, must realize that not all illnesses are well-documented, so they shouldn’t rule out any symptom occupants might complain of when handling a known mold exposure.

Seeing green in black mold
With frightening reports popping up across the country, many BSCs might see an opportunity to capitalize on a hot IEQ topic. “But it only creates a long-lasting, meaningful opportunity if you’re educated and can be a valuable resource to your customers,” says Steve Ashkin, owner of Healthy Housekeeping Solutions, a consulting firm in Bloomington, Ind. “If you use mold just for marketing purposes, you’re headed for trouble.”

There are two profitable paths a BSC can take with mold: That of an adviser, and that of a remediation contractor.

“The challenge is to not get caught up in hysteria,” cautions Ashkin. “Yes, if you have Stachybotrys in a school, you should shut down the school and remediate it, because exposure is life-threatening. But just because something is molded doesn’t mean you should jump.”

He cites the asbestos crisis of the ’70s and ’80s as an example of how building owners and their service providers can get caught up in remediation hysteria. Many media reports have questioned whether toxic molds will be the next asbestos-type scare, but Ashkin believes that the only thing the two have in common is the potential for unwarranted concern. While there are cases in which asbestos removal was justified — if the insulation wasn’t intact or if the building was being renovated — panic drove thousands of American businesses and schools to fix a non-existent problem, he says.

Before BSCs jump into a mold-remediation project, Ashkin suggests first learning about problematic molds. Then contractors can properly test a sample, to determine the type and toxicity before spending time or money on fixing it.

That’s exactly what Enviro-Mold did when its residential customers began asking the company to remove mold contamination as early as 1989. The company’s management decided to research the science involved in this new type of work to make sure they were providing proper services.

The managers got in touch with an independent lab to identify and monitor mold, and designed a year-long study protocol in private homes. They tested mold concentration in the air before a duct cleaning, then at two-week intervals. The tests showed a significant decrease in mold between cleanings. With solid science behind its processes, Enviro-Mold ventured into mold remediation services and has had enough success to now offer training courses for BSCs interested in entering the field. (Call 888-595-4393 for more information.)

And now may be a good time for BSCs looking to expand their business to consider mold remediation — because the field is so new, there isn’t a lot of competition, says Allen. Plus, as facilities move toward “one-stop shopping,” BSCs can diversify into this area for existing customers.

The mold-remediation business is “fledgling, but potentially lucrative — and risky,” explains Allen. “If you do it wrong, you can make it worse.”

For example, a big mistake is removing the mold without fixing the moisture source. If there’s hidden condensation or a plumbing leak, the mold will grow back. Another mistake is not completely removing the mold. If the mold is not removed or conditions cause it to return, the building’s structure could be damaged, or people could become ill, Allen says.

To avoid making these mistakes, BSCs can seek out training. Because of the increase in mold-related problems, the Institute of Inspection, Cleaning and Restoration recently added mold abatement courses to its Water Damage Restoration.

The National Air Duct Cleaners Association also offers a publication about microbial contamination in HVAC systems. Another source is the Association of Specialists in Cleaning and Restoration’s Water Loss Institute which can refer BSCs to training programs.

What to look for and why
Whether contractors offer mold-remediation services, they should have a basic knowledge of why and where mold forms. Mold problems may very well have burgeoned due to 1970s construction techniques, but spores are everywhere indoors and out. And they won’t germinate without the right food and water conditions.

Common, dangerous building molds feed on items with high cellulose content. Unfortunately, modern buildings are full of these items: drywall, carpet backing, even paper. (Older buildings made of brick and plaster aren’t as likely to have problems.) Some molds even feed on dust, making it all the more important for cleaners to remove any dirt or debris to reduce available food sources.

Moisture, too, can enter a building in many ways. Air-conditioner condensation, improperly installed windows and even normal building humidity can cause mold growth.

Making it harder to detect is the fact that mold growth may not be visible to the naked eye; it may occur behind walls, under carpet and in heating ducts. While many mold-remediation projects are due to a visible mold colony, often, building occupants have to get sick before anyone knows there’s a problem.

“If there’s been an outbreak of health problems, such as asthma or allergies, that could be a sign,” explains Allen. “Especially when the health problems are accompanied by a trigger event,” such as a flood.

But if BSCs know what to look for, they could catch problems before they cause harm. That involves knowing which molds are worse than others.

One harmful mold is Stachybotrys, also called “black mold,” that grows on water-soaked drywall and other organic materials. It is black or dark green in color, and it is known to produce mycotoxins that can result in lung damage. Aspergillus and Penicillium are yellow in color; both are allergens and potential carcinogens.

There also are scores of molds, such as mildew, that are harmless to most people. Texture can be a telltale sign; dangerous molds tend to be fuzzy, while mildew looks like an ink stain.

BSCs also need to understand the difficulty in removing molds. They exist naturally, and even after a well executed remediation job, the mold could re-enter the building.

Also, mold has a tendency to reproduce if it’s disturbed, says Allen. If someone sprays a bleach solution onto a mold colony, the spray’s force might cause mold spores to fly all over the room before the bleach can kill them.

An investment in mold
While profit margins in this field can be much greater than those in regular cleaning, it is a tough service to staff and can require a large initial investment.

Staffing a mold-abatement operation also can be difficult. Many people don’t want to work where their health may be at risk, and it’s tough to find workers who are knowledgeable enough to handle the scientific side of mold remediation.

Many potential employees are even put off by the hot, uncomfortable clothing and personal protective equipment they must wear. Instead of looking to the typical custodial labor pool, Allen suggests seeking former asbestos-removal workers, who have worked under similar conditions.

Labor for this type of work also is more expensive than general cleaning, and more workers are required. A trained supervisor also is needed for each project.

A certified industrial hygienist (CIH), preferably one who is not affiliated with the BSC or with involved insurance companies, also should be on-site to monitor progress and perform testing. The American Industrial Hygiene Association can help contractors find a CIH trained in mold issues.

Costs for CIH services vary widely, but Steve Temes, an industrial hygienist in Red Bank, N.J., collects $150 an hour for mold-inspection services, according to Time magazine. While this expense can be passed on, BSCs should be prepared to justify the fee.

Also, there is significant equipment involved. Workers must be fitted with personal-protective equipment, especially respirators. Using respirators also involves a medical examination to ensure a safe and proper fit.

To contain a remediation site, a BSC must seal the area and use a negative-air machine to keep contaminated air from leaking from the area. Some air-duct cleaners already may have these machines, but others will need to invest up to thousands of dollars for purchasing them. Other equipment may include air scrubbers (machines that remove contaminants from the air), disposal equipment, mold-killing chemicals and trucks in which to keep and transport the equipment.

Since mold abatement in severe cases may involve demolition work, in some states a general contractor license and hazardous-waste disposal permits may be required.

Knowing when to say when
Knowing the procedure for removing mold once you’ve been asked is a matter of training and education. But unfortunately, knowing what to do if you encounter mold in the general course of your workday is another problem entirely. That’s because without any standards, BSCs don’t have guidelines for identifying, isolating or handling molds.

There are some accepted protocols that can get contractors started, though they aren’t legally enforceable. The U.S. Environmental Protection agency offers some advice.

Still, even if you have no desire to branch into mold remediation, you can become a valuable partner to your customer if you can offer suggestions.

If a facility manager asks you to help clean up the mold, don’t automatically dismiss his request, Ashkin advises. Instead, examine the problem to determine its scope.

“If a building owner asked you to clean up a spill, you’d go and take a look at it,” Ashkin points out. “If you get there and find out it’s coffee, you’d clean it up without a problem. If it’s a spill contaminated with infectious blood, you’d respond differently.”

A small colony of less dangerous mold (such as mildew, for example) may be easily removed with bleach, but obviously, a room full of Stachybotrys should be turned over to someone with more experience. And you may be able to subcontract the abatement job, or at least refer your client to a qualified contractor, and remain a valuable partner.

Mold Suits
Of course, lawsuits are almost as old as mold, but lawsuits about mold are relatively new. Ed Cross, owner of the environmental law firm Cross & Associates in Santa Ana, Calif., has litigated more than 300 moisture-related cases in the past six years. Here’s a cross-section of the types of lawsuits — who has been sued and why — that can arise as a result of water and microbial contamination:
  • A homeowner’s association for improper maintenance
  • Builders for bad construction
  • A water-treatment company for leasing a leaky system
  • Landlords and facility owners, for not responding to tenant complaints
  • Insurance companies for denying claims in “bad faith”
  • Restoration contractors for doing an incomplete or incompetent job

It’s that last type of lawsuit that may worry BSCs interested in entering the water- and fire-damage restoration or mold-mitigation businesses.

“One restoration company claimed they weren’t responsible for cleaning up certain areas because the homeowner didn’t tell them the water got into those areas,” Cross explains. “But it is the contractor’s responsibility to investigate the entire site.”

Many contractors are trying to get on the insurers’ good side by keeping costs down, Cross adds, which may result in incomplete service.

“A lot of companies doing mold abatement are making the problem worse,” says Cross. “They don’t seek the services of an industrial hygienist, and they don’t clean thoroughly.”

In the last couple of years, Cross & Associates has offered risk-management services to its clients who perform remediation services. And while having good legal advice and insurance helps, the best way to avoid a lawsuit is to do the job properly in the first place, and make sure you’re providing excellent customer service.

“Happy people don’t file lawsuits,” Cross says.