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The mold rush is on

September 30, 2001
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The latest health scare to hit the headlines big time is "toxic mold." Toxic mold is the generic term for Stachybotrys and other microbes that are charged with causing a myriad of ailments and diseases ranging from minor allergies to debilitating or deadly acute and chronic health effects.

During the past several months high-profile publications such as the New York Times Magazine, People, Time.com and others have featured toxic mold articles. There have been spots on TV and radio. And the Web is alive with recent pages and sites devoted to toxic mold. Run a search for "toxic mold" at www.google.com to see what I mean.

Adding fuel to the topic are high-profile names such as Laura Bush and Erin Brockovich. Laura Bush showed symptoms of mold sensitivity while at the Governor's mansion in Texas. And Brockovich, flush with her new-found Hollywood fame and fortune, wound up buying an expensive but moldy home. Brockovich has a new crusade and she is busy talking about the dangers of toxic mold to concerned groups.

Further inflaming the issue is the number of public schools found to contain toxic mold. Emotions run higher when children are put at risk. Schools have been evacuated, closed and have undergone very costly "replace the roof" remediation. Within schools, emotions over toxic mold seem greater than asbestos was in its heyday.

Searching for answers

Clouding the issue are debates among medical and other experts over the seriousness of the toxic mold problem and how to resolve it. Is it an epidemic? How do we measure? What level is safe? What are the proper remediation procedures?

The American Industrial Hygiene Association saw growing concerns with toxic mold and indoor air microbes, and in August 1998 the organization formed a multi-committee task force to evaluate the issue and offer advice. The product of their efforts is the May, 2001 "Final Report of Microbial Growth Task Force." The report may be viewed at www.aiha.org.

The AIHA Task Force did excellent work and produced a fine "state of the science" report. But it provides more questions than answers. And few, if any, answers are definitive. With no or few standards, how to adequately address toxic mold generally remains a free-for-all for all involved.

Given limited guidance, and as reported in the August 12, 2001, The New York Times Magazine, some people are turning to the Bible for direction. "In Leviticus 14:33-45, the Lord tells Moses and Aaron how to rid a house of mold. First ask a priest to inspect it. Then scrape the inside walls and throw all contaminated material in an unclean part of town. If that doesn't work, the house must be torn down - its stones, timbers and all the plaster." With the exception of the priest, the biblical advice is how remediation of toxic mold is generally performed today.

Who are these guys?

Instead of priests, industrial hygienists are inspecting buildings for toxic mold. The campaign by AIHA and other professional groups urging the use of industrial hygienists for indoor air quality inspections must be working. The IH title is showing up in many articles, reports, news media and Web sites that address toxic mold. The title is finally getting deserved public recognition.

But who qualifies to call themselves an industrial hygienist? This past August I was asked if I knew a particular IH "mold expert." The caller said there was "something odd" about the industrial hygienist who worked for a building contractor embroiled in a toxic mold controversy at a public school in Michigan. The caller (a veteran safety professional) said, "Although the person referred to himself as an industrial hygienist, he didn't seem to know common IH terminology."

I never heard of the person and he did not show up on the member roster for AIHA. But that did not surprise me. While conducting research for this article, I came across a recent publication that quoted a person who was identified as an industrial hygienist, "that used to do lead and radon testing." "But there was no demand for that work," he said. Now he gets "$150 an hour for mold inspections."

Eager to pass along his advice for wealth and fame to you, I looked up his name in the AIHA member roster so I could give him a call. No luck. And his name didn't show up on rosters of other professional organizations that I am familiar with. The problem is, with rare exceptions, anyone can call himself or herself an industrial hygienist and become a mold inspection expert.

I suspect many folks calling themselves IHs are coming out of the growing private home inspection and duct cleaning market. They've found that there is "gold in that mold" and if they can get more business by calling themselves an industrial hygienist and use scotch tape or a $99 test kit to inspect for mold, "hooray for the free enterprise system!"

Many other people, too, are cashing in on the growing health concerns with toxic mold. Lawyers are having a field day. So are remediation contractors. And on the other side of the scale, insurance companies and others liable for loss are scrambling to defend themselves and limit exposure. There's high activity on this issue that should remain for quite some time. Maybe all this mold remediation work will kick-start the sluggish economy?

Advice

So what can I say in the remaining space that will help you? Two thoughts: prevention and caveat emptor.

1) Learn more about toxic mold. Then inspect your workplace and eliminate breeding grounds (usually wet porous materials). Use aggressive remediation if warranted. Be prepared to explain toxic mold in plain English to employees and others. Stay on top of the issue. Diffuse any hysteria before it begins. Truly, "an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure."

2) Caveat emptor or "let the buyer beware." I recently screwed up on this point. When a longtime client experienced an indoor air quality problem - which I was unavailable to help with - I provided strict guidance: "Make sure you use a certified industrial hygienist on this project."

Dumb me. They followed my direction and a local CIH burned them. The CIH played up the issue of toxic mold and microbes. Sampled just about everything. Issued a report incomprehensible to a layperson. And management felt it had no choice but to follow the CIH's recommendation and have the building "decontaminated." The cost? Over $50,000 and, in my opinion, the risk wasn't there. I am still embarrassed and apologizing for that mistake.

I will never recommend "any" CIH ever again. Just as "any" MD cannot diagnose or cure all ills, neither can a CIH address all indoor air quality concerns. Particularly, if you are looking for someone to help address toxic mold issues, CHECK WITH THEIR PAST CLIENTS! If references to past clients cannot be provided or past clients were not fully satisfied, keep looking until you find a qualified and experienced person.

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