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There’s no doubt you heard phrases such as toxic mold, or even killer mold. But you also may have heard of saying like, “mold is gold.”
From the small leak originating from a water line inside a wall, to super storms like Sandy, some mold remediation companies are making large profits. Some have been forced into mold work by pleadings from their regular customers.
No matter the reason, if you do mold work, you must know the health hazards associated.
Who is most at risk? What precautions need to be taken and procedures followed to avoid harm to yourself, your employees or others?
Those are important questions. Let’s take a look at the health concerns associated with mold remediation, along with steps that can reduce or prevent exposure.
Understanding health and safety issues presented by mold must begin with the realization that mold is everywhere. We cannot avoid contact with mold spores or particles every day of our lives.
Relatively few of the more than 100,000 species of mold (see footnote reference #1) are either pathogenic (capable of producing disease) or toxigenic (producing toxins that act as poisons in sufficient dosage). The goal in mold remediation is not to totally eliminate mold, but to reduce it to or below normal levels.
For individuals who are healthy and not sensitive to mold, mycotoxins and allergens do not build up and accumulate in the body. Issues arise based on exposure to high dosage of molds and a person’s sensitivity (see footnote reference #2).
Possible adverse effects of mold are:
- Allergic reaction such as asthma or “hay fever” symptoms
- Infections such as athlete’s foot, and
It is estimated that about one person in 20 will show a clinical illness from mold. Some of these may react to outdoor molds, but not the type found in a typical water damage restoration situation (see footnote reference #3).
For some allergy sufferers, the symptoms can be severe, including fever and shortness of breath. Persons with pre-existing lung disorders can develop fungal infections of the lungs (see footnote reference #4).
There is scientific evidence connecting mold with allergic reactions and asthma. However, current scientific evidence does not support a relationship between inhaling mold or mycotoxins and other adverse health effects in humans.
There are many claims in the news that associate mold with some, usually non-specific, types of illness. But the same conditions that promote mold growth favor the growth of bacteria.
In addition, lead or asbestos may also be present at some sites of water damage. It is difficult to determine the true origins of such complaints.
Killing or removing mold
A second key to understanding the situation is the fact that killing mold, with the application of a biocide, for example, does not eliminate its possible effects on sensitive people. Proteins that could trigger an allergic reaction are still present.
By way of analogy, think of mice in a home. Killing the mice without removing them presents an equal or even greater health hazard. The plan should be to remove the mold and do so without spreading spores, mycotoxins or fragments of mold to previously unaffected areas.
Apart from documented health issues, there are significant legal liability issues when dealing with mold. A lawyer does not have to prove to a panel of experts that mold is the cause of some problem. He only has to convince a judge or jury.
A prudent restorer will do his best to avoid both the health and the legal issues.
What are the common mistakes made during mold remediation projects?
The following reminders will be helpful, both to experienced mold workers who may occasionally become complacent, as well as by technicians who are trained in water damage restoration but have limited training or experience in mold remediation.
1. Disturbing and spreading mold spores and fragments by the use of air movement. Air movers are standard equipment on a water loss, but they usually should not be used when mold is present until containment has been set up to prevent mold from spreading to uncontaminated areas.
2. Insufficient (or no) respiratory protection. A NIOSH (National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health) approved respirator should be used any time when working in areas with elevated levels of mold. An N95 respirator is the minimum. In many situations, a half-face or full face respirator equipped with a HEPA (high efficiency particulate air) filter would be recommended. When a disposable N95 respirator is used, eye protection is also needed. The respirator must seal to the face. Facial hair can prevent a tight seal. Respirators should be fit tested to the technician prior to use.
3. Lack of HEPA filtration. It is standard practice to vacuum many mold contaminated surfaces using a HEPA vacuum. Not every vacuum that says “HEPA” somewhere on the packaging provides true HEPA filtration. It may have a HEPA filter while allowing air, along with mold, to exit the vacuum without passing through the filter. Use a HEPA vacuum specifically designed for this use. You still must be careful that the filter is properly seated so that all air must pass through the filter. After use, the filter and the contents of the vacuum must be disposed of in heavy plastic bags, often double bagged. This ensures mold is not spread to unaffected areas.
4. Improper use of protective suits. There are three potential issues here. First, a protective suit should be sealed at the wrists and ankles. Otherwise mold, which can be a skin irritant, can enter the suit. Proper procedure for removing protective clothing must be followed. Failure to do so may result in either the technician or areas outside the containment becoming contaminated by mold on the exterior of the suit. Remember that Tyvek and similar suits don’t breathe. Body heat tends to be trapped. Technicians will be working in hot, humid conditions. Frequent breaks for rest and rehydration should be taken or dehydration and/ or heat prostration can occur. Be aware of OSHA regulations regarding working in hot areas. Employees have fallen ill. Citations have been issued to employers who ignored the regulations (see footnote reference #5).
5. Eating, drinking, use of cosmetics or tobacco where mold remediation is being performed. This may result in unnecessary contamination with mold or other harmful substances in the work area (see footnote reference #6).
6. Improper use of biocides and bleach. Biocides are toxic to humans and animals, as well as to mold. The preferred remedy is to remove the mold and return the structure and contents to a clean and dry condition. When disinfectants or biocides are used, they should be applied in a manner so they will not be aerosolized. Use good ventilation.
With proper training, the right PPE and workplace safety measures, mold remediation can be a profitable and — most importantly — a safe pursuit.
Scott Warrington has more than 40 years of experience in the carpet cleaning industry and related fields. He serves as the technical support specialist for Bridgepoint Systems and Interlink Supply. He can be contacted at ScottW@Bridgepoint.com.
1. About 1,000 species of mold have been identified in the USA. OSHA A Brief Guide to Mold in the Workplace.
2. Mold Remediation Safety Certified Mold & Allergen Free Corp, 2008
3. Adverse Human Health Effects Associated with Molds in the Indoor Environment American College of Occupational and Environmental Medicine, February 14, 2011.
4. U.S. Centers for Disease Control (CDC) How do Molds Affect People?
5. Certified Mold & Allergen Free Corp, 2008
6. OSHA, A Brief Guide to Mold in the Workplace.