TABLE OF CONTENTS Sep 2002 - 0 comments

Mold & Water Damage Claims: Avoiding the Headache

The industry's newest catalyst is a four-letter word: MOLD. Should we be alarmed about this sleeping monster? How is it affecting people's health and that of their children? How did it get here, and why is it growing? Insurers are trying to come to grips with this new threat, at the same time facing claims for incidents that happened perhaps years earlier.

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By: Alex Lozecki Sr., president of Environmental Solutions Internati
2002-09-01
Every time I enter an affected room, my eyes water and my throat gets irritated. Is it possible that something is wrong with me, or could it be a microbial problem?

Exactly what is mold? It is a superficial or "woolly" growth of long chains of fungi cells formed on damp organic materials. Molds produce a potentially harmful substance called mycotoxins, which create a variety of allergic responses or sickness (hypersensitivity diseases) in humans. In terms of the spread of mold, spore-like seeds are always present but the single most important element for growth is an elevated moisture level. Like all living substances, mold needs a food source such as books, paper, dust or any organic material. A lack of air movement and anything short of direct sunlight will also contribute to mold growth.

There are many issues and concerns when dealing with a microbial contaminated building, whether it be a home, workplace, schools and, yes, even hospitals. The conventional way of dealing with mold was to apply household bleach, wipe it off, allow the surface to dry and paint. It is only a matter of time however, before the spots will re-appear, as the source of the problem has not been dealt with. Mold does not appear overnight, it is likely the result of an ongoing water intrusion or prolonged leakage.

When exposed to mold, people may suffer from symptoms such as runny nose, skin rash, headaches and eventually even respiratory complications. Elderly persons, infants and asthmatics are especially at risk when exposed. In dealing with any microbial situations, qualified personnel and proper remediation procedures are essential to effectively eliminate contaminants.

Mold primer

Certain common mold "terminologies" need to be understood as a first step in identifying mold problems:

Mycotoxins consist of secondary metabolites of fungi spores. There are over 400 identified mold species that are known to be toxic to humans and animals, although the level of toxicity varies. Some of the "infamous" mycotoxins include aflatoxin, trichothercenes and sterifmatocystin that are produced by A. flavus, stachybotrys chartarum and A. versicolor, respectively.

Microbial VOCs, which simply stands for "volatile organic chemicals", release volatile organisms during the growth process and include many organics such as alcohols and geosmin, some of which are irritants.

Toxigenic fungi are known to produce mycotoxins and many species of penicillium and aspergillus are toxigenic. Other varieties of toxigenic species include alternaria, chaetomium, Fusarium, memnoniella, paecilomyces, stachybotrys, trichoderma, etc. These toxins are species-specific.

Endotoxins consist of cell wall components of gram-negative bacteria, which are produced during the growth and death of the GM (gram negative) bacteria. This bacterium may cause flu-like symptoms, mild fevers and possibly HP (hepatitis, which is an inflammation of the liver).

The odor associated with mold (a damp, musty smell) is generally caused by the release of volatile organic chemicals (VOCs), although this is not the exclusive source of a musty odor. As the growth rate of mold declines, the generation of odor producing VOCs declines, quite often below the odor threshold.

When mold growth is suspected, investigator or remediation specialist may have to get into destructive search and testing, which requires the removal of building components and/or access holes to see into the hidden areas where molds can thrive. The HVAC system in homes and buildings will also require investigation, as contaminants hide in these areas, including in air filters as well as the home's heating and cooling system.

Growing concern

A health and safety professional with experience performing microbial investigation should be consulted prior to remediation activities in order to provide the oversight of the project. This ensures the most effective decontamination procedures will be carried out, lessening the chance of future outbreaks, and future lawsuits against insurers.

In one claim case, a residential property was inspected for possible microbial contamination. Upon arrival, the team determined the growth to be related to the improper treatment of the affected areas following a water damage event. The amount of mold growth throughout the entire building was extensive although the water loss had occurred only in the basement. Upon entering the front vestibule area, we noticed that the large half moon window above the front door was covered in a microbial growth. Microbial colonization was extensive on the ceiling border in the front foyer. The main floor window casings and glass, as well as the rear patio door, had also been affected by a microbial growth. The basement windows were completely covered in a major microbial growth. The horizontal blinds were completely covered in mould growth.

When moisture readings were taken in the fruit cellar, we determined the MC (moisture content) in the framework was an elevated 24%, a normal, acceptable reading being between 6%-10%. Some of the drywall still had reading of 65%-100% moisture level.

There was some microbial colonization appearing on the lower areas of some of the walls. Upon an extensive moisture investigation on the basement walls, we determined a 100% saturation reading on the exterior bedroom wall. With the homeowners' consent, an access hole was cut in the wall and we found standing water behind the false wall. There was also a substantial musty odor coming from the basement.

A bad example

Apparently, dehumidification had not been performed until the fourth or fifth day following the water intrusion. As well, the air movers were found to be sporadically placed, thus making the dehumidification equipment virtually ineffective. Under these conditions, the moist air had traveled throughout the entire residence, including the HVAC system.

The insureds were concerned as their child was asthmatic and an elderly lady also resided in the home. They reported headaches, sore throats and some breathing difficulties. Swab testing was performed, and the results indicated a very high level of stachybotrus, peniccilium, aspergillius, and cladisporium.

A level 4 contamination was diagnosed and remediation procedures were commenced immediately. Four feet of drywall was removed in the complete basement. All wall cavities were thoroughly cleaned with a HEPA filtered vacuum. All remaining carpets were removed. Mold remediation was carried out in its entirety for the complete basement, including the replacement of two windows. The basement was contained off from the balance of the house and put under negative air pressure. A mobile "desiccant dehumidification" system was installed to dry the structure along with several high velocity air movers. Negative air machines with hepa filters were installed to work in conjunction with the desiccant dehumidifier.

Upon completion of the remediation procedure, clearance samples were taken, and all results came back with a negative contamination reading and an anti-microbial sealer was then applied to all affected areas. The house was then ready for reconstruction. This, however, is a case where a very simple problem evolved from water intrusion to become a major expenditure for the insurer.

Lessons learned

There is a lesson here for all concerned. Any restorer should be following the IICRC standards for water restoration. Personnel from the insurance companies themselves and independent adjusters should also complete the courses available. Unfortunately, it is only recently that insurance companies have been dealing with certified firms consistently. Proper gauges and equipment along with the working knowledge of these tools are essential for effective remediation.

The occupancy of a house showing signs of mold contamination could have a very adverse effect on human health. A previous case in Cleveland, Ohio, resulted in the death of several children who all shared similar symptoms. Homeowners within the area demanded an extensive investigation as to the possible causes of the tragedy. The determination of water intrusions that were left untreated created an outbreak of microbial growth, which the infants' immune system could not sustain. The main culprit in these cases was determined to be the black mold that frequently reported about in the news media, a.k.a. stachybotrys chartarum. Failure to rectify these problems can turn something basic into a legal nightmare, potentially resulting in millions of dollars being paid out for unnecessary loss and possible health risks for the property owners and their families.

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