Mold: What You Need to Know Now
May 1st, 2004

New and old ways to deal with it

May-June 2004

Mold. If you haven’t had a customer complaint or even found evidence in your own home or business, you’ve read about it in newspapers or magazines or heard the stories on television or radio. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) and the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) have all weighed in on mold. News about it is as pervasive as the fungi itself.

Mold is a big story because it is potentially a big – and expensive – problem.

First, there is the issue of health problems. Despite dire predictions and earlier reports, mold does not present an imminent danger to the general public. It does, however, lead to a range of allergic reactions in susceptible individuals – from stuffy noses and burning eyes to asthma attacks and more. In 2002, the CDC launched a five-year study to determine if the mycotoxins produced by indoor mold affect human health. The combination of substantial mold infestation and especially susceptible individuals has led families to abandon their homes or municipalities or school districts to close entire buildings until remediation could be completed.

Remediation is the second big issue. Because mold spores live off of certain building materials, the mold microorganisms can eventually destroy these materials. Ceiling tiles, wallboard, and insulation are just some of the materials easily infested and hard to clean. Tile grout and cements are another target. Minor mold infestations may be cleaned on the spot.

However in some cases small amounts of visible mold are clues to substantial mold infestations inside and behind these materials. (Remember that molds love dark, moist conditions). Sometimes the only way to get rid of mold is to get rid of these materials. Walls, floors, ceilings, even ductwork are expensive to tear out and replace. Building occupants – residents, students or workers – often have to be relocated for the duration of the cleanup.

Liability is the third issue driving the mold story. Headlines have, of course, captured public attention with the substantial monetary awards resulting from class action lawsuits. Not surprisingly, insurance companies have backed away from covering mold. It is regularly excluded from residential, commercial and construction policies.

As with so many other ills, an ounce of mold prevention is worth the proverbial pound of cure. However, new construction techniques and energy standards may be at least partly to blame for the recent rise in mold claims. Energy consumption is an important consideration in residential and commercial construction and renovation. Architects and developers have designed airtight structures to keep extremes of heat and cold outside. One side effect of airtight design is the retention of moisture inside the building. When air conditioning is added to this mix, mold can develop in areas where the moisture accumulates.

In many cases airtight construction is compounded by fast track construction schedules that do not let materials normally installed wet (such as mortar, cement, grout, plaster, etc.) dry sufficiently. In other cases, inappropriate storage allows some materials to get damp or even wet. However, they’re installed anyway. Unfortunately, today’s airtight construction techniques mean some of these materials may never dry and – even worse – may lead to the development of mold that remains hidden until the infestation is significant.

Why it’s expensive

A study by the Insurance Information Institute, completed in August 2003, has shed some light on the costs of mold to the construction industry. Insurance claims for mold damage average $15-30,000, where other claims average only $3-4,000. According to the report, US insurers paid out at least $3 billion in mold-related claims in 2002. Over $2 billion of that amount came from 227,000 claims that were filed in Texas, often referred to as the “ground zero” state. The numbers are also growing rapidly in California, Arizona, Florida, Illinois, Pennsylvania and Nevada. All this activity has driven up the rates of homeowners insurance. Homeowners policies that contain mold exclusions, except in the case of exceptional perils such as hurricanes or earthquakes, have been approved by insurance departments in 39 states plus the District of Columbia.

The reduced affordability of insurance remedies for mold infestations has led to greater activity in the courts. High-profile cases, with exceptionally large settlements, have led many homeowners with mold problems and no insurance coverage to sue the architects, developers and contractors for remediation and, in some cases, punitive damages. In the cases of commercial buildings, building owners and management operators are also drawn into the lawsuits.

While the market for housing remains strong, mold can put the jobs of people employed in the construction of single-family homes at risk. According to the Institute’s report, construction of single-family homes provides jobs for about 750,000 people in the three states with the highest mold problems – Texas, Florida, and California. This represents about $25 billion in wages. The issue of mold, including insurability, has already delayed or even halted some home sales and new construction in these states. The Insurance Service Organization, Inc. reports that condominium construction in parts of California has run into huge obstructions because of a surge in “construction defect litigation” and this has brought on a big increase in contractors’ insurance costs.

Since mold exclusion policies have come into effect in various states, the homeowners’ insurance issue has begun to moderate. However, the mold issue has moved over into the commercial field, including apartments/condos/co-ops, schools, office structures and municipal buildings.

Dealing with it

In the tile industry, manufacturers have made significant progress in reducing the risks of mold with the development of antimicrobial protection that is built into installation products. Backerboard, waterproofing materials, cements and caulks are available with antimicrobial protection. However, the contractor and consumer need to be educated about these products and they must be specified for the installation. Experience has shown that many professionals prefer products with the antimicrobial agent manufactured into them, rather than relying on the application of a separate agent on the jobsite.

Tile dealers who suggest antimicrobial materials to consumers can point out that the industry estimates those materials add just 1-3-cents per square foot to material installation. It’s a small price to pay to inhibit mold development, especially given the life expectancy of most ceramic installations. The flip side of not using these materials is the potential for the consumer to seek redress – if and when mold develops – from anyone involved with the installation, including the dealer.

The Associated General Contractors of America (AGC), whose members have been directly involved in mold remediation and liability issues, recommends that contractors must protect materials from water damage, handle them according to the requirements of the manufacturers, and account for any water required by any construction process. Because the mold source can come from moisture related to leaks or improperly stored and/or installed materials, preventing mold is everyone’s business.

Special thanks to Diane Choate, Mapei, for her help in preparing this article.

The Big Three: oxygen, food & moisture
According to the EPA and the American Industrial Hygiene Association, molds – also sometimes known as mildew – are forms of fungi found everywhere indoors and out. Like many fungi, molds produce microscopic spores easily spread in the air. When spores land on a hospitable surface – one that provides moisture, oxygen and food – the mold grows.Because moisture is essential to mold growth, eliminating moisture – especially in the form of leaks – is key to eliminating mold. Cleaning up mold without resolving the moisture problem is a temporary solution. The mold inevitably returns.

Consumers who suspect mold, can get additional information from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) at The most commonly cited guidelines are published by New York City, called “Guidelines and Assessment and Remediation of Fungi in Indoor Environments.” They are available at Consumers faced with a mold infestation covering more than ten square feet should contact a professional indoor environmental specialist.

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