- Mold Wreaks Havoc On
Homes, Buildings, Industry:
- Will It Be The Next Major
The next big environmental hazard to significantly impact the
real estate community may be a very familiar foe: Toxic Mold. While the lawyers and
insurance companies argue over the liability associated with mold, TPR is pleased
to present this article by Bart Sokolow, President
of Environmental Advisors, Inc., an environmental consulting firm, on the subject of the
construction and real estate risks posed by mold.
- [...copyright, reprinted from the The
Planning Report, May 2002, Vol XV, No. 9
By: Bart Sokolow, D.Env., P.E., R.E.A
The streets of Laredo are desolate now; even the horses have turned in for the night.
Why are we up, you quizzically ask your guide? To look for mold, I respond. Mold? Yes,
mold. It comes out at night--like false teeth. Oh, you quietly say. We have our
flashlights. We have our breathers. We venture forth, one at a time, in single file. Then
all hell breaks loose.
Without warning, flares go off; star wars-type rocket ships start
launching; we seek cover as armies of ants and other mobile pests swoop down, carpet bomb
the entire neighborhood then move on--devastation left in their wakes. While sometimes the
enemy hibernates for years, without movement, without any sign of their existence. They
act like moles, penetrating into the inner reaches of our homes. Where are they hiding?
Oh, did I screw up the analogy? I was really talking about mold
and fungus. Your amazement at the similarities may be frightening but that is the way with
mold or fungus. Some of their activities are benign, while others, attack with the
vengeance of soldiers of fortune, hired guns paid for their fight and moxie.
Mold and fungus are not new; they shouldn't be news, either. Most
species of mold predate mammals and certainly man. The reason they are news today has more
to do with their connection to construction defects litigation. This connection may be
argued as a mere correlation or more significantly, having a cause and effect
relationship. The courts will make the final distinction.
The facts are that homes that have been infested by, or inhabited
by mold also have people who live in them getting sick. The sickness can trigger allergic
reactions or can be triggered by an allergic reaction to exposure to mold. The mold de
jour is stachybotris chartarum. It can be black, slimy to the touch and insidious. It can
cause severe health problems to inhabitants in homes. Mold can grow on carpet, paper,
insulation, food, wallboard, paint, or, underneath marble or tile counters. It can be
difficult to eliminate, or, remove. In rare instances, homes may have to be razed. Not all
instances require such drastic action.
The problems arise when mold lies dormant in a vegetative state,
as spores, for months or years, or, grows without the owner's knowledge in unreachable or
otherwise undetectable locations -- under sub flooring or behind wall boards. I have been
in homes where I could put my finger through the gypsum drywall of a dining room wall,
without exerting much pressure because it was so mushy and mold infested.
How, you are wondering, does all this mold grow? With Water. It
needs water! Okay, then, moisture: simply, moisture from a leaky hose, a crack in a white
PVC irrigation lawn sprinkler pipe, or, from a plumbing leak. According to the Los Angeles
Department of Water and Power, just a 1/16-inch opening in a water pipe can release 33,000
gallons of water per month, and a 1/32-inch opening can release 6300 gallons of water per
month. This is some serious water flow! [Potentially this means, with a 1/16-inch opening,
you could fill a 42,000 gallon pool in less than 2 months.] Regardless of what you may be
able to see, the mold is there because of some source of water.
There is always a source of water that causes mold growth. The
issue of subsequent physical damage and other perceived or real medical problems are
another matter. Yet, the issues of structural integrity and construction defects are real.
Mold can be unsightly, ugly and smell bad. If it enters into the main support beams of the
house, the consequences can be structurally catastrophic. On the other hand, a spray can
of dilute bleach (1 ounce of bleach mixed with 9 ounces of water) can eliminate much of
the unsightly stains and given enough ventilation, the problems may go away. [Soap and
water can, too.] Oh? It will go away -- only if you have eliminated the source of the
problem and you aren't treating just the visual symptoms.
Lawyers and insurance companies have different views of the
problem. On one hand, insurance companies view mold and fungus as the symptom de jour
whose heightened awareness in the press brings out the copycats, wannabes, and those who
are experiencing the equivalent of psychosomatic ailments. On the other hand, according to
the insurance companies, the home insurance policies, under which "insureds"
[that is, policy holders] seek redress, was meant to handle construction defects not
medical pain and suffering.
One Wall Street Journal article [June 6, 2001] indicated that
Farmer's Insurance Group, with 7 percent of the U.S. homeowner's insurance market
estimates that mold claims will cost it $85 million in 2001. Extrapolating, that would
make the industry's total for mold related claims to exceed $1.2 billion dollars in 2001.
Lawyers will tell you the symptoms are real, the illnesses are
real, the allergies are real, and the polyps are real. Not only are all these illnesses
for real, they are caused by the mold and fungus infestation in their homes.
There are definitely two schools of thought: one perceives it as
a serious problem the other, that there is no problem. Interestingly, most litigation
never makes it to court because the parties settle. Why? While both parties espouse
complete conviction in their beliefs, they are not willing to have the theories tested,
for a variety of reasons.
Various publications over the last several months from the New
York Times Magazine to the Wall Street Journal have had war stories describing the impact
of mold and various families and the subsequent horror stories dealing with cleaning up,
or, remediating the homes, some very large.
Recently, I had to recommend that a 4,000 square foot home be
torn down because of mold infestation. Yet, there were other potential problems the
homeowner had to address. I informed him that the demolition crew would need to wear
breathing masks (called respirators; they are not the flimsy paper dust masks that you
often see being worn by gardeners blowing their trimmings away back-borne portable
leafblowers) as well, unless he wanted to be liable for additional medical costs.
Is this a plague? Is there a remedy? No it's not a modern day
plague. Causative agents are known. It doesn't take modern medicine to cure it. Sometimes,
all it takes is a little dose of elbow grease and some soap and water. Other times what's
needed is better construction coordination, or more serious repairs. What does that mean?
Well, when stucco walls are built, building codes require that a galvanized steel weep
screed be constructed at the bottom of the wall, to wick away moisture [much like a
Gore-Tex jacket, keeps the body warm but "wicks" away moisture which would cool
the body] Stucco is water resistant, not waterproof. The weep screed permits water to be
removed from the bottom of the wall so it doesn't enter the inside of the outside wall.
When water enters inside the wall, it may find its way to a cool, quiet place where mold
can grow from the nutrients in the wood. Fueled by the water, this mold could lead to rot
in the sheathing and framing.
Yet, it is possible that the concrete patio installer poured
concrete over the previously installed weep screed, rendering it useless. Red Alert! You
now have a condition that is ripe for mold growth when it rains. While both trades people
did what they were supposed to, no one in the final analysis realized that the net effect
was an ineffective and useless weep screed.
There are many scenarios that could result in similar problems.
Current building practices result in more tightly sealed buildings and moves toward use of
cheaper building materials like plasterboard and plywood. Inadequate ventilation can also
lead to moisture buildup. According to the U.S. EPA, some building materials such as, dry
wall, may not allow moisture to escape easily. Retaining walls that don't work, raised
foundations that don't have effective ventilation to permit water to evaporate or plumbing
repairs that were completed too quickly also may cause produce conditions that can causes
potential problems. One telltale sign is a large water bill that doesn't correlate to
actual water usage.
The U.S. Centers for Disease Control [CDC] in Atlanta says that
common health concerns from molds do include fever like allergic symptoms. Further, they
say, that people with immune suppression or underlying lung disease are more susceptible
to infections. The jury is still out on the causative link between mold and pulmonary
hemorrhage bleeding, although each case must be examined on its own merits.
Insurance companies are slowly moving to change homeowner
policies to exclude mold damage as a covered loss. It appears, as well, that there is an
attempt by attorneys to be more prudent in their filings.
Mold and fungus are here to stay. Much of it is benign. While
many perceive it as the Princess and the Pea Syndrome, real impacts are being recorded.
Lawsuits are being filed. It will simply take more time to determine if the litigation is
justified and the medical and legal issues can be resolved.
Bart Sokolow, President of
Environmental Advisors, Inc., an environmental consulting firm