Got mold in your building? Practical advice on how to handle nature’s great recycler
Utter the four-letter-word MOLD in commercial buildings across America, and you will see decision makers turn pale, cover their ears, and dash for the nearest exit.
That may be a bit of an exaggeration, but you get the point. Mold scares people. And we should take mold seriously because it can make us sick, not to mention the damage it can do to buildings and the things inside them.
So what happens if you discover mold in your building? How can you prevent it from spreading, or even taking hold, in the first place?
In this post, we’ll discuss all things mold-related. We’ll look at what mold is, consider how it affects people’s health, cover removal tips, and outline your responsibility if it’s discovered in your building.
Mold: The Basics
Since the beginning of time, mold has lived on this planet. It’s even mentioned in an Old Testament biblical passage (check out Leviticus 14). It exists naturally around us and can be found almost anywhere, requiring only moisture and oxygen and an organic substance on which to grow.
More specifically, mold is a microscopic fungus that grows in multicellular structures, with more than 100,000 species existing worldwide and 1,000 in the United States. By comparison, mildew and yeasts are fungi, too.
Mold and yeast can cause disease or spoil food, gradually break down the materials they grow on (toppled trees, fallen leaves) or produce a variety of foods and beverages. You’ve likely seen mold growing on bread, carpet, wood, drywall, and fallen trees. Oh, and blue cheese (Penicillium mold cultures, which are not toxic, are added to these cheeses).
Mold propagates by making spores, which the air around us carries indoors and outdoors. When the spores land on a damp spot, they begin to grow and digest the thing on which they’ve landed, gradually destroying it.
In addition to its destructive habits, mold triggers allergic reactions or respiratory problems through the allergens it produces and also creates toxins and irritants. Allergic reactions might include sneezing, runny nose, red eyes and skin rash.
Mold is also RESILIENT.
It cannot be eliminated unless you could remove oxygen or moisture from the planet, which also would eliminate us. Therefore, you can’t remove all mold from inside your building, no matter how hard you try. If you want to limit mold growth indoors, the trick is to control the moisture inside your building.
Moisture Does A Mold Good
Moisture problems in buildings often lead to mold growth and can be the result of leaks in the building exterior, high humidity, and condensation issues.
The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) recommends the following tips for mold prevention:
- Eliminate plumbing leaks and leaks in the building’s envelope (roofs, doors, windows)
- Keep an eye out for condensation and wet spots. Clean and dry wet spots within 48 hours, and address condensation sources right away
- Eliminate the potential for condensation by insulating or increasing air circulation or reducing the amount of moisture in the air by fixing leaks, increasing ventilation or dehumidifying
- In HVAC systems, clean drip pans and ensure moisture flows properly
- Keep humidity levels low indoors, below 60 percent and ideally less than 50 percent
- Inspect and regularly maintain building systems
- Don’t let foundations stay wet
Currently, the EPA has not created regulations or standards for mold contaminants in the air. However, research on the effects mold exposure has on our health continues.
Despite proactive prevention measures, sometimes mold still shows up unannounced in our buildings. Then what?
Move Along, Mold
Finding mold in a building can be devastating to a building owner or person in charge of a facility, especially in schools and hospitals. If you do find mold, don’t panic. It’s not the end of the world, and steps can be taken to remedy the problem.
The first thing to remember is to not touch mold with bare hands or get it in your eyes or lungs due to the potential for adverse health effects. Before making an attempt to remove mold, the EPA suggests answering these questions about your building:
- Does my building have existing moisture problems?
- Have building occupants been complaining about funky odors?
- Can I see mold damage on walls or furnishings?
- Have health complaints been reported?
- Do I need to consult with health professionals?
Since buildings differ in size and scope, the severity of the mold problem will vary. The first step, therefore, is to assess the size of the problem and identify a remediation leader. This person will implement a mold remediation plan that should include steps to correct the moisture problem, the use of Personal Protective Equipment (PPE), and the containment and removal of moldy materials.
Some mold problems can be fixed in-house while others require the use of an outside professional. The size and severity of the mold problem will help dictate which route to choose.
Another factor to consider is the health and safety of the building’s occupants. They should be notified if a mold problem exists (they’ll appreciate it) and in some cases may need to be temporarily relocated if the remediation effort requires it.
Remediators may use any number of methods for mold removal including using a wet vacuum, a damp wipe, or a High-Efficiency Particulate Air (HEPA) vacuum. In other cases, damage may be so extensive that physical removal is the only option.
Depending on the size of the problem, a remediator may need to limit the release of mold into the air through containment. Limited containment involves contaminated areas of less than 100 square feet, while full containment is used for areas larger than that. In each case, remediators lay out plastic sheeting to seal off affected areas.
The Final Countdown
How do you know if the mold problem has been corrected? While it’s often a judgment call on your part, the EPA makes these suggestions:
- Look to see if the water or moisture problem has been fixed
- Look for mold on surfaces and odors in the air – can you see it or smell it?
- Occupants should no longer have health complaints or physical symptoms
- Revisit the site(s) after remediation to ensure that no mold growth or water damage exists
Next, we turn to the responsibilities of employers and building owners. What are they required to do when a mold problem has been identified?
It’s the Law
Persons who feel their concerns regarding mold exposure in their living areas are not being addressed should contact the local board of health or housing authority, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). State and local jurisdictions generally handle mold issues in areas such as codes, insurance, inspection, and legal matters. However, the CDC does not have enforcement powers.
Workers, by law, have a right to a safe and healthful workplace. According to the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), employers are prohibited from “retaliating against employees for exercising their rights under the law” (including the right to raise a health and safety concern or report an injury).
If a worker believes that his or her employer is not following OSHA standards or that serious work hazards exist, that person can file a complaint with OSHA online or by calling 1-800-321-OSHA.
OSHA offers a free and confidential On-Site Consultation program to small businesses that determine if worksite hazards exist and to correct any identified problems. Consultants work with small businesses to identify hazards in the workplace, provide advice on meeting OSHA standards, and help implement programs to prevent injury and illness. These services do not result in penalties or citations.
Mold exists all around us, both outside and inside buildings. It plays a useful role in foods and medicines and in turning dead things into dirt, but it can cause health problems, too, especially when growing indoors. While it cannot be eliminated, it can be contained by reducing the amount of moisture available.
Owners and decision makers with a mold problem in their buildings should follow a plan for remediation and seek the help of an outside professional if the problem is extensive. And building occupants who believe their health concerns are not being addressed are encouraged to contact a local health board or OSHA to remedy the problem.
Do you have a moisture problem in your building? Have building occupants complained about their health? Do you suspect you have a mold issue? If you would like to discuss these questions in more detail with a commercial building expert, please contact Joe Reintjes at firstname.lastname@example.org, Craig Singer at email@example.com, or Curtis Winter at firstname.lastname@example.org. Or call 316-265-9655.
Knipp Services works with commercial and industrial building owners to lower operational expenses and increase building comfort. We provide services that enable owners to have high-performance buildings. “Making Buildings Better” sums up the mission statement of Knipp Services.