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Articles

Mold: Is It Really The Next Asbestos?
Joseph F. Boyd
published April, 2003, Howard County Business Monthly

By looking at the number of mold-related claims and the increased media coverage, the average person might think mold is the next asbestos. Mold-related lawsuits in the U.S. have increased from approximately 1,000 in 2001 to about 14,000 pending cases in 2002. And in the coming years, the number of lawsuits is projected to increase.

Molds or fungi are a major group of non-motile, eukaryotic organisms that have defined cell walls, lack chlorophyll and reproduce by means of spores. Everyone knows that molds have been around for millions of years and will more than likely be around for a few million more. We've all seen it on that loaf of bread that hung around a little too long, in our bathrooms where the grout has blackened between the tiles, and virtually everywhere outside. So why has mold recently become a major issue and health hazard?

There are actually a number of attributing factors including the increased efficiency of today's structures affecting indoor air quality, the types of materials used in construction, poor building and equipment maintenance, and most importantly, besides seasonal allergies, there was previously no widely accepted connection between mold and detrimental health effects.

Mold is ecologically diverse so that it can thrive in a wide variety of climates, but the number one contributing factor that is vital for the growth of mold is moisture. The general rule of thumb is, "If there is moisture, there will eventually be mold". Mold can cause tremendous property damage because it amplifies, or flourishes on cellulose, a polymer of sugar and an abundant source of carbon that is found in wood, paper, drywall, and hundreds additional building materials. Mold excretes an enzyme called cellulase that breaks down cellulose into individual units as a food source.

It is not surprising, therefore, that most mold-related litigation involves fairly recent residential and commercial construction. This is in part due the increased efficiency of houses and buildings today. There is so much emphasis on making structures so airtight to better regulate environmental controls that buildings are unable to "breathe" anymore, causing increased moisture problems, if not properly maintained. Furthermore, houses and buildings should be designed based on the type of climate that is represented. Buildings constructed in Maine should not be the same type of construction as in Louisiana, but with more national developers and home builders that is not necessarily the case. If you couple this with heating, ventilation, and air conditioning (HVAC) equipment that is not regularly inspected and poor building maintenance, mold can grow unabated.

The perception that mold is becoming the next asbestos primarily results from the fact that once inhaled, certain types of mold can effect or cause respiratory ailments, as does asbestos. Certain molds produce mycotoxins, as a defense mechanism and as a part of normal metabolic activities. These mycotoxins can cause a variety of health effects in humans. There are some similarities of asbestos exposure affects and illnesses caused by exposure to mold, but there are also significant differences. Symptoms of physical illness in asbestos exposure cases may not be evident for years, known as the latency period. Exposure to mold, on the other hand, may indicate symptoms almost immediately, and ultimately produce the same character of diseases that are associated with asbestos. The ability of certain molds to produce cancer and other diseases is still unknown, but programs are currently underway due to increased funding by Congress. Also, mold can grow virtually anywhere given the proper circumstances. Asbestos, although naturally occurring, is present only where it was originally installed.

Only a few states including Texas, California, and New York have state guidelines concerning mold in place at this time, with Maryland following suit. There are also no federal guidelines on safe levels of mold, nor are there federally mandated procedures for the investigation or abatement of mold, at this time.

Most molds found in the home or business located on non-porous surfaces smaller than 10 square feet can simply be cleaned using an anti-microbial or a biocide. If active growth is visible on porous surfaces (e.g. drywall, wood, carpet, upholstery, etc.), they are rarely salvageable and a mold abatement professional should be contacted. It is important to regularly inspect the structure for poor drainage, roof leaking, plumbing, and HVAC systems to prevent any moisture build-up. Any materials that are found to be wet should be immediately dried within 48 hours. Normally after 48 hours, certain molds will amplify.

Mold can never be completely removed from a structure, but with the proper maintenance practices in place, mold exposure can be controlled to prevent human harm and property damage.

Joseph BoydJoseph Boyd is an Environmental Scientist with Building Consultants, Inc. In addition to his experience performing Phase I Environmental Site Assessments, he is also an

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