Mold: Is It Really The Next Asbestos?
Joseph F. Boyd
published April, 2003, Howard County
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
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
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
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
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.
Boyd is an Environmental Scientist with Building Consultants, Inc. In
addition to his experience performing Phase I Environmental Site Assessments, he
is also an