Mold Seminar Sets Off Alarm Bells

March 29, 2002
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KISSIMMEE, FL — What would an industry association meeting today be without a discussion about mold?

At the Air Conditioning Contractors of America’s (ACCA’s) recent conference, a seminar titled “What Today’s Hvacr Contractor Needs To Know About The Mold Issue” drew an overflow crowd of anxious contractors thirsting for knowledge and answers. Many left the 75-minute session shaking their heads after consuming the overload of information from the four speakers.

Initial speaker Tom Norris, of P&H Marketing, Inc. (Naperville, IL), certainly set the alarming tone. After rattling off one mold-related horror story after another, the veteran insurance broker and consultant came to a grim conclusion regarding insurance coverage of mold and the contractor’s possible involvement.

“How is the insurance industry going to respond to mold?” he asked rhetorically. “Remember what insurance companies did when they first faced pollution issues years ago? An absolute exclusion. When nuclear issues after Word War II became an issue, what did the insurance companies do? An absolute exclusion.

“The insurance industry is looking at mold as being the next asbestos. So what is happening today is the same thing: They are looking to get an absolute exclusion.”

INSURANCE PLANS

Norris noted that in Texas (“which is a state heavily impacted by mold”), Allstate Insurance recently made the decision that it would offer “some” mold coverage for homes.

“They [Allstate] were going to go with an absolute mold exclusion, but they backed off and are going to offer some coverage,” he said. “What they are going to offer is $5,000 for remediation of mold in a homeowner’s policy. Can you imagine that? This was coverage that was covered 100% previously. Now we’re down to $5,000.”

Norris said a friend of his in the State of Illinois Department of Insurance told him that the department was being deluged with filings from insurance companies asking for absolute exclusion of mold.

“The Illinois Insurance Department is not going to grant that because their argument is you can’t prove today that mold claims are going to cause solvency problems for the insurance companies. And, that’s true. They can’t show that today.

“So there may be a compromise. But that compromise may well reflect what you see in Texas that I just described, where you may find in a homeowner’s policy mold remediation limited to like $5,000, which is ridiculous. That [amount] is not going to begin to respond to the issue.”

The fear mold brings with it is one reason why the insurance carrier for ACCA recently cancelled the association’s endorsement, said Norris. As of Feb. 28, ACCA was searching for a new carrier.

“They [former carrier] fear that ACCA contractors are going to be faced with a plethora of mold claims in the very near future,” said Norris. “They tell me that as at the end of 2001, their claims department had approximately 350 mold claims. They also said they have either paid or reserved $17 million to cover these claims.

“Now, that does not sound like a lot of money, and it’s the truth, not for a multimillion dollar insurance company. However, they see this as just the beginning of what will probably become something much more serious.”

With that in mind, Norris said contractors should expect insurance companies to add some sort of mold exclusion in a contractor’s general liability policies in the not-so-distant future.

“The exclusion may be absolute if your state, for instance, permits absolute exclusion,” he said. “More insurance companies are more worried about the bodily injury of mold than they are of property damage. So they may exclude bodily injury and offer some property damage coverage. Some companies may do the reverse. C&A, for instance, is much more worried about property damage than bodily injury claims. They are looking to put an absolute exclusion on property damage claim and offer some coverage for bodily injury.

“Lastly, you might find some companies are not going to cover either but will give you a $25,000 supplement for defense costs, should you be sued. This is real important to know.”

In the long run, Norris said it’s going to be extremely important that contractors know what they have in regard to mold insurance “and that you try and get what you want.

“Make sure you discuss this with your insurance agent at your next renewal. And make sure you understand exactly what the

limitations are. Make no presumptions. Anytime you install, maintain, or service equipment that circulates air in the home or in a building, you have a risk exposure.

“Should there be mold in the premises that causes respiratory problems or property damage, you, the contractor, will be dragged into a lawsuit. No lawyer is going to forget about you from any kind of a lawsuit involving mold because regardless what you are pushing through that building, it is going to contain the mold spore. So make sure your agent explains exactly what coverage you have or do not have.”

Welcome to the 21st century, he said.

“Personally, I think they are overreacting. You may feel the same way. But it makes no difference,” concluded Norris. “Insurance companies feel that strongly about mold. They will determine what is covered and what is not. You and I and the consumer will have to decide what we can live with and at what cost.”

A CASE FOR OXIDATION

Second speaker Henry Berman, general manager of Tri Med Environmental Research (Carmel, IN), was just as alarming. He said he knew of lawyers in Indiana who are calling homeowners who had claims in for water damage or mold remediation. He said these lawyers are offering free indoor air quality inspections for these homeowners.

“Obviously they are looking for a potential client,” said Berman, before predicting, “It’s going to get uglier before it gets any prettier.”

Berman provided a scientific look at the differences among viruses, bacteria, and fungi/mold. He described mold as “public enemy No. 1.”

“Untreated, it is just going to grow and reproduce,” he said. “Untreated, they can produce gases.”

His company promotes the control of indoor mold commonly found in typical hvac systems by using small, controllable amounts of ozone applied directly in the hvac system. The basis for this position comes from laboratory tests developed in the food industry and Purdue University, he said. “In these tests, it was theorized that ozone oxidizes the molecules on the surface of the mold cell. Most molds grow from the tip as elongating filaments. As the mold grows, new cell membrane and cell walls are produced at the tip. The cell membrane, which is vital for cell integrity, is composed of fatty acids, sterols, and proteins.”

Oxidation of these membrane components would destroy their biological function, said Berman. Large-scale oxidation of membrane components by high ozone concentrations would be lethal to the mold, he said. Meanwhile, low ozone concentrations may not destroy membrane function, but it likely perturbs the mold membrane enough to inhibit growth and sporulation, he attested.

“The mold would continue to be inhibited as long as the ozone concentration was present or the environment became too dry for mold growth. With time, the overall impact of the treatment with low ozone concentrations would be a decrease in mold spore production and perhaps elimination.”

Before his talk, Berman passed out literature containing some of the products his company believes can help prevent or limit mold problems. He said his company’s air purifiers are equipped with one or more ultraviolet/photolysis emitter lamps, which, by design, result in “the oxidation of odors, mold sporulation, and reduction of airborne bacteria and viruses.”

BEWARE OF PRODUCT CLAIMS

Serving on several ASHRAE committees, third speaker Bob Baker, chairman and ceo of BBJ Environmental Solutions (Tampa, FL), said he is just as frustrated over the current mold “hysteria.”

“We’re trying to write standards. We’re trying to write guidelines,” he said. “Folks, we don’t have the facts. There are far more questions at this point in time than there are answers. We really didn’t look at the indoor environment until 1985; 1986 was the first ASHRAE indoor air quality conference. Until then, we really didn’t think about it.”

Since 1990, Baker said the concern has zeroed in on biological contaminants.

“Even where the hvac system is not the cause of our problems, they are the transporters of the contamination,” he said. “They move things around. They help things grow and they otherwise contribute to the problem — or are accused of contributing to the problem.”

Baker said contractors should consider the use of antimicrobial products “to kill that stuff before it harms me, before it harms my customer, before it harms the building.” The hardest part, he admitted, is knowing which product — if any — to use. Earlier in the game, he said, many manufacturers made claims about mold-killing products that were just plain false. He noted that the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has since stepped in and is currently helping the regulatory enforcement process.

“On the market there are a few that have clear direction in dealing with the use of air handlers, primarily for prevention, prohibiting growth,” he said. “Today there is not one single product that is legally registered for use in air ducts. Nothing. There are a lot of products registered for surfaces outside the air conditioning systems: walls, floors, countertops, and all that stuff.”

Therefore, he said, contractors should be leery of product claims, plain and simple. He asked the audience to look at the consistency between the claims that are made and the directions (“Do they relate to each other?”) and examine the actual directions (“Do they make sense?”).

“Is it really an antimicrobial product, or is it just a product that contains a preservative?” he asked.

Final speaker Shaded Mustafa, an engineer at Lennox, stressed the fact that UVC germicidal light is not intended to be used for the remediation of active mold growth.

Sidebar: Mold and Fungus — Frequently Asked Questions

Q. How common is mold and where is it found?

A. Molds (fungi) are present everywhere, indoors and outdoors. They serve an important, positive role, by helping to break down organic matter. There are more than 100,000 species of mold. At least 1,000 species are common in the United States. Some of the most common molds found are species of Cladosporium, Penicillium, and Aspergillus. Mold is most likely to grow where there is water or dampness, such as in bathrooms and basements.

Q. How can molds affect your health?

A. The most common types of mold are generally not hazardous to healthy individuals. However, people who have asthma, hay fever, or other allergies, or have weakened immune systems are more likely to react to mold. The most common symptoms are runny nose, eye irritation, cough, congestion, and aggravation of asthma. A small percentage of the population can develop more serious effects, such as fevers and breathing difficulties. Some types of mold can cause still more serious health problems.

Q. How can you be exposed to mold?

A. When moldy material becomes damaged or disturbed, spores (reproductive bodies similar to seeds) can be released into the air. Exposure can occur if people inhale the spores or directly handle mold-containing material and accidentally ingest it. Some molds can produce chemicals called mycotoxins. Mycotoxins may cause illness in people who are sensitive to them or in people who are exposed to large amounts in the air (typically associated with certain occupations).

Q. What is Stachybotrys chartarum?

A. Stachybotrys chartarum (SC) (also known as Stachybotrys atra) is one mold that is associated with health effects in people. SC is a greenish-black mold that can grow on materials with a high cellulose content (such as drywall sheet rock, dropped ceiling tiles, and wood) that become chronically moist or water-damaged due to excessive humidity, water leaks, condensation, and/or flooding. SC is a relatively uncommon mold. SC spores do not become easily airborne.

Q. How can you tell if Stachybotrys chartarum is present in a home?

A. All mold needs water to grow. Mold can grow anywhere there is water damage, high humidity, or dampness. Most often molds are confined to areas near the source of water. Removing the source of moisture, such as through repairs or dehumidification, is critical in preventing mold growth. Many molds are black in appearance but are not SC; for example, black mold commonly found between bathroom tiles. SC can only be positively identified through a microscopic exam or by trained professionals.

Q. How can Stachybotrys chartarum affect health?

A. Typically, indoor air levels of SC are low and therefore are not generally hazardous to health. However, as with other molds, at higher levels health effects can occur. These include allergic rhinitis (cold-like symptoms), dermatitis (rashes), sinusitis, conjunctivitis, and aggravation of asthma. Some related symptoms are more general, such as an inability to concentrate and fatigue. Usually symptoms disappear after the contamination is removed.

There has been some evidence linking SC with pulmonary hemosiderosis, a condition that causes bleeding in the lungs of infants generally less than six months old. In cases of hemosiderosis, the exposure to SC came from highly contaminated dwellings, where the infants were continually exposed over a long period of time.

Q. What can be done if mold is present in a home or apartment?

A. Although any visible mold can be tested by an environmental consultant and/or analyzed by a laboratory specializing in microbiology, these tests can be very expensive — from hundreds to thousands of dollars.

There is no simple and cheap way to sample the air in a home to find out what types of mold are present and if they are airborne. As noted earlier, even if the home has been tested, it is difficult to say at what levels molds would cause health effects. Therefore, it is more important get rid of the mold than to find out more about it.

The most effective way to treat mold is to correct underlying water damage and clean the affected area.

Q. How should mold be cleaned?

A. Mold should be cleaned as soon as it appears. Persons cleaning mold should be free of symptoms and allergies.

  • Use a common household bleach and water mix (1 part bleach to 10 parts water) to clean it. You can add a little dish soap to the bleach and water mix to cut any dirt and oil on the wall that can hold mold.

  • Do not add ammonia. This can result in dangerous vapors.

  • Apply the bleach and water mix to the surface with a sponge, let it sit for 15 minutes, then thoroughly dry the surface.

  • Dispose of any sponges or rags used to clean mold.

    If the mold returns quickly or spreads, it may indicate an underlying problem such as a leak. Any underlying water problems must be fixed to successfully eliminate mold problems. If mold contamination is extensive, a professional abatement company may need to be consulted.

    Information provided by Restoration Environmental Contractors Ltd., Markham, ON, Canada..

    Publication date: 04/01/2002

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