When The Wall Street Journal starts reporting on mold growth in the southern U.S., as it did in the May 15 edition, it awakens national consumer awareness to the dangers of Stachybotrys chartarum (also known as Stachybotrys atra) and affects the livelihood of hvac service contractors to some degree.

Contractors performing hvac service and installation work have long encountered many varieties of mold contaminants, including Stachybotrys, while examining, maintaining, and/or replacing drain pans, evaporator coils, and ductwork. However, should you tell the home or building owners about the presence of mold? How much should you say? And how should service techs who encounter mold protect themselves?

Melinda Wood Allen, vice president and education/training director of Video-Aire International, Inc., Fort Worth, TX, says that since news broke of this year’s Stachybotrys problems in Texas, public response has been “just incredible. A lot of people panicked who don’t really have a problem.” However, many people with legitimate concerns also have been prompted to take action.

Mold Breeds in Hvac

“Hvac systems are a great breeding ground for mold,” Allen says. Mold spores feed off of dirt and moisture, both of which exist in hvac systems — especially those that do not receive regular cleaning and maintenance.

Mold also seems to grow more frequently in homes built in the past two years, Allen says, because they use cheaper materials. She is particularly critical of ductwork constructed from ductboard. These and other things should put contractors and technicians on the alert for potential mold problems.

“One thing we’ve done for years is to teach hvac contractors to recognize when there is a problem,” Allen says. For instance, if you clean air-handling units for a school and you see mold growing inside a rooftop unit, you may need to look at the whole building envelope in addition to the hvac system.

“If the wall in an air-handling unit has mold, and if mold continues to grow after the unit is cleaned and maintained, it’s being drawn back in through the return air,” Allen points out. School administrators need to be made aware of this and get the entire building inspected.

Allen advises that contractors look for what in the hvac could have promoted mold growth. Was there a clogged drain pan, for example, or was the hvac system only acting as the mold distributor? “Look around the building,” Allen says. “Determine whether air testing is advisable.”

“You are in charge of the lungs of the building,” she tells contractors who ask her to speak at their meetings, such as the May 3 meeting of the North Texas Air Con-ditioning Contractors of America. In addition to performing remediation work, Video-Aire offers a “Mold Remediation Boot Camp” for contractors who may want to expand into this field, or who just want to be better informed.

Common Problem

Phillip Stojanik got started doing hvac work with his father’s company, Northwest Air Conditioning & Heating Inc. He now chiefly does real estate inspection work as Pro Check Inspection Services in Houston, TX.

“What I see most often from the public is that most people complain that they’re sick,” Stojanik says. “A lot of them are hypochondriacs, but…when I was in the hvac business, I saw evaporator coils and ductwork that had lots of mold on them.”

At the time, he says he just considered it a part of the business. These days, however, consumers are much more sophisticated and aware of the risks of mold contamination. They are also more litigious. “If the customer says, ‘I’m always sick, I’m always sneezing,’ you have to look for it [the possible contaminant],” Stojanik says.

“Customers are going to hear about mold, and they’re going to ask you about it. If they get a blank stare back, they’re going to wonder if they’ve got the right contractor.”

At a minimum, a contractor should be able to recognize a potential problem and give the customer solid information. (See The News’ website, www.achrnews.com, for Centers for Disease Control and Prevention [CDC] information on Stachybotrys and asthma.) A contractor can also refer customers to a local testing facility and mold remediation firm.

Contractors should also let their own technicians know how to protect themselves against “sporulation,” the process by which mold sends out spores to procreate when it is disturbed.

Handle With Care

Mold is like “a rattlesnake,” says Stojanik; “as long as you leave it alone, it’s OK.” However, certain jobs make this impractical or impossible. In cases of extreme mold growth, where ductwork or equipment needs to be removed or otherwise disturbed, technicians may need to make a judgment call to protect themselves and customers from sporulation.

Also, hvac contractors need to know that there are risks if they decide to perform mold “remediation” without the proper training and tools. According to the CDC, if there is visible mold growth, it needs to be removed. However, Allen points out that “It needs to be done professionally so that it’s not inadvertently spread.

“If you have mold growing in a wall and you spray it with bleach, it can sporulate and spread,” she explains. Remediation work must be carefully controlled and contained.

“These guys go in and pop a plenum and see some really big mold growths,” Allen adds. “Stop and take stock.” It can spread; “As soon as you rip out the duct liner, sporulation begins.”

Service tech protection is “the million dollar question,” says Stojanik. “That’s where education comes in.

“When I was in hvac,” he continues, “I would get three or four really good, had-to-go-to-the-doctor sinus infections per year. In hindsight, I can see what it was: mold and dust.” At a minimum, techs should be wearing a dust mask. Allen recommends an N95 respirator because mold particle size can easily pass through the typical filter masks sold by hardware stores.

And “If you see something really bad, think about how you are going to do the job,” says Stojanik. “Plan the work so that it is least disruptive to the mold.” This is also important for the customer’s sake.

Let the Customer Know

It would be irresponsible for a service tech not to report a mold problem, says Stojanik. While most techs are looking for mechanical problems, mold buildup could be causing customers’ health problems. “The worst thing you can do is stir it up, say, by trying to rip out contaminated ductboard,” he says.

So when you see a problem, “Let the customer know,” says Stojanik. “If someone gets sick and you changed out the system — if grandma goes to the hospital with pneumonia and doesn’t come home — it is not outside the realm of possibility that you could get sued.”

No one is advising contractors to set themselves up as experts, especially if they haven’t had any training. But by letting customers know that mold is growing in their system, and by giving them a link to an industrial hygienist to perform IAQ testing, as well as to a qualified remediator, contractors can position themselves as knowledgeable, trustworthy professionals.

Recognize the problem well enough to inform homeowners, Allen says. Even in her work with Video-Aire, “I still do not set myself up as the expert. I’m not a scientist. I’m not a doctor. I don’t want to accept the liability.”

However, “If it looks fishy to you, inform homeowners that they have a potential problem.”

For more information on Video-Aire, contact the company at 888-595-4393; www.enviro mold.com (website).

Sidebar: Who Is at Risk?

According to Video-Aire’s Melinda Wood Allen, people who can be affected by Stachybotrys and other mold growths include children, whose immune systems are not yet fully developed; the elderly; and people with asthma, diabetes, HIV — “anything that compromises the immune system in any way.”

These people have a hard time fighting off mold-related health problems. “Many molds can cause allergic reactions,” explains Allen. “Many molds are considered pathogenic. Stachybotrys causes severe allergic reactions.”

Publication date: 06/04/2001

Sidebar:Experts and Equipment

Home inspector Phillip Stojanik has found that his best source of local industrial hygienists and remediation firms has been the Yellow Pages and the Internet. Keyword searches would be for “mold” and “testing labs.” Some will rent test equipment, Stojanik says, and explain how to collect samples. After you send it in, they send back an analysis.

Sampling tools can include a plate with a sticky substance and a pump to draw air through, Stojanik continues. “Take one sample outside for a baseline measurement, and however many you want to take inside.” He has found that pump equipment costs around $450; cassettes cost about $30. And contaminants that can be tested are not limited to mold.

“The average service company can do it [sampling],” Stojanik says. “It’s not rocket science. The part in the lab, the analysis, is very complicated. But collecting samples for home IAQ, you can learn that in a day, basically an eight-hour course.”

Melinda Wood Allen, from remediation and training firm Video-Aire International, says service techs can even take a mold sample using a piece of tape; done gently, it does not result in dangerous sporulation.

Proper training adds to the cost of entry into remediation work, which may be best left to larger or more specialized firms. However, a basic contractor’s education on mold and other contaminants commonly found in hvac systems could easily pay for itself by preventing litigation and/or medical expenses.

Website Exclusive Sidebar: From CDC website:

Q. and A. on Stachybotrys From CDC website: Q. and A. on Stachybotrys Q. I heard about toxic molds that grow in homes and other buildings. Should I be concerned about a serious health risk to me and my family?

A. The hazards presented by molds that may contain mycotoxins should be considered the same as other common molds which can grow in your house. There is always a little mold everywhere — in the air and on many surfaces. There are very few case reports that toxic molds (those containing certain mycotoxins) inside homes can cause unique or rare, health conditions such as pulmonary hemorrhage or memory loss. These case reports are rare, and a causal link between the presence of the toxic mold and these conditions has not been proven. A common-sense approach should be used for any mold contamination existing inside buildings and homes. The common health concerns from molds include hay-fever like allergic symptoms. Certain individuals with chronic respiratory disease (chronic obstructive pulmonary disorder, asthma) may experience difficulty breathing. Individuals with immune suppression may be at increased risk for infection from molds. If you or your family members have these conditions, a qualified medical clinician should be consulted for diagnosis and treatment. For the most part, one should take routine measures to prevent mold growth in the home.

Q. How common is mold, including Stachybotrys chartarum (also known by its synonym Stachybotrys atra) in buildings?

A. Molds are very common in buildings and homes and will grow anywhere indoors where there is moisture. The most common indoor molds are Cladosporium, Penicillium, Aspergillus, and Alternaria. We do not have accurate information about how often Stachybotrys chartarum is found in buildings and homes. While it is less common than other mold species, it is not rare.

Q. How do molds get in the indoor environment and how do they grow?

A. Molds naturally grow in the indoor environment. Mold spores may also enter your house through open doorways, windows, heating, ventilation, and air conditioning systems. Spores in the air outside also attach themselves to people and animals, making clothing, shoes, bags, and pets convenient vehicles for carrying mold indoors.

When mold spores drop on places where there is excessive moisture, such as where leakage may have occurred in roofs, pipes, walls, plant pots, or where there has been flooding, they will grow. Many building materials provide suitable nutrients that encourage mold to grow. Wet cellulose materials, including paper and paper products, cardboard, ceiling tiles, wood, and wood products, are particularly conducive for the growth of some molds. Other materials such as dust, paints, wallpaper, insulation materials, drywall, carpet, fabric, and upholstery, commonly support mold growth.

Q. What is Stachybotrys chartarum (Stachybotrys atra)?

A. Stachybotrys chartarum (also known by its synonym Stachybotrys atra) is a greenish-black mold. It can grow on material with a high cellulose and low nitrogen content, such as fiberboard, gypsum board, paper, dust, and lint. Growth occurs when there is moisture from water damage, excessive humidity, water leaks, condensation, water infiltration, or flooding. Constant moisture is required for its growth. It is not necessary, however, to determine what type of mold you may have. All molds should be treated the same with respect to potential health risks and removal.

Q. Are there any circumstances where people should vacate a home or other building because of mold?

A. These decisions have to be made individually. If you believe you are ill because of exposure to mold in a building, you should consult your physician to determine the appropriate action to take.

Q. Who are the people who are most at risk for health problems associated with exposure to mold?

A. People with allergies may be more sensitive to molds. People with immune suppression or underlying lung disease are more susceptible to fungal infections.

Q. How do you know if you have a mold problem?

A. Large mold infestations can usually be seen or smelled.

Q. Does Stachybotrys chartarum (Stachybotrys atra) cause acute idiopathic pulmonary hemorrhage among infants?

A. To date, a possible association between acute idiopathic pulmonary hemorrhage among infants and Stachybotrys chartarum (Stachybotrys atra) has not been proven. Further studies are needed to determine what causes acute idiopathic hemorrhage.

Q. What if my child has acute idiopathic pulmonary hemorrhage?

A. Parents should ensure that their children get proper medical treatment.

Q. What are the potential health effects of mold in buildings and homes?

A. Mold exposure does not always present a health problem indoors. However some people are sensitive to molds. These people may experience symptoms such as nasal stuffiness, eye irritation, or wheezing when exposed to molds. Some people may have more severe reactions to molds. Severe reactions may occur among workers exposed to large amounts of molds in occupational settings, such as farmers working around moldy hay. Severe reactions may include fever and shortness of breath. People with chronic illnesses, such as obstructive lung disease, may develop mold infections in their lungs.

Q. How do you get the molds out of buildings, including homes, schools, and places of employment?

A. In most cases mold can be removed by a thorough cleaning with bleach and water. If you have an extensive amount of mold and you do not think you can manage the cleanup on your own, you may want to contact a professional who has experience in cleaning mold in buildings and homes.

Q. What should people to do if they determine they have Stachybotrys chartarum (Stachybotrys atra) in their buildings or homes?

A. Mold growing in homes and buildings, whether it is Stachybotrys chartarum (Stachybotrys atra) or other molds, indicates that there is a problem with water or moisture. This is the first problem that needs to be addressed. Mold can be cleaned off surfaces with a weak bleach solution. Mold under carpets typically requires that the carpets be removed. Once mold starts to grow in insulation or wallboard the only way to deal with the problem is by removal and replacement. We do not believe that one needs to take any different precautions with Stachybotrys chartarum (Stachybotrys atra), than with other molds. In areas where flooding has occurred, prompt cleaning of walls and other flood-damaged items with water mixed with chlorine bleach, diluted 10 parts water to 1 part bleach, is necessary to prevent mold growth. Never mix bleach with ammonia. Moldy items should be discarded.

Q. How do you keep mold out of buildings and homes?

A. As part of routine building maintenance, buildings should be inspected for evidence of water damage and visible mold. The conditions causing mold (such as water leaks, condensation, infiltration, or flooding) should be corrected to prevent mold from growing.

Specific recommendations:

  • Keep humidity level in house below 50%.
  • Use air conditioner or a dehumidifier during humid months.
  • Be sure home has adequate ventilation, including exhaust fans in kitchen and bathrooms.
  • Use mold inhibitors which can be added to paints.
  • Clean bathroom with mold-killing products.
  • Do not carpet bathrooms.
  • Remove and replace flooded carpets.
  • In summary, Stachybotrys chartarum (Stachybotrys atra) and other molds may cause health symptoms that are nonspecific. At present there is no test that proves an association between Stachybotrys chartarum (Stachybotrys atra) and particular health symptoms. Individuals with persistent symptoms should see their physician. However, if Stachybotrys chartarum (Stachybotrys atra) or other molds are found in a building, prudent practice recommends that they be removed. Use the simplest and most expedient method that properly and safely removes mold.

    Publication date: 06/04/2001