by Doug Hoffman
I remember the lawsuits and hysteria surrounding the mold problems of Erin Brockovich, the Ballards in Texas, and even Ed McMahon with his sheepdog, Muffin.
“Black Mold” was called the “next asbestos” — and the media frenzy was on. But today, we just don’t hear very much about mold, do we? Did it go away? Is it no longer a problem? Have we now decided that it won’t kill us and that it is safe?
As a contractor for over 35 years, I remember when, in the 1980s, our building techniques changed. At that time, the driving force was a concern over increasing energy costs and so, as a result, we tightened up our buildings to reduce energy loss.
Weather-stripping was a hot commodity and lowering the thermostat became the new status-symbol of the energy conservationist. The unintended consequence of these tighter buildings was to create petri dishes where indoor air quality contaminants, like mold and bacteria, would have an environment in which to proliferate. Trapped air became toxic air. SBS (Sick Building Syndrome) and BRI (Building Related Illness) were some of the first indicators that we had a problem and then, before we could turn around, it became a legal issue. Those who were especially sensitive to mold issues, like the Ballards, McMahon, et al, became the focal point of the media.
Yes, some people still get very sick from mold, but I believe what we have found is that the numbers are significantly lower than we first believed and, therefore, the hysteria has subsided.
But is mold now safe?
Well, with that said, we shouldn’t ignore the fact that people still get very sick from mold contamination and that some people, maybe a smaller group than we first thought, are highly sensitive to many IAQ contaminants, including mold.
It’s not that mold has become safer, it’s that the instances of serious health problems are being more reasonably dealt with. Doctors, like members of the AAEM (American Association of Environmental Medicine) are becoming more aware of potential environmental issues. The mold industry is being more careful and better trained to evaluate and deal with these issues. States are now licensing mold professionals to be sure they are following best practices and credible trade associations, like NORMI™, are being formed to support those professionals.
The whole mold assessment and remediation industry, especially where licensing is required, recognizes that three classes are especially susceptible to health problems because of mold: The elderly, the very young, and the immune-suppressed. Care should be taken to understand the reality of the symptoms associated with mold contamination and the proper techniques for building isolation containment, establishing negative pressure and using PPE (personal protective equipment). These processes can protect even the most sensitive individuals and should be incorporated where building occupants or workers may be exposed to elevated levels of mold contamination.
In short, I think the mold industry has experienced the same progression as the asbestos industry did years ago. Initially, asbestos was considered “deadly” and removal, or abatement, seemed to be the only option. Later, as more information became available, encapsulation-in-place became an option, deemed more reasonable and cost effective. As a result, the asbestos hysteria subsided.
Unlike asbestos, mold is a natural substance that only becomes a problem when it is trapped in a welcoming indoor environment. Control the environment with the proper sanitization protocol and you can control or eliminate mold growth. When that is done, most people can live in that clean environment without concerns for their health or the health of their family.
The more we learn about how to live healthier lives indoors, the safer those environments become.
Doug Hoffman is the CEO of NORMI, the National Organization of Remediators and Mold Inspectors. He can be reached at via e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.