Is my problem "Mold"?

Robert P. Miata, CHCM, CHSP, OSP, CST
Consolidated Risk Management, Inc.
Garden City, New York

"Whenever I come to work I feel sick."

"My throat always hurts when I'm here."

"I can't stay in my office for more than an hour without getting a headache and sore eyes."

Are these employee complaints about their jobs, boss, or possibly the environment where they work? As a safety and health consulting firm that performs various services in environmental control, we receive a constant flow of employer inquiries concerning what they should do about these complaints.

One recent call from a building office manager indicated, "I have over 300 people working here and I have 300 requests for temperature changes. Some are too hot and some are too cold; so I set the temperature as to how I feel! But now I have a bunch of complaints about the air from employees. What do I do?"

There is no single answer for the above, although it is easy for one to jump to conclusions in many cases.

All such "building environment" complaints must start with a visual inspection. There can be numerous reasons for situations commonly termed as Sick Building Syndrome (SBS) or Building Related Illness (BRI). These terms have different meanings, but are typically interchanged to relate to building air or other building-produced pollutants that result in adverse health effects.

For the purposes of this discussion, we will focus upon mold-related problems within the workplace.

Molds are a common form of fungi, and can form nearly anywhere. Many mold species reproduce by the formation of spores which actually float through the air. When spores make contact with a favorable moist surface, such as wallboard, carpets, grout, furnishings, wallpaper, heating and cooling vents, wood surfaces, etc., they will begin to grow and feed upon the actual surface they attach to. Mold can grow on nearly any surface as long as oxygen and moisture are present.

When mold attaches and begins to grow, serious odors and adverse health effects can take place. Some individuals are more sensitive to mold and airborne spores than others. When exposed to mold, some will be affected by allergic reactions, or even recurring infections. In some cases mytotoxins can result in toxic-mediated health effects. People with a weak immune system can be extremely sensitive to molds. Persons such as pregnant women, those with diabetes, leukemia, AIDS or those receiving chemotherapy can be extremely susceptible to adverse health effects by the presence of mold.

Control the presence of moisture and then you can control mold growth. Without moisture control, mold will re-grow even after an extensive remediation project. A visual inspection is the first key step in the prevention and remediation process.

Checks must be made of the common moisture sources. These would include window and roof leaks, plumbing lines (both feeds and drainage systems), drain pipes, external drainage systems along building foundations, poor ventilation for showers, steam systems, cooking areas, etc. Basement drains, water intrusion through foundation and basement walls are common causes of mold growth. Pipe condensation due to differences in surface temperature also lead to damp/wet surfaces that invite spores for an extended stay.

The building humidity control should also be checked. Indoor relative humidity should be kept below 60% whenever possible. The use of increased ventilation and/or dehumidifiers may be a solution in some cases.

Inspection of air ducts and HVAC components is an essential prevention step for mold growth. This includes checking and providing required replacement of HVAC filters when applicable.

When mold is discovered, cleaning is essential with a process that destroys the mold and its by-products. When there are health complaints that are considered to be possibly a result of mold exposure, pre- and post-sampling for mold should be considered.

Mold sampling and analysis is a complex process that should be undertaken by a professional. The type of sampling (air or wipe samples) are determined by the professional in accordance with the goals for control and remediation that have been determined.

It is surprising to most that there are no standards that specify how much mold is hazardous. But, visible mold is objectionable and can produce ill health effects, odors and damage to building components. Therefore the problem requires in-depth inspection, and determination of cause (water and moisture presence) and what process will be undertaken to eliminate mold presence and repair the cause. Remember, moisture control will control mold growth.

Robert P. Miata is an Occupational Safety Professional, a Certified Safety Trainer, and a Certified Hazardous Materials Technician. His experience and consulting activities include the application of Risk Analysis Programs and Employee Safety Programs, with an emphasis on regulatory compliance. He can be reached at (516) 481-1900.