I've got mold...who should I call?
by Building Inspector and Indoor Air Specialist, Dan Schilling

There are three groups of people who work with mold: inspectors, remediators, and industrial hygienists.  While there are a few similarities, there are also very distinct differences between them depending upon their specific areas of training.  This article should help you understand who to call, and the seven questions you need to have answered.

Industrial Hygienists

Industrial hygienists are specialists who tend to approach indoor mold conditions primarily from a scientific perspective.  They like to call themselves mold inspectors but this is a misnomer.  In actuality they are only trained to take air samples and surface samples of visually apparent mold.  These samples are then analyzed in a laboratory or occasionally on site.  

The mold analysis is performed through two methods: microscopy (visual) and culturing (growing).  When mold is analyzed through microscopy, the lab can determine the genus (type) of the mold.  When necessary, culturing the mold can precisely determine subspecies.  

Microscopy is the preferred method of sampling because it is the least expensive and offers speedy analysis, typically within two days.  Culturing mold samples in Petri dishes can take weeks and increase laboratory costs.

The results of analysis can determine if the mold is allergenic, pathogenic, toxigenic, or a combination of these.  
This information is sometimes helpful; although in most cases, determining the species of mold is completely unnecessary and not recommended.

As public awareness of indoor mold contamination increased, many industrial hygienists were eager to welcome the new increase in business through lab sampling.  However, there are many discrepancies that prevent mold samples from being considered conclusive.  Moreover, ALL indoor molds can affect the health of humans and pets to various degrees and should be addressed cautiously regardless of the species.  Offering lab analysis that is often useless, and sometimes the source of added confusion or even hysteria, is not helpful.  

There are only three primary situations for which the option of mold testing should be considered:  

1)  When an individual experiences health problems suspected to be related to mold exposure.  In this circumstance, knowing the type of mold may be helpful for a doctor.

2)  In cases of potential litigation involving real-estate transactions or disputes between landlords and tenants for which scientific documentation of the presence of mold may become necessary.  

3)  For clearance testing following a mold remediation project when an extra measure of comfort is desired.

Beyond these three reasons, lab testing of mold is typically meaningless and a waste of financial resources that could be better used for a proper inspection, and professional remediation if deemed necessary by the inspector.

Testing is Not Inspection     An industrial hygiene credential does not mean that the hygienist has been trained in the remediation (safe removal) of mold, nor does it mean they are trained in the area of building construction, performance, or inspection as needed to properly determine the conditions that caused or contributed to indoor mold growth, and to correctly determine the solutions.  Some industrial hygienists may use moisture reading instruments when taking samples but this should not be misconstrued as a proper building investigation for mold.

Additionally, there is no requirement or need for an industrial hygiene degree to perform mold testing.  Therefore many mold remediators and inspectors now offer mold testing as an add-on service.  While industrial hygienists have a place in the science of air quality, they are typically not the best choice when a mold assessment is needed.  

Mold Remediators

To remediate mold means to provide a "remedy."  While some mold remediators also offer sampling, it should be reiterated that sampling has little to do with the actual remediation of mold.

Many of the companies that now perform mold remediation have been remediating asbestos and lead paint in buildings. Therefore, they already owned the specialized equipment allowing them to safely remove mold.  However, unlike lead or asbestos, mold growth will return again if it is not properly remediated and all of the causes and contributing factors determined and corrected.

There can be various remedies for a mold contamination problem.  Remediation could mean a do-it-yourself project, provided a professional inspection has been performed to ensure that correct and specific steps are followed in each affected area.  Remediation might also involve locations or amounts of mold that should never be approached without professional training, the use of specialized equipment, and following exact protocol.  

Though not yet required in many states, people practicing mold remediation should be professionally trained in the fields of water damage and mold removal.  This knowledge is essential in order to prevent mold from spreading further through a building.  Mold is opportunistic and can spread like cancer throughout a building if not addressed properly.

Unfortunately, many remediation firms have unsupervised employees working on projects that have not been properly trained.  Just because an owner has training does not always mean a job will be done correctly.

Conflict of Interest     Some mold remediators work in questionable relationships with industrial hygienists.  A remediator might tell a client that they need to have mold tests performed, knowing that the mold tests will come back positive regardless of the amount.  The hygienist will then charge the client for the tests and use the results as a reason to recommend the remediator.  The hygienist may also recommend an extreme and expensive remediation plan in order to reduce liability.  This plan may then be expanded upon even further by the remediator.  Even if covered by insurance, these excessive projects can be a major inconvenience for a homeowner with a mold problem.

After the remediation is finished, the remediator will then recommend that the client hire the hygienist again to perform more tests for remedial verification.  This earns the hygienist more money and serves to reduce the remediator's liability.  

In the end, if a mold remediator can be assured of larger and more profitable projects, reduction of liability, and continued referrals from the hygienist, they will happily recommend mold tests even though they have no definable purpose for the client's benefit.  This is not to say that all remediators or hygienists are unethical, but this practice does occur on a daily basis and people with mold problems should be strongly aware of it.  

Remediation is Not Inspection     Mold remediation training is for the safe removal of mold.  It is not the same as training in the area of building construction, performance, or mold inspection.  

Like industrial hygienists, many mold remediators like to call themselves mold inspectors, offering free inspections to homeowners in hopes of being the first one to get the job.  Often they will attempt to create hysteria in order to ensure their likelihood of getting a job.  Some people have literally been scared out of their homes by mold remediators.

In order for someone to have a mold problem, they must first have a failure of one or more building components or mechanical systems.  Mold remediation companies generally have no training at all in this area of inspection.  Even if they did, it would be a blatant conflict of interest for them to both inspect and remediate the same building.   

I have not yet seen a remediation project performed correctly where the remediator pretended to be an inspector.  When clients attempt to save money by not hiring an actual building inspector before remediation, the second remediation can be even more work and more expensive. The practice of mold remediators purporting to be mold inspectors is all too common and people with mold problems need to avoid them.  

This is not to say that all remediators are unethical.  Some remediators will tell you up front that you should have a proper inspection performed first, and then call them with the results so they can give you an accurate estimate and do the best job for you.

Professional remediation can be sometimes be costly due to the training and equipment required, and due to the protocol that a remediator must follow.  Nonetheless, there are many instances when professionals are needed to remediate mold contamination.  

Mold Inspectors

Professional building inspectors have the credentials and the greatest amount of knowledge regarding old and new construction methods - specifically, defects or inadequacies that can lead to mold contamination in buildings.  They understand roofing and gutter systems, siding, windows and doors, heating and cooling systems, attic ventilation, drainage grading, plumbing systems, etc.  Moreover, they understand how all of these components are supposed to work in harmony as a system.  

Some building inspectors have been attending comprehensive mold remediation seminars to learn the best strategies to handle mold problems in a variety of situations.  Some have also attended the seminars and classes necessary to learn how to take mold samples like industrial hygienists and now offer this service when there is a justified need.  

Combining the vast knowledge it takes to be a building inspector with training given to mold remediators and industrial hygienists, these inspectors have the ability to provide answers to all mold-related questions.

Mold inspectors use their unbiased investigative knowledge in conjunction with the latest non-invasive equipment to help diagnose mold problems without destruction.

A mold inspector has the technical training necessary to determine 1) where the mold is located and the extent of it, 2) if the mold has spread to other areas of the building, 3) the direct cause of origin for the mold germination, 4) the secondary factors that may have contributed to the growth and spread of the mold since germination, 5) the appropriate and safe measures to get rid of each specific area mold, 6) what building corrections are needed to ensure the mold does not return, and 7) whether a professional is needed, or whether the project can be safely performed by a homeowner or building staff.

In less serious cases, do-it-yourself cleanup information can be provided.  If necessary, a written plan for mold remediators can be provided should professional remediation be needed, along with a list of the corrective measures that must be taken to prevent mold recurrence.  The mold inspector can also prepare written reports that may be needed for real estate transactions, landlords, attorneys, or insurance companies.

Summary     Visible mold or musty odors should be promptly investigated before they get worse and become increasingly expensive to resolve.  No suspected mold infected area should be tampered with or remediated until a proper inspection has been performed.
The mold inspector is ultimately the best choice for anyone desiring accurate and unbiased information regarding mold contamination problems, along with practical solutions.

Dan Schilling has been diagnosing building problems for over 32 years.  With passion and professionalism, countless people across the nation with mold concerns in residential and commercial buildings have been helped.

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