May 1, 2002 - From the May, 2002 issue

Mold Wreaks Havoc On Homes, Buildings, Industry: Will It Be The Next Major Environmental Hazard?

The next big environmental hazard to significantly impact the real estate community may be a very familiar foe: toxic mold. While the lawyers and insurance companies argue over the liability associated with mold, TPR is pleased to present this article by Bart Sokolow, president of Environmental Financial Services, Inc., an environmental consulting firm, on the subject of the construction and real estate risks posed by mold.

By: Bart Sokolow, D.Env., P.E., R.E.A

The streets of Laredo are desolate now; even the horses have turned in for the night. Why are we up, you quizzically ask your guide? To look for mold, I respond. Mold? Yes, mold. It comes out at night--like false teeth. Oh, you quietly say. We have our flashlights. We have our breathers. We venture forth, one at a time, in single file. Then all hell breaks loose.

Without warning, flares go off; Star Wars-type rocket ships start launching; we seek cover as armies of ants and other mobile pests swoop down, carpet bomb the entire neighborhood then move on-devastation left in their wake. While sometimes the enemy hibernates for years, without movement, without any sign of their existence. They act like moles, penetrating into the inner reaches of our homes. Where are they hiding?

Oh, did I screw up the analogy? I was really talking about mold and fungus. Your amazement at the similarities may be frightening, but that is the way with mold or fungus. Some of their activities are benign, while others attack with the vengeance of soldiers of fortune, hired guns paid for their fight and moxie.

Mold and fungus are not new; they shouldn't be news, either. Most species of mold predate mammals and certainly man. The reason they are news today has more to do with their connection to construction defects litigation. This connection may be argued as a mere correlation or more significantly, having a cause and effect relationship. The courts will make the final distinction..

The facts are that homes that have been infested by, or inhabited by mold also have people who live in them getting sick. The sickness can trigger allergic reactions or can be triggered by an allergic reaction to exposure to mold. The mold de jour is stachybotris chartarum. It can be black, slimy to the touch and insidious. It can cause severe health problems to inhabitants in homes. Mold can grow on carpet, paper, insulation, food, wallboard, paint, or, underneath marble or tile counters. It can be difficult to eliminate, or, remove. In rare instances, homes may have to be razed. Not all instances require such drastic action.

The problems arise when mold lies dormant in a vegetative state, as spores, for months or years, or, grows without the owner's knowledge in unreachable or otherwise undetectable locations - under sub flooring or behind wall boards. I have been in homes where I could put my finger through the gypsum drywall of a dining room wall, without exerting much pressure because it was so mushy and mold infested.

How, you are wondering, does all this mold grow? With Water. It needs water! Okay, then, moisture: simply, moisture from a leaky hose, a crack in a white PVC irrigation lawn sprinkler pipe, or, from a plumbing leak. According to the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power, just a 1/16-inch opening in a water pipe can release 33,000 gallons of water per month, and a 1/32-inch opening can release 6300 gallons of water per month. This is some serious water flow! [Potentially this means, with a 1/16-inch opening, you could fill a 42,000 gallon pool in less than 2 months.]

Regardless of what you may be able to see, the mold is there because of some source of water.

There is always a source of water that causes mold growth. The issue of subsequent physical damage and other perceived or real medical problems are another matter. Yet, the issues of structural integrity and construction defects are real. Mold can be unsightly, ugly and smell bad. If it enters into the main support beams of the house, the consequences can be structurally catastrophic. On the other hand, a spray can of dilute bleach (1 ounce of bleach mixed with 9 ounces of water) can eliminate much of the unsightly stains and given enough ventilation, the problems may go away. [Soap and water can, too.] Oh? It will go away - only if you have eliminated the source of the problem and you aren't treating just the visual symptoms.

Lawyers and insurance companies have different views of the problem. On one hand, insurance companies view mold and fungus as the symptom de jour whose heightened awareness in the press brings out the copycats, wannabes, and those who are experiencing the equivalent of psychosomatic ailments. On the other hand, according to the insurance companies, the home insurance policies, under which "insureds" [that is, policy holders] seek redress, was meant to handle construction defects not medical pain and suffering.

One Wall Street Journal article [June 6, 2001] indicated that Farmer's Insurance Group, with 7 percent of the U.S. homeowner's insurance market estimates that mold claims will cost it $85 million in 2001. Extrapolating, that would make the industry's total for mold related claims to exceed $1.2 billion dollars in 2001.


Lawyers will tell you the symptoms are real, the illnesses are real, the allergies are real, and the polyps are real. Not only are all these illnesses for real, they are caused by the mold and fungus infestation in their homes.

There are definitely two schools of thought: one perceives it as a serious problem – the other, that there is no problem. Interestingly, most litigation never makes it to court because the parties settle. Why? While both parties espouse complete conviction in their beliefs, they are not willing to have the theories tested, for a variety of reasons.

Various publication over the last several months from the New York Times Magazine to the Wall Street Journal have had war stories describing the impact of mold and various families and the subsequent horror stories dealing with cleaning up, or, remediating the homes, some very large.

Recently, I had to recommend that a 4,000 square foot home be torn down because of mold infestation. Yet, there were other potential problems the homeowner had to address. I informed him that the demolition crew would need to wear breathing masks (called respirators; they are not the flimsy paper dust masks that you often see being worn by gardeners blowing their trimmings away back-borne portable leafblowers) as well, unless he wanted to be liable for additional medical costs.

Is this a plague? Is there a remedy? No it's not a modern day plague. Causative agents are known. It doesn't take modern medicine to cure it. Sometimes, all it takes is a little dose of elbow grease and some soap and water. Other times what's needed is better construction coordination, or more serious repairs. What does that mean? Well, when stucco walls are built, building codes require that a galvanized steel weep screed be constructed at the bottom of the wall, to wick away moisture [much like a Gore-Tex jacket, keeps the body warm but "wicks" away moisture which would cool the body] Stucco is water resistant, not waterproof. The weep screed permits water to be removed from the bottom of the wall so it doesn't enter the inside of the outside wall. When water enters inside the wall, it may find its way to a cool, quiet place where mold can grow from the nutrients in the wood. Fueled by the water, this mold could lead to rot in the sheathing and framing.

Yet, it is possible that the concrete patio installer poured concrete over the previously installed weep screed, rendering it useless. Red Alert! You now have a condition that is ripe for mold growth when it rains. While both trades people did what they were supposed to, no one in the final analysis realized that the net effect was an ineffective and useless weep screed.

There are many scenarios that could result in similar problems. Current building practices result in more tightly sealed buildings and moves toward use of cheaper building materials like plasterboard and plywood. Inadequate ventilation can also lead to moisture buildup. According to the U.S. EPA, some building materials such as, dry wall, may not allow moisture to escape easily. Retaining walls that don't work, raised foundations that don't have effective ventilation to permit water to evaporate or plumbing repairs that were completed too quickly also may cause produce conditions that can causes potential problems. One telltale sign is a large water bill that doesn't correlate to actual water usage.

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control [CDC] in Atlanta says that common health concerns from molds do include fever like allergic symptoms. Further, they say, that people with immune suppression or underlying lung disease are more susceptible to infections. The jury is still out on the causative link between mold and pulmonary hemorrhage bleeding, although each case must be examined on its own merits.

Insurance companies are slowly moving to change homeowner policies to exclude mold damage as a covered loss. It appears, as well, that there is an attempt by attorneys to be more prudent in their filings.

Mold and fungus are here to stay. Much of it is benign. While many perceive it as the Princess and the Pea Syndrome, real impacts are being recorded. Lawsuits are being filed. It will simply take more time to determine if the litigation is justified and the medical and legal issues can be resolved.


© 2024 The Planning Report | David Abel, Publisher, ABL, Inc.