A New Reality for Mold Professionals

Competent sampling, detailed notes, and quality laboratory analysis and reporting will make the difference during litigation.

IN the late 1990s, mold became an enormously popular topic because of a dramatic increase in the amount of media coverage and a resulting increase in the awareness by some of the potential health effects fungi may cause. The fungal niche of the indoor air quality (IAQ) industry has been around for decades and companies providing quality service remain viable, but suddenly--thanks to the help of popular movies and the aforementioned onslaught of publicity--the nation found itself in the grip of a perceived mold "epidemic."

As a consequence, many "mold inspectors," trainers, and laboratories popped up. While the wave of hype has subsided to some extent and many of the companies riding high on the mold wave went out of business in 2003, there are still more than 38,000 Web sites dedicated to the topics of mold and mold remediation. Unethical business practices, faulty sampling, a wealth of misleading information, and poor analysis during this period of rapid growth in our industry also has resulted in a large amount of litigation. What does this mean to the professional mold investigator? Inevitably, even the most legitimate mold investigators, industrial hygienists, and laboratories will find themselves in a courtroom. On average, we are subpoenaed at least once a week.

The Legislative Landscape
All eyes are on legislation. Currently, approximately 80 legislative bills are pending across the United States. California passed one of the early bills, Senate Bill 732, The Toxic Mold Protection Act of 2001. This bill was fabled to require the establishment of permissible threshold levels for fungi. In reality, it required an assessment by July 2003 of the feasibility of setting permissible threshold levels for fungi, before any work began on setting possible levels. The bill never received public funding and, given California's economic troubles, it is highly unlikely that it will. A task force is trying to drum up donations to fund a $1 million, two-phase implementation of portions of the bill, but it currently has not received many donations.

Texas House Bill 329 of 2003 creates a program to license mold assessors and remediators and proposes numerical guidelines for fungi. Many groups advocate against the use of numerical guidelines for fungi, although many have been proposed over the years. (As an aside, a book was published in January 2004, "Worldwide Exposure Standards for Mold and Bacteria. Historical and Current Perspectives," by Dr. Robert Brandys and Gail Brandys.) I personally agree numerical guidelines will not work and felt this was best articulated in Chapter 1 of the American Conference of Governmental Industrial Hygienists' book "Bioaerosols: Assessment and Control." Legislation could certainly swing the IAQ industry in a variety of directions very quickly. Mark Twain warned that sausage and legislation are two things you don't ever want to see being made; also, legislation can change dramatically and be vetoed at the end. As a result, it is very hard to predict.

Factors in Sampling Decisions
Ultimately, whatever the governing guidelines become, the responsibility of quality work will always fall on the person conducting the investigation and sampling.

"I have become increasingly convinced that one of the most important things for an indoor mold investigator to understand is in water relations in buildings," says Dr. Harriet Burge of EMLab. "Always remember: If there is water, there will be mold. All good home investigations must be sufficiently complete so that the investigator becomes knowledgeable about overall water--and, hence, mold--conditions in the home.

"A thorough inspection of all possible water sources should be made. This includes inspection of gutters, downspouts, windowsills, roofs, siding, basement walls, floors, drains, plumbing, sites of potential condensation, etc. Ambient relative humidity and surface temperatures should be measured to document the potential for condensation if present. Following or during this inspection, samples can be taken to verify observations."

Beyond the competency of the individual's work, the other important choice to be made in the face of potential lawsuits is selecting the best laboratory to which to entrust the analysis. Enlisting the services of a laboratory that is regularly subpoenaed for laboratory results and has a record for systems, data, processes, and personnel holding up every time in court is an increasingly vital choice.

Mold professionals are well educated and informed. This is not a group that will entrust a sub-par laboratory with their samples or their credibility. As they are selecting their laboratory, these professionals are asking themselves the important questions:

* Does my laboratory really have the expertise and experience in mold analysis?
* Is this laboratory capable of helping me in litigation?
* Will they provide me with current and applicable information for litigation?
* Am I receiving accurate results from the laboratory concerning my samples?
* Is my laboratory there for me when I need their attention?
* Is my laboratory aware of the most current methods and standards?
* Do I consider my laboratory to be a trusted advisor?
* What opperational standards does my laboratory adhere to?
* Is my laboratory accredited?
* Is my laboratory looking out for me?

Some of these issues and concerns facing the mold professional can be answered by finding the answer to the question: Is my laboratory accredited by the American Industrial Hygiene Association? AIHA's EMLAP accreditation gives a laboratory's clients assurance that systems and standards are in place and being followed. This is a necessary, but not sufficient step toward having confidence in the quality and reliability of the laboratory. Additional information should be gathered regarding the experience of the staff, their training, the quality of the equipment, and the QA/QC systems that are applied.

Litigation is inevitable for the mold professional. Premiums and deductibles on mold E&O insurance are hefty and coverage can fall short. Competent sampling, detailed notes, and quality laboratory analysis and reporting will make the difference during litigation.

This article appeared in the January 2005 issue of Occupational Health & Safety.

This article originally appeared in the January 2005 issue of Occupational Health & Safety.

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