When a Leak Occurs, Waiting Isn’t an Option:
Preventing and Addressing Mold When the Situation Is NOT in Your Hands
Mold is ubiquitous and can grow wherever it can find food —the dust on a lampshade, the adhesive on the back of wallpaper, the drywall that makes up your walls, the manufactured wood (plywood, particle board, etc.) that most furniture is built from these days. Just about anything organic can become sustenance for mold. Then, with the right food and temperature, moisture, and just a little oxygen, mold can flourish and thrive. Thus, mold spores indoors are, unfortunately, inevitable. That is why preventive measures, like keeping dust levels lows, finding and repairing leaks, stopping moisture intrusion, and controlling indoor humidity must be ongoing actions to keep those spores from taking hold and threatening the health of our living spaces. Because of this, I like to think of my indoor environment as an ever-evolving ecosystem. It is alive, constantly changing and in flux. I consider it my job to do what I can to maintain a healthy microorganism balance by controlling what kinds of other “critters” can enter, survive, and thrive, so that my family and I can also live there and be well.
Of all of the things that mold needs to grow indoors, moisture is the main one that needs to be monitored and controlled for optimal prevention. Leaks, hidden or otherwise, can be a problematic introduction of water into a home’s building materials, walls, ceiling cavities, flooring, and below-grade spaces. If not dealt with and dried out immediately, even a very small leak can lead to a massive and expensive mold problem. The scary part is that leaks can happen quickly and many times occur without our knowledge until a water stain, musty smell, or mysterious sickness occurs to alert us to mold’s uninvited presence. The truth of the matter is that every home will deal with a leak or water intrusion at some point. It is inevitable and should be expected.
But, what if you don’t own your home and are dependent on someone else to fix the problem quickly to prevent mold growth? When your home’s maintenance isn’t in your hands, how to you stay safe from mold?
Leaks and Rental Properties
Recently, I received an email from a reader about a leak in his rental home. He is no stranger to mold and the dangers of indoor mold and has struggled with diagnosed mold toxicity and Chronic Inflammatory Response Syndrome (CIRS) in the past. As a matter of fact, going into his current rental situation, he tried to dot all of his “I’s” and cross all of his “T’s,” by first inspecting the home and performing an HERTSMI test on it prior to renting.
(Note: The HERSTMI is a smaller, less expensive, subset test of the Environmental Relative Moldiness Index (ERMI) Test. It is used to identify and quantify the presence and levels of 5 of the more common and most toxic species of mold that occur in water-damaged homes or buildings. It requires that dust samples be collected from the indoor environment via vacuum cannister or Swiffer cloth and sent to a lab for DNA analysis. The test results are then tallied and scored based on the following metrics: a score of less than 11 is considered safe, 11-15 is considered borderline–potentially dangerous for someone with CIRS and residents are encouraged to clean and re-test, and a score of greater than 15 is considered dangerous to both compromised and healthy people. While no test is perfect and does not take everything into account, this type of testing is relatively inexpensive and can give you an idea of the potential safety of a home from a mold standpoint only.)
In other words, this reader was trying to do everything he could to make certain the home wouldn’t cause him mold-related symptoms, if he decided to live there. The HERSTMI also tends to be a familiar test and scoring system for patients and doctors who follow Shoemaker-protocol-based treatment, so it can serve both parties when communicating about symptoms and exposures. There are pluses and drawbacks to this, but for the most part, in my opinion, I feel that it can be a helpful tool to quantify the potential “mold safety” of an indoor environment.
Unfortunately, this reader soon found out that you can’t always account for how structurally sound a home is with an ERMI or HERSTMI. There are always things that can happen after you test and move in that can introduce mold to a home that may have been previously safe. Remember, a test only offers a snapshot in time of the health of a home and must be repeated over the course of your time living there (this is why I use the inexpensive test plates) to best know that you are safe. The important thing, though, and why I thought sharing my email exchange with this reader would be helpful for others to read is that, it is not so much that a leak occurs that is the problem. Rather, it is how quickly the leak is properly dealt with that determines the outcome and subsequent health of the home and of those living there, especially when mold is a top concern.
A Reader’s Struggle With a Leak and a Landlord
To get you up to speed, here is his email to me:
(Note: As always, I have removed names, personal details, and references to setting and geography to protect his identity and that of his landlord.)
I would like to consult with you on a question regarding a rental house I just moved into.
Here’s my issue:
I moved into a newly-constructed house a few days ago. I am the first person to live here. Prior to moving in, I did a HERTSMI test from Mycometrics which came out pretty much perfect (a 0 score in total, so very little to no mold or indication of previous water damage).
For the past 3 days, it has been raining heavily here, and I noticed that water was leaking from the outer/top (pitched) roof onto the lower flat roof in one of the bedrooms. I am attaching an image of how it looks. It is now dripping water from the roof down to the floor.
It has now been leaking constantly for more than 72 hours, and my landlord has yet to remediate the problem.
I can sense that mold has started growing already as I feel CIRS/mold-related symptoms upon entering the bedroom where the leak is located. My question is:
Is there any way for me to perfectly remediate the problem, or will I have to move out? The landlord wants to simply put bleach on the area (after it has completely dried up) and then paint over it. But I know that treating mold with bleach, while it may remove the mold itself, will not treat the mycotoxins. I am also afraid that there will be mold further up under the main roof, and perhaps also at other spots around the house.
What would you do in my situation? I am highly sensitive to mold, and I am afraid that the toxins being produced in this bedroom will spread to the rest of the house. I could potentially close off this bedroom and not use it, but do you think that would be enough? If you were to remediate it, how would you go about it? And could it even be done perfectly at this point?
Thank you, in advance, for your reply.
Well, as you can imagine, I read this email and wanted to immediately do anything I could to help guide him. He is currently living in a rental home, where he feels held hostage to a situation not of his making and out of his control–a bad predicament. But, regardless of if his landlord gets the urgency or not, this leak has got to be stopped ASAP, and the wet building materials removed. Since the space where the water is leaking has been wet for over 72 hours, the living areas also have to be treated for mold spores to uphold his health and safety.
What follows is my response. I made sure to include as many helpful insights and DIY mold remediation tips as possible, so that, even if you aren’t dealing with the same issue, you can find something useful in our exchange to further your own quest to keep your living spaces mold-free.
I hate that you are having to deal with this after just moving in and doing so much beforehand to make sure that the home doesn’t cause you sickness. The good news is that I think this is solvable, especially if we can get your landlord onboard to help quickly.
It sounds and looks to me (from what I can see in the picture) like one of two things:
1) water is coming in from the outside through the wall itself;
2) there is a roof leak.
The first scenario seems less likely from your description of how the water is flowing from the pitched roof to the flat rook, but it is worth considering to make sure that the problem is correctly solved, since anything you do for mold remediation will be null and void, if the water continues to enter the home and to soak through the building materials. For a wall leak, mortar between bricks or stones on the exterior develops small cracks that wind-blown rain can press through. Usually, you can hear the water coming in when there is driving rain, and the water only enters when rain is hitting the home at a certain angle. If this doesn’t look or sound like the case, then the issue is likely a roof leak. Roof leaks can channel runoff into your walls or ceiling instead of shedding it or diverting it into a gutter system or away from the home. In both cases, the water will gradually drip through your walls’ insulation, wetting and penetrating everything in its path.
We actually had a similar situation in our home. We had insufficient gutters for our roof size and there was an issue with the flashing that was causing rainwater to overflow from the gutters into the soffit and then inside our home.
HERE is a link to that post for reference. In my opinion, your pic looks like there is an issue with how the rain is draining or being routed off of the roof, because it is flowing towards the house and into the siding and inside the wall.
The best way to diagnose this is going to be to stand outside in the rain and to watch the rain hit that part of the house. It will likely become clear quickly where the water is entering (the roof or the wall itself.) Another tip is to go outside and to see if there is any water staining on the exterior of the home. This can also be a good clue as to the path the water is taking when it hits the home—is it is a water stain from the roof, down the side of the home, or does the staining initiate abruptly right at a spot on the side of the home?
Opening the wall up to see the water path would have been helpful as well, but at this point, there is likely mold growth and that action will endanger your health without proper containment set up. Whatever the source of the leak, first and foremost, it must be fixed, so that water can no longer enter.
I would document everything you do with photographs and videos as much as possible. Also, for little cost, mold test plates and swabs would provide conclusive evidence of elevated spore counts at this stage. This will give you physical proof of a health risk, if needed, and the pictures and videos will help you in communicating with your landlord and contractors to fix the issue. Documentation and testing can also help to expedite things if your landlord is not being responsive.
Once the source of the leak is identified, the issue must be fixed ASAP or it will continue to happen every time it rains. If you haven’t already, I would put in writing your request to the landlord to fix this problem immediately and would also show evidence of mold (the before and after test results would be good for this) and links to reputable websites that state the dangerous consequences of living in water-damaged spaces. Indicate that you are experiencing some symptoms as well. You can later give recent medical evidence of current sensitivities that are caused or exacerbated by the situation. This way, there is liability with the landlord, should it be needed later on. A paper trail and evidence of your working hard to resolve the issue is always in your favor. Also, using language that is statement of fact, rather than antagonistic usually renders the best results.
It may also be wise to look up the renter’s rights in your geographic location and to review your rental lease/contract that states the landlord’s responsibilities in these matters and the timeframe with which they must be handled. You may be able to withhold rent or to pay for repairs and be reimbursed later. Any conclusive evidence of mold could also be helpful for you to get out of your lease to be able to find a new place, if the landlord doesn’t keep his/her end of the deal. Most contracts provide some latitude to get immediate problems fixed if cost is below a certain amount, especially if waiting can cause further damage. In these cases, you can deduct from rent or be reimbursed according to the lease. This could be valuable information as far as what you can expect to have to also have to do on your own afterwards or during the repairs to make certain that the home remains safe for you to live there.
While I know that this is never what you want to do (spend money out of your pocket on a rental space), the sad and hard truth is that you may have to in order to safeguard your health. The risk and human costs of severe sickness are far greater than the costs of reparations. Few landlords will go through the proper steps to remediate the indoor environment correctly after fixing the leak. Regardless, whatever you can do convey urgency and the fact that IT IS IMPERATIVE that this problem is fixed is important. Further delay in the landlord’s actions will not only compromise the integrity of the home over time, but could lead to a HUGE and much more expensive mold problem in the future.
But, right now, there is a pretty major leak to deal with.
Things You Can Do Immediately:
While you are waiting on the landlord to take action, you can begin to do some of the following things that will help keep the rest of the home and your belongings safe and maybe mitigate further damage and mold spores spreading.
1.) Employ safety precautions when you enter that room (N95 mask, gloves, etc.). You know you are susceptible to becoming sick from mold toxins, so you do not need to take any chances.
2.) Definitely keep that room closed off from the rest of the home as much as possible. This includes closing supply and return vents in the room and sealing them with plastic and painter’s tape. This will prevent that room from communicating with the rest of the home via the HVAC system. Keep the door closed and cover all opening and cracks around the door with painter’s tape as well. This is NOT a permanent solution though. It is a great Band Aid approach, but eventually, because there is a water issue, the mold will become overpowering and will cause health issues, not to mention structural issue to the home.
3.) Employ drying techniques in that room to help the building material dry out as much as possible once the rain stops. This includes high-powered fans, box fans, and dehumidifiers. You can rent these items at local hardware stores.
4.) Keep the humidity in that room down. When the rain stops, humidity will keep the space moist. Try to keep the indoor relative humidity in that room below 50%. You should probably set the dehumidifier up to drain outside, so that you don’t have to enter the room to empty it.
5.) Use negative pressure or an air scrubber, also available for rent at hardware store such as Home Depot, to prevent mold from spreading to the rest of the home. These can be used to create negative pressure to send the contaminated air outside. Box fans can also be set up in windows and turned “around,” to suck the air from the room and exhaust it outside, rather than blow air into the room.
6.) Use targeted products to proactively mitigate mold in the rest of the home. I like the EC3 products. You can use them to clean the rest of your home to prevent the spread of mold and can use EC3 Laundry Additive to address all washables and clothing. This will help to prevent cross contamination.
7.) To safeguard your health and your body, and since you are already feeling the familiar CIRS symptoms hitting, you can clean your nasal passages with saline and an antifungal (CitriDrops Dietary Supplement) to prevent inhalation of mold spores and colonization, you can use a product to amp your natural defenses for mold (Sinus Defense), you can get on a gentle binder—activated charcoal or chlorella work well, and I would not consume Candida-loving foods. Taking the CitriDrops Dietary Supplement orally per bottle instructions is also helpful to prevent Candida as is cycling a supplement, like Candida Rid. I would also get outside as much as possible and breathe fresh air. If you have access to a sauna, use it for detoxification. If you do well with glutathione, it may also be beneficial to start supplementing with that as well. Remember, mold is a pathogen that attacks your mitochondria, so whatever you can do to fortify your body at the cellular level is wonderful and helpful.
So, now, assuming that the leak is fixed, to begin proper remediation, you or the landlord must do or oversee the following:
How to Remediate Once the Leak is Fixed:
(Note: Please refer to the EPA website on classifying which level of contamination that you are dealing with, so that you can choose the employ the proper containment and protective gear to do the job. Their guide is easy to use and classifies what you need based on the size and type of water intrusion.)
1.) Because the area has been wet for over 72 hours, containment must be used and completely set up BEFORE removal of any damaged or wet materials. After this time period, mold is almost certain to some extent. Use the EPA guidelines on this as well, keeping in mind that one wall of the isolated area must have a window to the exterior, so that a box fan can be used on exhaust. This will also help to remove any spores that become aerosolized when the mold is disturbed during activity. The contained arrangement must also allow air in to replace the air being removed by the exhaust fan.Also, before re-opening this area to the rest of the home, all debris and dust should be HEPA-vacuumed and all surfaces in the space should be damp-wiped with EC3 Mold Spray BEFORE the containment is removed. Fogging before vacuuming is also effective.
2.) The wall must be cut open and ALL water-damaged building materials (other than pipes and framing) must be completely removed. You cannot dry out drywall or insulation. It has to be removed and replaced, because it has already been wet too long. The wall cavity must be opened up, and completely dried out. Start right where the leak is visible and expand up and out until you don’t find moisture. Many people make the mistake of stopping the leak and blowing a fan on the wet wall and then painting over the stain. The mold can be dried and become dormant, only to return once exposed to moisture. I am here to tell you that if there is a stain and the leak has soaked through the drywall, that mold will grow if it is not removed.
4.) Use high-powered fans to completely dry the cavity out before new insulation and drywall is replaced there. This may take a few days. In the meantime, you can HEPA vacuum and fog or wipe down the rest of the space with EC3.
5.) This is also a good time to proactively treat the rest of the home for mold. You can HEPA vacuum floors, rugs, furnishings and window treatments and fog or mist and wipe things down with EC3. You can also use the EC3 Air Purification Candles in the rest of the home to eliminate any mold spores that have intruded. Finally, you can use Borax or the EC3 Laundry Additive to wash your clothing and bedding to prevent further cross contamination.
6.) Once that is done, you could even leave the wall open and install new drywall at a later date, if the landlord is concerned with the expense of doing it all at once. You just need to get the mold and potential mold out first and foremost. Then, the rebuilding and finishing can be completed when it is most convenient and financially feasible.
7.) Once all of the remediation is complete, I would also replace the HVAC filter(s) with MERV 13 or higher ones. This will continue to improve your indoor air quality post-remediation.
8.) Retest the room where the leak occurred, as well as the other main living spaces in the home to make sure it is still safe for you. Rather than spending hundreds on another ERMI or HERSTI, you could order some diagnostic test plates to use. If the HERSTMI is what makes you feel the most certain, though, definitely use that one. With CIRS, piece of mind is sometimes everything, and having a test that you know and understand can help that.
To address your concern about the bleach, you are correct–NO NO NO! Bleach will not kill mold completely, penetrate porous materials, or address the mycotoxin issue. It will just, well, bleach the surface and take the color away. The water in the bleach will penetrate and actually feed the mold, and the mold will come back with a vengeance. Please request that your landlord not use bleach. I have a post on bleach on my site, if he needs more evidence as to why. It may also be a good idea to purchase products for the cleaning that you know and trust, like EC3, Borax, and hydrogen peroxide, and be reimbursed for them. The peace of mind is worth the personal expense, in my opinion.
I hope I have helped you. Please let me know if you have further questions. Good luck. I hope everything works out. I definitely think that it can.