And, Why I Do Not Claim to Have ALL of the Answers
I often receive emails from people wanting a mold remediation template for remediating specific spaces or things in their homes where they have found mold growth. They write to me confused and overwhelmed by the task at hand of trying to make their home or something in it safe and healthy again. Some are small-scale jobs, like a contaminated piece of furniture, while others are large-scale, like a crawlspace or basement with significant mold growth. A common motivation for the people who write to me usually is that they want to try to handle at least a portion of the work themselves to save money, or to make sure that the job is carried out correctly and done with non-toxic products, rather than the biocides used by many professional remediators. Whatever the case, people always want clear and detailed answers, so that the mold can be fixed and they can move on with their lives.
Each time I receive one of these emails, I try to take what info they have offered about their specific scenario to give the best advice I can. But, given the fact that I am not physically able to see the problem, nor am I always privy to whatever else is going on in their indoor environment and with their environmental air quality, or to whatever testing or inspections have been done, my advice is often not definitive and preceded and followed by lots of caveats and disclaimers. In other words, I try my best to give answers, but never truly feel like I can answer people’s questions completely or give them the finite, “this is how you fix the problem” reply that they are looking for.
Let me just say, though, that I definitely get it. I get wanting someone to tell you what to do and exactly how to do it, because I have been there myself–multiple times. I know how daunting finding out that you have dangerous levels of toxin-producing mold in your home can be. Figuring out how to properly plan, organize, and execute even a very small remediation project can be extremely overwhelming. Even when you have professionals helping, there are many things to take into consideration to do it right and to preserve your health and sanity in the process. There are also precautions (aka safety gear, containment, tools and products) that must be utilized to get rid of the mold correctly and safely. If a step is missed or if things are not done in the correct order, you could be looking at a botched job, another more costly remediation or relocation down the road, and more importantly, direct or subsequent health consequences. And, with no two mold infestations being exactly the same, a “best way” or universal template for DIY mold remediation really does not exist, nor should it exist, in my opinion.
“But, Catherine,” you might be saying,“you share tips and tricks for cleaning for mold and mold remediation all of the time. Why can’t you just tell everyone what to do first, second, third and so on for a successful remediation? Then, everyone would be able to conquer the mold, get well, and mold illness would become a temporary inconvenience and not a debilitating, chronic epidemic.”
If I could do that for people, believe me, I would. I wish every, single day that I could be the mold oracle with all of the complete remediation answers for every moldy scenario. But, there is a lot about successfully remediating mold in indoor environments that is still unknown, with the science and research evolving in real time as professionals are putting strategies into practice out in the field. Mold remediation is also still a very unregulated profession and the lack of a barrier to entry causes many of the “professionals” to be out there using products and methods that have no efficacy at all. These notions are validated when I speak to experts in the field of Building Biology when they express that every home remediation has its own distinct issues, and that there is no universal sequence of steps or template for mold remediation that works for ALL PEOPLE OF THE TIME. This is because some actions and steps are right to completely eradicate mold in one home, while those exact same actions and steps do not completely work in another. It is the sad and frustrating truth when dealing with mold in the built environment.
The Inherent Challenges of Mold Remediation
There are many reasons for the challenges associated with giving a universal mold remediation template that would take a veritable dissertation for me to expound upon, so, for the purposes of a shorter post, I will give you my top five, and explain them in detail. I promise this will be a valuable read for anyone, because, when I am finished, you will have a greater understanding of mold, why it becomes a problem and must be addressed when it begins to flourish indoors, and why you must look at every mold infestation with a detective’s eyes and take certain steps before, during, and after remediation to make and keep your home healthy and safe. This is insight I wish I had had, because it would’ve driven me to take action sooner and to have been more aggressive and thorough from the beginning. It would also have helped me to understand the importance of monitoring and cleaning to prevent indoor mold growth, which is something I am extremely passionate about today, because doing so keeps homes and families safe and healthy.
Let’s get started.
5 Reasons Why a Universal Mold Remediation Template Does Not Work:
Not all molds are created equal;
The reasons for the mold growth in each home are usually different and must be taken into consideration with the remediation plan;
When a home is “sick” and causes sickness for its occupants, there is more than just the mold making it sick;
Your body can have a “memory” of the mold that doesn’t allow you heal, even when you have cleaned and remediated your environment;
In homes where mold has made people sick, the major mold remediation is just the beginning.
Before I tackle each of these reasons, I will say that there is definitely a best series of steps and universal actions that everyone should take for a successful mold remediation. I want to at least give you those, so that you can file them away for whatever they are worth.
Order of Steps to Take for a Successful Mold Remediation:
1. Testing and inspections to identify size, scope, and causes of mold infestation;
2. Planning of size and scope of project;
3. Safety gear and safety precautions (these should be used and employed each and every time the space is entered and/or worked in until clearance testing is complete and verified);
4. Containment (this would include the use of air scrubbers and/or negative air pressure);
5. Removal of mold-contaminated materials and/or belongings;
6. Fixing moisture sources, aka leaks, humidity, water intrusion, flood damage;
7. Thorough cleaning and drying of all surfaces, spaces, and belongings affected by the mold (this is your HEPA vacuuming, fogging, physical cleaning, steaming, spraying and wiping);
8. Clearance testing to confirm home is safe for occupancy;
9. Containment removed;
10. Re-occupancy and clean belongings moved back into space.
Now, to elaborate on why with even following the above step-by-step series of necessary events that it is difficult, albeit impossible, for every remediation to be successful.
The Indoor Ecosystem
To start, it is helpful if you begin to think of your home the way you think about your body as it exists in today’s world. This is because, and we are understanding this more and more each day, a home has its own biome. It has an exterior shell with interior systems and characteristics. It also has exterior and interior climates and ecosystems that are influenced by its geography and by the humans and/or pets who live inside of it. It also has its own respiratory system in the HVAC that circulates the air inside. And, like your body, it also has its own living ecology of fungi, bacteria, microbes, viruses. All of these things are constantly in flux and fighting for position and balance. There are also toxic influences (pesticides, chemicals, VOCs, fiberglass, EMFs, mold) inside and outside of a home that we know can impact the health of its microbiome and occupants in a very negative way.
It should then come as no surprise that with all of that going on, when mold and mycotoxins begin to infest and take over, regaining health and balance in a home is much like trying to reestablish a healthy body after major illness: at first it may be necessary to bring out the big guns to take down the invader completely, but afterwards, you must work to continually rebuild and restore. A healthy home, like a healthy body, relies on consistency and maintenance. It is a constant dance of keeping things like water, nutrients, cleanliness, and overall structure in check and in balance for health. Thus, you can better understand why without a large amount of carnal knowledge about everything from indoor air quality, to best building practices, to restoration and mold remediation guidelines, to safe, non-toxic, effective products it is incredibly difficult for me to offer any kind of universal template for curing a home of a mold issue.
So, now, I’m going to revisit those 5 major things about mold that I think make any notion of a universal remediation template null and void. Let’s face it, remediation is more like the wild, wild west–the rules don’t always apply, and scores are only settled when one man is left standing.
Not All Molds Are Created Equal
Mold is a difficult adversary. I am not going to even go into the fact that there are more than 100,000 species of mold, with hundreds of thousands more that are yet to be discovered. Mold can be visible, invisible, alive, dead, airborne, sticky, oily, weightless or heavy, just to name a few. It can also have “bad gas”—some molds emit mycotoxins, potent, bioactive secondary metabolites. (Note: They are toxic but can perform positive actions that kill infectious bacteria. Many antibiotics are derived from molds, such as penicillin. Although the species penicillium can produce over 18 mycotoxins in your home). And, to make matters worse, in any of these forms, mold can be dangerous to your health if not dealt with correctly.
Each species of mold has many forms and characteristics that make it unique and able to thrive in some spaces and environments, but not in others. Each has materials, climates and moisture volumes that it prefers to live in, with some of the most toxic indoor molds needing only miniscule amounts of moisture to gain a foothold. And, once mold enters an environment, its “primary biological role” is to decompose organic matter—so, even if you don’t truly believe that mold causes sickness, you should be concerned that mold will naturally decay your home over time if you aren’t vigilant.
Since the first step towards conquering a formidable adversary is knowing what you are up against, finding out the types and volumes of mold growth that you are dealing with is important. Further, from a remediation standpoint, some molds are more insidious than others and should be dealt with more aggressively, because they are harder to effectively eradicate. Also, the presence of some types of mold doesn’t indicate an indoor infestation unless the levels are at certain numbers, whereas the shear presence of another type, like Stachybotrys, “Toxic Black Mold,” is an indication that a home needs urgent attention.
The information of what type of molds you are dealing with could also mean removing more building materials during demo, or not attempting to clean possessions that have been exposed, or it could even mean treating an entire home when mold was only found in one room, simply because the species of mold is very toxic and spreads its spores and mycotoxins more easily. As a matter of fact, even though I haven’t seen or read much definitive science behind this, there is enough anecdotal information from those in the field and from failed remediation attempts to make me always advocate the path of least resistance when it comes to mold remediation. In other words, when it doubt, cut it out, get out and/or throw it out.
My advice for staying on top of this issue is to test, assess and inspect. In the beginning, testing should be more diagnostic in nature, where your samples or those of the inspector or indoor air quality professional you have hired are sent to a lab for analysis.
Samples must be collected from all over the home, from the air, dust, building materials and objects in your home. In some capacity, you need to know what you are dealing with BEFORE you begin any remediation. You need to see what types of molds are present BEFORE you develop your plan. No testing is perfect and no testing will identify everything, but if you know at least a baseline, you can plan much better. Knowing which molds are present also helps you to identify any possible sources of moisture and areas of mold growth before demo begins. This is important, because “while the patient is on the table,” it is easier to fix problems and to clean additional areas of the home. All of the testing should be coupled with professional environmental and mechanical inspections of the home’s systems and structure, whenever possible.
Then, after remediation is complete, you need to test again to gauge the effectiveness of your remediation. I also advocate inexpensive mold testing plates (petri dishes) to monitor the ongoing health of your home.
These tests may seem simplistic; however, they provide conclusive biological evidence. It may sound excessive, but nothing is lost from KNOWING more about your environment, in my opinion.
To give you a concrete illustration of this principle in action, I will give an example from our home. The testing we did of the mold on the vent covers to our supplies (there was visible mold growth) revealed high counts of Cladosporium and Aspergillus/Penicillium. Since Cladosporium is often from the outside and often found on areas with condensation, that alone would not have necessarily alerted us to look deeper into our HVAC system for contamination. But, because our inspector knew that the presence of Aspergillus/Penicillium is often a sign of HVAC mold contamination, he did further investigation. This revealed the major source of the toxic mold contaminating our home—it was inside our HVAC system, ductwork, and indoor air. Had we just cleaned the vent covers and dealt with the condensation, we would still be sick. Because we KNEW what we were dealing with before we remediated, we were very aggressive and removed all contaminated ductwork, insulation, and replaced the system. We also treated and remediated our entire home, and either discarded or treated our belongings. It was a huge overhaul that we are still paying for, but we conquered the mold and were able to heal, because we KNEW our adversary.
The Reasons For The Mold Growth Must Be Taken Into Consideration
Mold only has to have a water source and some organic material to grow on. That water source can be excess humidity (above 50%), condensation, a plumbing, appliance, or roof leak, a wet and dirty evaporation coil inside of an HVAC system, flood water, seepage into below-grade concrete, you name it. In other words, the reason for mold is always a water source of some kind inside of the home. So, when you develop your plan, you have to ask why the mold is growing in the first place. If you do not do this, you are just treating the symptoms (mold growth), but not the cause and will end up back where you started.
To diagnose the cause, you must first test to find out where the mold is if you do not already know and possibly employ the services of an indoor air quality professional, plumber, HVAC professional, roofer, or building biologist to help you find the moisture source. These people can find whatever fault or problem inside or outside of the home is allowing the moisture to give mold a foothold. Once this is found, you can work with them and possibly, especially if the job is large, a mold remediator to develop a unique plan to have the moisture problem fixed and to remediate the surrounding indoor spaces and things. This is obviously going to be different for each and every home, so no two plans will be the same.
(Note: To save money, you can do some diagnostic testing yourself and use a moisture meter and hygrometer to test everywhere in your home. HERE is an article that outlines some of these principles.)
For my home, our moisture source was water inside of our air handler from a whole-house humidifier that had been installed incorrectly and was not draining. The water just sat inside our system creating excess humidity and microbial growth. We also had bathroom exhaust fans that were vented into the insulation in our attic. The attic and insulation were full of mold growth. Because of this being the reason for the mold in our home, our remediation was large-scale and involved our whole house. For someone else with a small-scale reason, like a small, contained leak, the remediation plan would be much simpler and smaller and would likely not involve as much demo or containment. It is also important to fully grasp this principal, because if a mold remediator comes in and tells you that merely spraying a biocide or a fogging solution will kill or encapsulate the mold and you will not have any further problems, you will KNOW to run. Remember, nothing can keep mold growth away long-term, unless the cause is fixed.
When A Home Is “Sick,” Sometimes, There Is More Than Just The Mold Making It Sick
I have written about this so many times, but it is a fact that really sticks out for me and that I believe is underappreciated. By the time a home is making people sick, there are many “bad actors” on the scene. A paper published by Janette Hope in The Scientific World Journal in 2013, entitled A Review of the Mechanism of Injury and Treatment Approaches for Illness Resulting from Exposure to Water-Damaged Buildings, Mold, and Mycotoxins, states the following about indoor contaminates in “sick buildings:”
“While it is often difficult to determine the contribution of the many components of water-damaged buildings, studies on illness from exposure to damp/water-damaged environments have been consistent in identifying the overall exposure itself as being the main factor associated with adverse health effects. Individual components of exposure that have been identified include: mold and mold spores, mycotoxins, bacteria, bacterial endotoxins and other cell wall components, protozoa (amoeba), increased presence of rodents, insects and dust mites, and increased deterioration of building materials with consequent off-gassing of toxic fumes such as formaldehyde.”
In other words, many times, once the mold takes hold and makes inhabitants sick, they are many components of sickness that also should be considered and dealt with. This is another reason why no one template can effectively treat every home and why professionals should be sought out and used to do this type of work. This obviously does not apply if you are dealing with an acute leak that created the mold and is the extent of your issues. But for others with a more systemic mold issue, there is significant cleaning and decontamination that must also take place. This can definitely take the form of removal during demo or from replacement of ductwork or an HVAC coil covered in microbial growth, but it does have to happen for a home to be safe again. This is also especially true for floodwater or sewage situations, because, if the mold is the only thing addressed or remediated, the occupants will continue to get sick from exposure to other invaders. In my opinion, it is always best to have professionals clean a space extremely thoroughly after demo and to err on the side of taking more than is necessary to ensure that all “bad actors” leave when the show is over.
Your Body Sometimes Has A “Memory” Of The Mold
Once you have become sick in a certain environment, that atmosphere (and all of the microbes in it) sometimes makes an imprint on your body and immune system. When this happens, all bets are off for ANY remediation plan. I have known many people who remediated their homes with the best professionals and products available and who still could not live in the house without becoming sick. I don’t know the exact reason for this and have asked many mold-literate doctors about it as well. They agree with me that they see this often in clinical practice and are not sure exactly why it is the case. It does seem to be more prevalent in mold patients with underlying infections, viruses, or autoimmunity, though. In other words, if someone is dealing with something like Lyme, Hashimoto’s, herpes, ulcerative colitis, etc., they tend to be more likely to have this “mold memory” issue when they encounter and become sick because of mold. I have also spoken with a doctor who said her patients with a previous known brain injury have had a difficult time with being able to successfully remediate their homes.
The best way I can explain this phenomenon is to describe it like muscle memory, but at the cellular level. For example, if you were a ballerina, you taught your muscles to lengthen and move in a certain way. You may even hold your body “like a dancer” when at rest. Then, even though you quit dancing and training, you may still retain that movement and that posture, because your body has such ingrained muscle memory from your ballet work. With mold, it seems like your cells can retain an imprint from the insult or trauma that they endured. Then, when anything from that environment with the mold evokes a similar charge or memory within your cells, your body just remembers the sickness and damage and becomes sick again, even though the mold is no longer technically present. It may sound like hokey-pokey, but I know it to be true and accurate and very real. I was unable to keep many possessions from our home, because I still reacted to them after multiple extensive cleanings, and after they tested as mold free. I also know many people who are able to be in actually less-than-ideal environments, but who cannot be in their remediated and “clean” home, because it still triggers sickness. I hope some scientific study is done on this soon. Reasons for it could have to do with mold microparticles, but I am not sure. Whatever the cause, it exists, and makes it difficult for me to ever say with certainty that any remediation will work all of the time.
The Major Mold Remediation Is Sometimes Just The Beginning
The work to make a home healthy shouldn’t end with the remediation. Once mold has taken hold, I believe it is important to prevent it from happening again. This is another reason why I do not like giving a universal remediation task list, because it gives the picture that you take certain steps and then you are finished and don’t have to worry. It is not that I want you to worry. I don’t. I want you to be vigilant and proactive. There is a big difference—one promotes fear, while the latter promotes action and empowerment.
If you have spent any time at all on this blog, you know what a huge proponent of “mold hygiene.” A healthy home requires ongoing cleaning for mold, mold maintenance, and mold avoidance. This will have to occur afterwards to keep the indoor environment in homeostasis and healthy for the inhabitants. I honestly don’t care how big or small the remediation was, for there to be long-term health and fewer mold-related issues for the home’s occupants, things like HEPA vacuuming floors and furnishings, dusting, wiping surfaces down and misting furnishings with EC3, not wearing shoes inside, checking for leaks, mechanical system maintenance, keeping humidity below 50%, washing your clothing with EC3 Laundry Additive in the rinse cycle, etc. all need to happen regularly.
This is not just me being anal and mold crazy, I assure you. It is actually based on testing that shows how much outdoor mold and mold from other exposures comes inside your home with you every day. Because this is happening constantly, and you have already been made sick from mold, you have to safeguard your home the way you do your body. You must do what you can to mitigate exposure and to help your home avoid becoming sick again. I have also read many studies on how it actually takes up to 2 years of regular mold maintenance after a major remediation to get a home to homeostasis again. I promise, it is worth the effort to do these things regularly. You will feel how the air quality in your home becomes better and better and you will also continue to see your symptoms improve.
Now that you understand the components behind making a mold remediation plan in the first place, do you feel better equipped to develop a successful one for your unique situation? I hope so. Please comment below or email me at firstname.lastname@example.org.