Brian Karr Discusses Mold Inspections, Mold Testing, and Why Some Mold Remediations Fail
Of all of the questions I get from readers of this blog, the vast majority are from people completely exhausted and burned out from dealing with mold inspections, mold testing, and remediation companies. Some have been mold testing, inspecting, and remediating their homes exhaustively for years, and are still not feeling any better. Many have had multiple mold inspectors come out to their homes to help them find and “solve” their mold problems. They take all advice and have their homes remediated, only to find days, weeks, or even months later that they are just as sick and just as reactive as ever. They embark upon further home inspection and investigation, only to find that the mold is still there, or that the real source of the mold was never found or properly remediated. In some cases, there were even additional mold problems and sources that were not found or addressed in the first place. Then, the mold ordeal begins again, kind of like the movie Groundhog Day, where individuals and families are forced to relive the same experience with only a slightly altered perspective. For some people, this nightmare goes on for years! It is emotionally exhausting and financially draining. In the end, the people who write to me don’t know who to trust, and don’t have any confidence that spending more money on inspections or remediation is even worth it. At the point when I am finally reached out to, the person is just plain ready to give up entirely.
What Can I Do to Help?
Even though I have been there, done that, and know my fair share about mold inspections and investigations, I am obviously not a certified mold or microbial inspector. So, while I can give advice and share heartfelt “if I were you, what I would do,” feedback from my own experience, I am not out there working in the field, so speak, investigating homes and seeing what other homeowners are dealing with. Thus, in order to really do my part to help the people who need guidance, I thought I would reach out to one of the best and most knowledgeable mold inspectors I know, Brian Karr of We Inspect and creator of the Mold Masterclass. (For my in-depth post about Brian and my experience of taking the Mold Masterclass, click HERE.)
Luckily, as is often the case with Brian, he was up for talking about mold and how to find it, so we connected on the phone while Brian was en route to a client’s home for an inspection. What follows is my in-depth and very candid discussion with Brian about some of the most common questions I get from readers who are caught in the endless cycle of testing and remediating their homes. I am excited to share our conversation with you, because no topic was off limits, and we really go into the minutia on some points—which I think some of you who are going through this will appreciate.
A Professional Mold Inspector’s Take on Common Mold Issues in Homes
Me: Hi, Brian. I am so happy to be talking with you. My hope is that our conversation will go on to help those who are in search of answers about mold problems in their homes and who want to know what things are causing them. To start, I would like to talk about detective work. I don’t know how often your jobs are homes that have already been quote “remediated” previously. But many of the questions I get are from homeowners that found mold, called in whatever professionals they could find, and had their homes remediated. Then, upon moving back in, they are just as sick as they always were. And so now, they’re back to square one trying to find what was missed and if they have the same mold problem or a new one altogether. How often are you called for failed remediations? And are these cases sort of the rule, rather than the exception for what you do?
Brian: Yeah. So, for us, we’re so tied into the medical community, in terms of the doctors specifically, that we’re usually working with people from the start. They call us after their doctors point them to us, and they’re still trying to figure it all out. In those cases, we’re usually the ones that are saying, “There’s something going on here.” There are some that have had remediation done before and then their doctor pointed them to us, because they are still sick. So that does happen sometimes. But, regardless, I think the challenge of what you’re describing is that, people will do remediation without doing proper testing. When this happens, their thought process is, “Well, we know there’s mold here. So, we’re just going to call in a remediation company to take care of it.”
But, the challenge with that is that most are only basing the remediation work on what the homeowner is telling them needs to be done. If you’re seeing something in a certain spot, the remediation company knows what to do—they just come in and remediate whatever they’re told to take care of. And when that happens, a lot of times, adjacent areas that might have been impacted, but the mold is not visible, will end up not getting remediated, because there was nothing necessarily there to trigger the remediation company to do anything. And because the occupant just thinks that it’s this issue that’s kind of localized in a small spot, they think everything is done. So, I think a lot of times what happens is that just not enough building materials are removed, because there’s not an inspection being done by someone who’s been trained to look for mold and the cause of the problem first.
The second thing is, a lot of times, the remediation just isn’t done well enough. It’s so hard to find a good remediation company. Most of them look at these jobs as structural jobs. They want to get in and out as quickly as possible. But when people are sensitive, they need to look at these more as a medical job, not as demo and construction job. And so there needs to be a higher standard of care in the way that the remediation is handled. A lot of times, remediation companies just don’t look at it that way, which, again, is why having what’s called a post-remediation inspection is really important too.
The way that we work on our end—so, we’ll go into a house, we’ll identify there’s something going on, and we’ll write up the scope of what needs to be done in the remediation, so that everything is taken care of. For example, let’s say there’s mold in a kitchen under a sink or something. So, we’ll say, “Okay, you have to remove the cabinet at the end of the sink and open the wall behind the cabinet to see if there’s more going on. ‘ But in addition, sometimes, we’ll also say, “Remove the front plates on the adjacent cabinetry that’s right next to it,” because we want to see under it and make sure there’s nothing hitting it in terms of water damage or staining that we missed. The truth is, there’s no way to know that information necessarily without getting eyes on it. And so, the problems happen most often when the process of digging deeper is bypassed. Without being willing to look at the whole house, you might never look in those places, and there could be something significant that you miss.
And then the third piece is when we come back in to do the post-remediation assessment and look at the work that was done and test to make sure nothing was missed. Usually we would want to make sure that whatever our original scope was was executed, and I can’t tell you how many times we go in and the remediation company has told the client, “Oh, you don’t need to do all of this,” because they’re trying to win the job, so they’re trying to lower their bid to get the job. So, they basically look at the protocol and say, “You don’t need to do this. You don’t need to do this, either.” And then we come back in and we’re like, “What is this? Why wasn’t this done? You have to do this and this is why.” And then the company ups their bid, because they’re like, “Oh, well this wasn’t in our scope, so now it’s going to be more expensive.” It’s their way of getting the job and then kind of tallying things on afterwards, to get more money out of it, which is unfortunate. But having someone like us to be the eyes and ears of our client, but in a lens that actually knows what they’re looking at, ensures that corners aren’t cut. We’re there making sure things are done the right way from the beginning. Then, what needs to be done actually gets done.
Those are a couple reasons why sometimes people might still be feeling sick. Then the last piece to that equation is the testing after the remediation. A lot of times people will choose to do it on their own, or they won’t even test on the backend to make sure the mold was cleaned up properly. It may be to save the money, but whatever the reason, however much money you’re spending to remediate something, you have to do fringe testing to know that it was successful. Otherwise you put that money in and might not have cleaned everything. There’s no way for you to know. If you don’t test.
Post-Remediation and Clearance Testing
Me: Yes. Yes. I completely understand everything you are saying. There’s not a thorough enough inspection, followed by a less than complete remediation, and then, the home is never even tested once all is said and done to make sure it is safe. When is the optimal time to clearance test? When does post-remediation testing need to be done? I would think clearance testing should be done after demolition and cleaning BEFORE any reconstruction? Correct?
Brian: Obviously, clearance testing should be done when everything is open. You don’t want any rebuilding going on before testing. And then the other thing with clearance testing, and this is really big — I actually don’t know any other companies other than our group, maybe a few other people across the country that I know that do it this way–but just clearance testing is not enough. Think of why remediation is done in the first place: it’s because mold was growing on building materials. That’s why it was done. So, if we then go in to do clearance testing, and we only do an air sample, then we aren’t actually post-testing the area that the mold was growing on, which is the whole point of why we’re doing it in the first place. The air testing is really important too, though, because when they do demo, they’re obviously disturbing the mold and making it airborne, so we do have to make sure the air got cleaned from that demolition process. But the big thing is to make sure that the surfaces where the mold was growing are clean, because you don’t want to close them back up again until that is right.
Me: And speaking about that, so how are you testing the materials? Are you testing surfaces or are you doing the dust sampling in addition to the air? How exactly does that work?
Brian: There’s a couple of phases. It really depends on the project. If it’s a big project where there’s mold throughout the home, then there’s really two phases of the remediation. The first phase is the source removal which is kind of what we’re talking about. The first phase is getting rid of the impacted cabinetry, the drywall that was impacted, and then cleaning all the framing that’s exposed, right? That’s step one. After that piece is done, we would then go in and we would we do an air test inside the containment. We would also do an air test outside of the containment to make sure there wasn’t cross-contamination from the work that was being done, because that happens more often than you think. And then the third step is to do surface testing of whatever the remediated materials are. At that point in the plan, it’s just basic swab and bulk testing. The goal is just to make sure there’s no more mold and spores anywhere. That’s the big thing. Then, if we’re continuing down the road and let’s say there’s a big toxin issue, and we’re also doing the full house cleanse which I outlined in the Mold Masterclass, we would come back in and do a second round of testing. That’s where we would do dust testing for mycotoxins. The reason that we split it like that is because those secondary metabolites– the mycotoxins, those require more expensive sampling methods. And if an area fails on just a basic swab or a basic air test, which are the cheaper tests, then it’s 100% going to fail more stringent testing. So instead of going straight to that testing and maybe having containments fail and charging several hundred dollars for every sample they run, we ease into it. We make sure that we’re kind of taking it step by step.
Me: I am sure homeowners appreciate you caring about the expense and trying to keep it down. So, that leads me to some questions about contents or belongings inside the home. I’ve seen and I’ve experienced this personally, but our remediation was actually finally well done and successful, but we still had some problems with particular belongings. There was one mattress in particular was actually new that we brought back in from storage, but it was contaminated. We started reacting immediately. We figured it out quick enough and got it out of the house, but it was jarring, to say the least. So, I guess my question is, do you have specific protocols that you advise people on if they are suspecting that a certain piece of furniture is the problem? I’m interested in how you advise people on both testing and cleaning items? Also, do you just tell people that if they’re reacting to it, it’s best to reclean an item or then dispose of it, regardless of what testing says? I know this is a difficult question to answer. I just sort of felt like, with the Mold Masterclass, you definitely did make the point of saying, “At some point, you’ve got to trust your body, and if your body is telling you that an item is not okay, it’s best to listen to that.”
Brian: The thing is, I can do tests all day, and the tests can show whatever they’re going to show, but if you’re still feeling something, then it doesn’t matter at that point, right? Testing is showing me the effectiveness of what the cleaning processes were. But the reality is that people can be so sensitive, and there’s still going to be nanoparticles that we are missing, especially within certain belongings, where the mold spores get wedged in, and there’s just no way to really get them out. You just have to cut ties with certain things at that point. I don’t tell people to get rid of everything right away. I think it’s a little irresponsible to do that, but that said, if there’s people that are very, very sensitive and that’s what they want to do, I’m not going to tell them that they have to keep and try to clean things. Basically, what I do, and you kind of saw the matrix that I put together for the Mold Masterclass– that’ actually the conversation that I have with people. I say, “Try to categorize your belongings yourself. If there are things that aren’t very expensive, and you’re really sensitive, then just get rid of them. In the grand scheme of things, it’s not that much to replace some things, and you’re going to feel better, right?” So that’s the easy one.
Clothing and then mattresses and couches are your more expensive things–and people tend to ask about those the most. I actually had a client pre- and post-test their clothing after they cleaned it. Their doctor had recommended doing a solution that was half ammonia diluted to bottle specifications and half water. They used that for their laundry detergent, and they washed their stuff in it. We pretested it with PCR dust testing for mold, and then did mycotoxin dust testing too. I did a composite collection from all the clothing, and we put it all together in one sample. We showed there were mycotoxins, and that there were higher mold counts than we would like to see. They washed it, cleaned it, and we went back and retested it. The mycotoxins were gone and the mold was much, much less, which, you’re obviously not going to get rid of everything, but levels were at a much more acceptable level. So, for anything that you can put in a washing machine, that you can wash like that, I’ve seen solutions like that and others work.
Me: Yeah. I mean, I’ve had really good success with using EC3 Laundry Additive—I can’t do ammonia, because of chemical sensitivity—but, as long the washing machine was not contaminated, I’ve had good success. If things can be fully submerged and washed, especially in hotter water, I’ve had pretty good success. It’s the porous things that cannot be fully washed that are hard. I have never seen a mattress that could be saved, quite honestly. Maybe you have?
Brian: I agree with you. So, here’s the analogy that I give people: Think of porous items like a sponge, right? So, your sponge is dry. And then, you put underwater; it gets all wet. And then you’re like, “Okay. I want to dry the sponge out again.” So, you wring it out as much as you can, but the sponge is still wet. Right? It’s still damp. And it’s because it’s so porous. The water is all the way into the pores and just deep within the cushion of the sponge. And that’s kind of the same concept with the mold. Right? So when you’re dealing with thick, cushioned porous items, those are the things, if we’re doing the assessing in the house and we’re finding mold, or toxins in the house, I’ll tell people that those are the things that I think need to go but that other things can more easily be be saved. And to your point about submerging things, have you heard of the Esporta System at all?
Brian: It’s E-S-P-O-R-T-A, Esporta. It’s like an oversized, industrial kind of washing machine sort of thing. It was designed for cleaning contents of flood victims, essentially. So, there’s a lot of advocacy for its use, not for molds and mycotoxins, but it’s great for other things, like bacteria and things like that. There are certain companies and different organizations that have access to these machines. One of them is in California. They’re a contents cleaning company, and they’ll actually put things in there. You can put larger things in that you can’t put in a regular washing machine. Then those things can be submerged and be salvageable that way.
Why Your Home’s History is Important for Mold Testing
Me: That’s really cool. So, when you are starting at a home and doing your visual inspection, are you starting in the areas where people know of water intrusion or are you trying to just literally walk in and get your own picture of what’s going on? Because, sometimes I feel like there’s something that’s obvious, but for us and for many of my readers, it was the stuff that was not obvious that was the worst. Just finding the problem was a feat in and of itself.
Brian: It’s tough. I think it depends on whoever your consultant is and how they approach it. The history of the house, is so important. Every now and then, I get a client who doesn’t want to tell me what’s going on, almost like they want me to have to find it to validate the expense. And I kind of felt this vibe, so I said, “Listen. This isn’t a game. This isn’t who can find what. We’re here as a team trying to put together this whole picture of the house for someone who’s sick. If we’re going to play this game where you’re not going to tell me everything that’s going on to see if I am able to find it, then I’m probably not the right guy for you. We’re in this together and we need to work together. Right?” I need the client to say, “Here’s what we know historically in this property—leaks, condensation, everything.” The history is really important, because there are things that I would never find if it wasn’t for knowing the history. They had told me at this particular house that there was a leak that came through the ceiling in their kitchen from the bathroom above, and they had some remediation company out. They weren’t really confident in the work that was done. But it was all put back together, and if I walked through that kitchen, the ceiling looked fine. They already tore out the drywall and put it back together. There’s no way I would have known about the leak just looking at it. So based on knowing the history, I tested it. I did a cavity test in the ceiling where they pointed out where the leak was. Well, it got up to 10,000 for a spore count.
Me: Oh, wow!
Brian: Right? The history is so important. It’s not that I only go straight to the historical points. I do the assessment of the house the exact same way every single time. I’m looking through all the same stuff, but if I know there are historical things in certain areas, I’m taking maybe a little extra look around there. Just making sure I’m not looking beyond those spots.
Me: Yeah. I mean, it’s kind of like a patient history. I mean you wouldn’t– it wouldn’t behoove you to lie to your doctor about previous illnesses. So, why would you want to hide things about your home?
Brian: That’s a good analogy. That’s a really good analogy of exactly what it is.
Cleaning for Mold and Preventative Maintenance
Me: The next thing I want to talk about, and I thought this was one of the most genius parts of the Mold Masterclass, is mold maintenance and cleaning on a much higher level. Because what’s really hard, and I am no professional, but what I have found from experience is that even a healthy home requires a level of mold maintenance that’s not just cleaning. I honestly feel like it takes around the two-year mark of really diligent, more mold-focused cleaning and maintenance to get things really right after a remediation. I don’t know if that’s because a home that has had mold exposure just requires diligence to get the final stuff done. But I really feel like cleaning properly is one of the things that made the biggest difference in my health. Really sticking with it no matter what. I guess my question is, how did you figure out the importance of cleaning for mold, and also how did you decide which things to focus on?
Brian: I think the way that I kind of put it all together was just the sheer number of inspections I’ve done. And you start seeing patterns and consistencies across people that are sick and with the things you’re seeing in their houses. There are actually research papers out there that talk about the accumulation of mycotoxins in dust, and then, how those dust particles can be suspended into your breathing space. Since we know how that happens, then the easiest solution for maintenance is to make sure there’s no dust there that can circulate it into your breathing zone. If you do what you can to eliminate it, then that’s the biggest piece on the maintenance front from a cleaning perspective of things.
Dirt and dust are the centerpieces of my cleaning techniques, because they are going to retain and harbor all of these contaminants for extended periods of time. So, think about when you collect an ERMI sample, or a dust collection sample. You’re trying to find dust that is historical, because that dust is going to show you what’s been happening in the house. So, the same concept holds true down-the-road. You want to make sure that you’re getting rid of that settled dust, because we know that mold and mycotoxins are going to accumulate in there.
The kind of maintenance cleaning I’m talking about is like spring cleaning on steroids. Pull everything out. Pull appliances out. Pull couches out. Get under stuff. Pull the drawers out of your cabinetry. These are areas where stuff builds up that no one ever, ever cleans. And if you do that, you can get a pretty solid handle o things. I know it’s easier said than done–I’m not even as diligent about it as I probably should be, but I’m also not hyper-sensitive. So, I’m not feeling I have to all the time. But I do a good amount of cleaning at my place just because of that. Just because of knowing. So, I think that’s a really big piece.
The other thing, from a maintenance perspective, is just taking care of your home. I think many of us were never taught that we had to maintain our homes. Compared to a car, where our parents taught us that you have to get an oil change every 3,000 miles, or otherwise, your car is going to explode, or that you have to check tires, and you have to check oil and all of your fluids, that same concept is never taught for a house. So, you move into a house. Even if it’s brand new, and there’s nothing wrong with it when you move in, and then, five years go by and you have a little leak under the sink. You need to take care of it and call the right people in right away. Otherwise, the next thing you know, you have a bigger problem and we get called in and find multiple things going on in the house. It is not uncommon for a client to say, “This house is only five years old. How is this possible?”
Preventative scheduled maintenance is key–have a plumber come in every six months, just to look at everything. Just to make sure there are no leaks anywhere. Have your HVAC contractors come in. And not to just do cleanings but to do evaluations. Make sure that systems are running properly and that– if your filters are too full, they are changed, because, if not, it’s going to create a problem that can result in excess moisture and mold growth. If you have consistent maintenance scheduled on a plan, you’re going to get ahead of the game on some of the things that can create a mold problem. You can’t prevent everything, but at least you are being proactive.
Me: Agreed. One of the biggest things I tell people is to make sure that they’re taking a good look at their mechanical systems every four months at the least, and changing the filters, and looking at the filters, and seeing if they’re actually collecting dust, and making sure things seem to be working correctly. Ask things, like, “Is there a bunch of rust in the pan below the HVAC?” If there’s rust, there has been some water there. Find out why. Find out if it is still a problem. I mean, just general things, but things can save money if caught quickly.
What to Do About Hidden Mold Growth
Me: Well, the other thing I wanted to talk about is your free downloadable guide to the Five Signs of Hidden Mold Growth. I think it’s really helpful. It gives people a starting place to look for hidden mold in their homes. So, let’s say someone encounters one of those telltale signs of possible mold, what do you recommend for next steps? Do you recommend next steps, like getting someone to fix the problem or actually calling somebody to test? Because I think sometimes people are like, “Okay, well, I know I’ve got mold. Now, what do I do? Do I just fix the leak and assume that there’s no mold? Or do I test for mold?” And then it’s almost like analysis paralysis.
Brian: 100% I think you need to test it. Every one of those pictures that I put in the guide was tested and had a problem. There was a mold problem in there. So, if you just fix the leak and think you are fine, that is not always the reality. If mold grew there, and then you fixed the leak, and water stops infiltrating that building material, that means the mold colony’s going to dry out. When the mold colony dries out, it spreads around and moves around much more easily than when it’s wet. So, you actually can be creating a larger problem. I don’t want to say not to stop the moisture, because you have to stop the moisture. But, if mold has had a chance to grow, you also need to address it. So, I would always say testing is step one. This happens all the time with us: People immediately try to fix the water source. They have to open the wall, and they have to open something, and in that case, it could cross-contaminate, if mold is growing. If we had been called first, it would be tested first, and we can understand what we’re dealing with. Then maybe we could’ve contained it before the work was done, and it could’ve been remediated properly from the start.
Me: Yeah. And a lot of times people don’t get sick till things are opened up. I’m obviously talking about historical leaks, not something that you catch immediately. If it had been tested first, at least you could have had the chance to set up the proper containment, so that mold doesn’t spread all over your home and get in your HVAC system. I even advocate for containment for sensitive people with any DIY project.
Brian: No. Absolutely. Cross contamination is a big problem.
Working With Brian and We Inspect
Me: Well, phew! I think we covered quite a bit here and gave my readers plenty to think about. I’ll tell them how to find and to locate your resources. Before I let you go, any parting words or info to share?
Brian: I could probably keep going, but maybe we should save some for another time? Maybe we can do this again and answer some reader questions specifically? I sometimes do something on my Instagram for Mold Masterclass where I let followers ask me ANYTHING about mold testing and inspections, and I do my best to answer.
Me: That would be awesome. I think it would open the floodgates, because people have so many questions and feel so lost with all of this. Let’s definitely do it!
Brian: Also, my partner and I are super excited to have a more accessible option for people. It’s called We Inspect Together. It is a guided home assessment and testing service for mold-sensitive people. It will make our trusted and comprehensive inspection and testing process available to anyone, anywhere. We will work together remotely to create a customized inspection and testing plan that will identify hidden locations of mold growth in a client’s home. We will also help clients to identify how those sources have contaminated the occupied living spaces or HVAC system. We will then provide you a complete remediation plan to remove mold, mycotoxins, endotoxins and other environmental pathogens from your home. It comes complete with tips on how to find a capable remediation company!
Me: That is so needed. I am so excited for people to have access to help they can trust. I will be sure to share your info with anyone who reaches out to me. In the meantime, I want to thank you so much for speaking with me and for everything you are doing.