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The Trouble With Mold

When mold was discovered in part of the Hilton Hawaiian Village in Honolulu, it ultimately resulted in the closing for more than a year of an entire 453-room 25-story tower.  It is reported that Hilton spent some $20 Million on consulting and investigation costs, and an additional $35 Million in the remediation.  This is one notable example among many of how the presence and growth of mold in homes and commercial buildings has developed into a serious issue that has potentially far reaching  consequences for residential and commercial property owners and managers, as well as for the construction and insurance industries.

Several states have established task forces to study mold and its effect on buildings and indoor air quality.  However, the intelligent dialogue required for the development of proper standards for mold exposure and remediation has, in large part, been drowned out by extreme voices.  On the one hand are those who summarily dismiss the issue as the fabricated product of a conspiracy between tort lawyers and a developing cottage industry of mold remediation consultants.  On the other are those readily prepared to broadly attribute a wide variety of medical conditions to the unhealthy environment of “sick buildings.” 

While it is true that mold is an ancient life form that has, throughout history, been the constant companion of humanity, its recent prominence as an indoor health issue is explained by two features of modern building techniques – the use of materials containing high concentrations of cellulose and other fibers upon which molds feed, and the employment of insulating materials and methods that restrict ventilation.  Given the inviting food source provided by present day building material, all that is required for vigorous mold growth and amplification is the presence of water and a building assembly that prevents the moisture from escaping or drying out.

One need not establish any causal connection between the presence of mold and health issues in order to recognize the need for proper mold removal.  Indeed, putting health matters entirely aside, molds deteriorate the building materials on which they feed, necessitating the repair of affected components.  Where structural elements are involved, this can become a matter of building stability as well as function.  Additionally because of the manner in which they digest materials, molds give off undesirable odors and diminish aesthetic appearance, thereby degrading the indoor environment and decreasing property values.

While the precise health consequences of indoor mold exposure remain the subject of study and debate, particularly as to the effect of its production of mycotoxins, it is undisputed that molds are recognized allergens and reproduce by means of airborne spores.  A portion of the population will have some allergic response to certain molds.  This may manifest itself as rhinitis, sinusitis or asthma, and highly sensitive individuals, and those with pre-existing respiratory problems, may develop more serious symptoms.  Additionally, persons with severely compromised immune systems may be a risk for fungal infections form some pathogenic molds.

Buildings do not have mold problems unless they have water problems.  Accordingly, building exterior envelopes and plumbing and mechanical systems need to be designed, constructed and maintained in a manner that protects vulnerable components form moisture.  Moreover, once water intrusion results in mold growth, the water source must be eliminated and methodologies need to be in place for mold removal.

In the absence of statutory regulation, various industry guidelines that have been used to govern the scope of mold remediation projects, including the Environmental Protection Agency’s Guideline on Mold Remediation in Schools and Commercial Buildings.  In general, it is recognized that hard and non-porous surfaces can usually be cleaned, while absorbent or porous materials, such as wallboard, carpet, and ceilings may require replacement.

Historically, insurance claims for mold were permitted under property damage insurance policies where the infestation arose from the intrusion of rain water as a result of storms, or the discharge of water, steam, or condensation from plumbing or mechanical systems.  However, as mold related claims have increased, insurers throughout the country have sought to exclude mold from property damage coverage.  In mid-2003, the Maryland Insurance Commissioner reversed a ruling by his predecessor, and made mold exclusions permissible.  Where mold exclusions are applicable, coverage is only available through the purchase of separate policies or endorsements.

The deterioration of building components, the diminishment of indoor environmental quality and aesthetics, and the potential for allergic reactions and other health consequences provide reason enough to adopt policies that promote the elimination of sources of indoor mold and provide a protocol for the removal of mold growth.

Rather than allow extremists to define the debate, the more reasoned approach is to adopt standards that ensure watertight buildings, identify unacceptable levels of mold contamination, and establish reasonable remediation criteria that allow its removal while minimizing the spread of the airborne spores.  To do otherwise merely perpetuates the current uncertainties and hyperbole, while the costs to property owners continue to accumulate.

Until such standards are in place, property owners need to be mindful of the potential for harm to their investment from water intrusion and mold.  It should be part of any due diligence checklist.  Where problems occur, competent professionals should be engaged to properly identify the source of the moisture and develop specifications for an effective repair, as well as to determine the need for and appropriate scope of any mold remediation program.