Essential Lessons in Mold Remediation

Elizabeth Baxter, RIA
on Mon, 02/28/2022
view through a magnifying glass. white wall with black mold

Help your clients resolve their mold issues once and for all

To restore a space that has been affected by water loss and mold, either as an inspector or a remediation contractor, you need to undertake many detailed steps and essential processes. However, to take those steps may require thinking outside the box to help you reach the best solution.

For more than 30 years, Michael Pinto, CSP, SMS, CMP, CFO, FLS, who is CEO of Wonder Makers Environmental, in Kalamazoo, Michigan, has been working to help people resolve indoor environmental issues. In that time, he has learned to expect the unexpected, and what’s more, that the unexpected is in fact commonplace. This is just one of the many lessons Pinto has learned over the years. And whether you’re just starting out or you’ve been in the industry for decades, it’s critical that you are always learning and growing professionally. In his decades dealing with mold issues, Pinto has learned a number of other critical items that he tries to share with colleagues. The lessons included here can serve as a reminder to put your clients first, take in all the information available to you, and keep an eye out for the overlooked and unexpected.

Lesson 1: Some People Are Genetically Averse to Mold

The intersection between mold and genetics wasn’t always understood, but in 2001, Eckardt Johanning, MD, MSc, PhD, was a keynote speaker at the annual conference of the Environmental Information Association (EIA), and his presentation provided important scientific validation to mold remediators.

“That was such a dramatic moment for so many of us in that room,” Pinto said. “We were all still struggling with setting mold up as a separate part of the restoration industry, and here is this eminent medical doctor giving a presentation on people’s susceptibilities to mold.”

In fact, there are actually two genes that have been identified that make people more sensitive to mold. In the overall population, 15 to 20 percent of people have one affected gene. But in 3 percent of people, both genes can contribute to mold sensitivity, and they are affected to an even greater degree.

Pinto said his experience has been that in most instances where a remediation has been more complicated than a standard inspection, it was a sign that a sensitized individual was being affected. In such situations, it is especially important to eradicate any mold that is present.

Lesson 2: Listen to the Client

Once, a young couple and their three children had been suffering from a wide variety of strange ailments. The mother had resorted to carrying a wicker basket of their many medications around the house, and she was taking her children to the pediatrician weekly. But then she learned that her doctor believed she had Munchausen syndrome by proxy (now known as “factitious disorder”), in which a caregiver fabricates an illness in someone in their care, and that he was considering calling Child Protective Services to report her.

When no progress was made, the family contacted Pinto. Concerned, he asked questions. He learned that they’d had the home built six years earlier and that, though there was no visible water loss in their home, their symptoms began to appear about one year after they first occupied the house. The symptoms they described seemed consistent with a mold infestation, so Pinto conducted a detailed investigation of the house and discovered that the siding on one wall of one of the dormers on the roof was missing. The spot with the missing siding was not visible from the ground, so it had gone unnoticed all that time.

“When we got into the attic, the inside of the OSB was absolutely black. It was so rotted, it was falling apart,” Pinto said. “And about a foot away was an HVAC vent with a flex duct. The flex duct was disconnected from the main trunk line by about an inch or more. If you have a small gap like that, the HVAC system will pull in particles and debris along with the air.”

As it turned out, the severity of the family members’ symptoms matched how close each person’s living quarters were to the leaky attic vent. Listening to the client led to the source of the problem—and proved that Child Protective Services was not needed.

Lesson 3: Get a Second Opinion

A mold inspector was working on a job in a commercial building in California. His team was the second one that had been called in, because the first hadn’t been able to resolve the issue. Across a 28-story building with floors of 6,000 square feet each, the previous team’s inspector had taken roughly 800 samples.

The second inspector, though, thought between 200 and 300 samples was all that was needed, and that more would make it difficult to interpret the data. To make sure, the inspector called Pinto to ask how many samples he would take. Pinto agreed—between 200 and 300 was the right amount, and you need to decide before collecting data what specifically you’re looking for, rather than collecting data at random in hopes that it will reveal something.

Pinto noted that when a doctor comes across something unusual, unexpected, or outside of their area of expertise, they send their patients to a specialist or ask a colleague for a second opinion. There’s no reason a mold remediation expert can’t do the same thing.

Lesson 4: Clean the Entire Space

An older couple hired a mold remediation contractor, who did good work remediating a contaminated area in the couple’s home. The couple rented equipment from Pinto’s company to collect their own post-remediation samples. While in the remediated area, which had been isolated from the rest of the house, the couple said the air felt better than it had for at least five years.

But after the samples came back clean and the contractors removed the barriers that had been separating the previously contaminated area from the rest of the house, the couple started feeling ill again.

“It wasn’t the way they expected it to be,” Pinto said. “When they went in the house while the containment was up, the contractor was running negative pressure, they had just cleaned everything in that space, and the vents were all blocked off. But all of those measures had been removed, and they hadn’t cleaned the rest of the house, which had years of deposits built up.”

Cleaning up the area of initial contamination is of the utmost importance—but cleaning up the secondary contaminations is also essential to completing a full remediation.

Lesson 5: Build a Network of Professionals Who Can Help Your Clients

A mold problem has a variety of ramifications, which can be overwhelming for your clients. Once you have proven yourself to be a skilled and knowledgeable remediator, they may turn to you for guidance with the medical issues, moisture control, insurance coverage, financing, and even depression that may be secondary effects of the contamination. But rarely do mold remediation professionals have the knowledge or credentials to properly assist individuals in these areas, which are outside their expertise.  

Being able to direct clients to experts in related fields is one of the main reasons a mold remediator should participate in professional organizations, interact with their community, and be constantly on the lookout for people to include in their network of qualified and trustworthy professionals, both restoration-related and otherwise. This network will allow you to connect your clients with the other specialists whose assistance they need.

There are different ways to achieve this. In one instance, a restoration specialist in Nevada discovered that many of his clients couldn’t afford mold remediation because the type of work needed wasn’t covered by their insurance. As a result, he approached a local bank about catering to people who needed mold-related home improvement loans.

In another, a nurse practitioner, after dealing with mold in her own home, began diagnosing some of her patients’ reactions to mold. She started recommending they use the same professionals who had assisted her. She ultimately started her own business helping clients manage all aspects of mold remediation. Due to the emotional trauma that sensitized individuals may experience if their symptoms are disbelieved, her network even included a counselor.

When seeking out medical professionals to recommend to your clients, it’s helpful to remember that general practitioners are taught not to look for zebras when they hear hoofbeats, but rather, horses. However, illnesses caused by mold are in fact zebras, so you need to find a zebra expert. This may mean your general practitioner or an allergist, unless they are known to have experience working with mold, may not be the medical professional who is best suited to help. Instead, look for nurse practitioners, doctors of osteopathic medicine, and doctors who specialize in dealing with mold-related symptoms.

As a professional restoration contractor, you of course need to apply the technical knowledge you already have and follow industry standards. But if you expand upon that knowledge and think about mold remediation outside the box, you can offer your clients even better service than you do already.