Indoor air quality issues, and toxic mold in particular, have become a major headache for education administrators and facilities managers. According to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), asthma now affects one of every 13 school-age children (more than twice the 1980s rate) and accounts for 14 million missed school days each year; a significant percentage of that total can be blamed on mold.
The problem is compounded by the absence of legal standards for exposure, lack of any approved testing protocol or remediation response, and uncertainties concerning insurance coverage of remediation and third-party liability costs. Meanwhile, facility managers must choose appropriate, qualified contractor or indoor air quality (IAQ) consultants when mold is present or suspected.
Working with specialists
Without adequate training and experience, a contractor can turn a $5,000 mold problem into a $50,000 problem amazingly fast — for example, just by permitting cross-contamination of previously clean areas to occur during a remediation project. So what should you look for in a mold specialist?
First, facilities managers need to be educated about the nature and extent of their mold problem and possible solutions. Many disciplines — medicine, mycology, epidemiology and industrial health — contribute to our understanding of molds and their health effects. Unless you already have practical knowledge of these specialties, you'll need to rely on your consultant for guidance.
Second, the consultant or contractor should have appropriate training and experience. This should include experience with mold-related issues and remediation procedures; building structures and components (framing, construction, roofing, HVAC); and the specific IAQ, moisture and water issues that affect school facilities.
Third, seek a firm that has been accredited by one or more recognized authorities. No contractor should be allowed to work in a school or university without the professional-level expertise needed to contain a work area properly, maintain containment pressurization, install proper decontamination, and understand and be knowledgeable about the different remediation equipment and techniques.
In many cases, the worst damage to buildings occurs because a person without proper training misses one or more important issues. Unqualified workers can overlook areas of hidden or hard-to-see mold growth, remove contaminated materials improperly, fail to contain workspaces properly, use equipment improperly, fail to clean a space sufficiently to prevent recurrence of the problem, and fail to properly address the underlying moisture problem.
Are you covered?
Another major worry is whether a school's insurance will cover mold-related remediation and third-party liability costs. Some insurance companies exclude mold from their coverage completely. Others may start offering riders for mold damage from a covered peril. Others still may be offering a special policy with a limit on the amount paid off on a loss. The bottom line: shop around for insurance.
With either a new or an existing policy, the best advice is to know the people involved. Make sure you know your representative within the insurance company, and don't hesitate to call with questions about your policy. Most people don't address these questions until they actually are faced with a problem, when it may be too late.
Even more important, read your policy carefully, and be sure you understand it fully. It may have significant, but easily overlooked, exclusions. Some insurers will offer a rider on the policy to cover mold damage. Even if mold damage is not a covered loss (now usually the case) the cause of the mold damage (almost always water penetration) may be a covered loss in some circumstances. This is why it is so important to read your policy and speak with your insurance representative.
If you are facing a water-loss issue that has resulted in mold infestation, re-read your policy immediately to familiarize yourself with the exclusions, then call and file a claim. The insurance company should be willing to work with you to determine if the loss is covered. In any case, be sure to take dated notes, and take an ample number of photos.
If you understand your policy clearly and address the loss promptly, it will be harder for the insurance company to blindside you by declaring that a loss is not covered. If the loss is covered, then the insurance company may be the one to hire a third-party consultant, who should be paid by the insurance company as part of the loss.
Insurers often will pay only for what the coverage amount of the loss provides, leaving the insured responsible for the additional costs. The best strategy is to talk with your insurance carrier before a loss occurs about what financial limits exist on the policy.
If you are facing a difficult time with the loss, an experienced attorney can be invaluable. Make sure the attorney has experience with IAQ and mold-related issues.
Pratt is project manager for BEM Systems, Inc., Environmental Scientists & Engineers, Chatham, N.J.
For more information on mold remediation:
Information on the newest mold standard, IICRC Standard S520 from the Institute of Inspection, Cleaning and Restoration Certification, can be found online at www.iicrc.org/s520info.html. Though written for service providers, it also is a useful reference for school officials who need to evaluate a contractor's proposal and/or qualifications.
The CDC's National Center for Environmental Health offers information on mold, its health impacts and remediation. It can be accessed online at www.cdc.gov/nceh/airpollution/mold.
The federal EPA maintains several valuable pages focusing on mold problems in educational institutions:
- Mold Remediation in Schools and Commercial Buildings: www.iaqa.org/epa
- IAQ Design for Schools: www.epa.gov/iaq/schooldesign
The EPA Indoor Air Quality Tools for Schools program: www.epa.gov/iaq/schools
The EPA's recently launched “Healthy School Environments” website (http://cfpub.epa.gov/schools/index.cfm) offers a portal to online IAQ resources for facility managers, school administrators, teachers, school nurses, as well as architects and design engineers.
SIDEBAR: Danger in the details
When third-graders at a 20-year-old elementary school in New Jersey complained of itchy eyes and sore throats, an IAQ assessment showed significant mold contamination. A local contractor came in, did a quick cleanup, and the problem seemed to go away for awhile. Soon, however, teachers in nearby classrooms reported similar complaints, and more cleanup operations occurred throughout the building. By mid-year, cleanup costs had passed $35,000; meanwhile, the students in the original classroom were complaining that their symptoms had returned. At that point, an environmental firm specializing in mold issues was hired to review the situation.
The review showed no obvious or glaring mistakes on the contractor's part. The contractor had collected environmental samples, including impact air sampling, wall-void air samples, bulk carpet dust samples and swab surface samples. An American Industrial Hygiene Association (AIHA)-accredited laboratory had performed an analysis of the samples. The remediation work also appeared to be thorough, including repairing and sealing all moisture entry points, removing gypsum wallboard, cleaning carpets, floors and all likely mold-impacted surfaces, and containing (using polyethylene sheeting) work areas from the rest of the building.
So what went wrong? In a nutshell: inattention to detail. On closer inspection, the source of the persistent mold complaints seemed to have been in the failure of the containment system. By failing to maintain adequate negative air pressure in the work area, the contractor inadvertently had permitted just enough cross-contamination to introduce spores into previously clean areas, and eventually re-inoculated areas that had been cleaned already.
The contractor had performed as instructed. A fundamental problem in this case was that the original consultant's recommendations had been brief and general, with no specific remediation plan and no requirement for clearance testing to confirm whether remediation had been successful at each phase. Without specific training and experience, it is easy to overlook hidden or hard-to-see areas of mold growth. Had the original consultant provided a detailed microbial remediation specification and work plan, the contractor's errors almost certainly would have been caught.
Because no federal, state or local regulations exist to govern microbial assessments, remediation procedures or clearance criteria, it is critical that any consultant hired to deal with mold problems be qualified, educated and experienced specifically in school-related water and mold issues. Also, no microbial remediation project should be started without written guidance and oversight from the consultant.
What will we pay?
There is no simple way to predict the cost of fixing something as variable as mold infestation. However, the “five for 10” rule is a crude but useful benchmark: barring unusual circumstances, most competent contractors would expect to remediate five average-size classrooms (about 500 square feet) for $10,000. If bids are far above that range, it may be time for a second opinion.