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Written by Robert E. Sheriff, MS, CIH, CSP, President
November 21, 2018
Mold is certainly a problem in many buildings, homes, apartments, condos, offices, factories, warehouses, public buildings. Yes, mold is everywhere. In case you didn’t know, it’s outdoors, as well as indoors. Essentially all molds indoors come from outdoors. The problem occurs when the outdoors mold levels—usually at a level most people can tolerate—finds an ideal growth environment indoors and beings to propagate to where it overwhelms our immune systems. Different molds thrive in different conditions but most like high humidity, warmth, and a food source (mostly wood, paper, foodstuffs, plant matter).
The food source is often sheetrock wallboard paper (which is just decomposed wood products), latex paint, wood walls, clothing, wood floors, all of which are naturally occurring materials that have been the food source for molds over centuries, millennia, and more. The difference is only in the quantity and the particular combination of moisture, temperature and food source that is just perfect for specific molds to grow.
Ubiquitous is my big word for the week. Webster’s definition is “existing or being everywhere at the same time: constantly encountered.”
This describes the situation with molds. They don’t magically appear or re-incarnate when conditions are right. They don’t seep through solid walls as is often assumed. They are always there, floating in the air or carried in moving water, in a dormant state, just looking for the right combination of moisture, heat, and food sources to begin rapid growth.
Different molds like different conditions for propagation. Some thrive in high moisture; some prefer active water infusion. They also have a variety of diets and temperature requirements. Some like the cellulose in sheetrock paper, others like wood in various degrees of decay and water saturation. Some like very warm temperatures, others like lower temperatures. Very few, however, will grow in cool or cold temperatures, if they do it is very slow.
In fact, it is fairly easy to define the conditions that resulted in certain types of mold species being present. Very damp or wet conditions in the presence of sheetrock are an ideal environment for the much maligned Stachybotrys. Damp, warm conditions over a lengthy period of time with a good amount of dust/dirt are ideal for Penicillium-the greenish type mold seen on breads and elsewhere, and the source of the wonder antibiotic Penicillin!
The important point with molds that may produce some type of adverse effect on humans is the quantity. The quantity on surfaces that can be dislodged by physical contact and air movement, and the quantity of mold, floating free in the air, that can be inhaled.
The best way to evaluate the significance of the amount of indoor mold is to compare it to the amount of mold found in the outdoor air. The best measure of mold quantity is a comparison with outside levels, and total amount airborne. Unless conditions are right for indoor incubation, the mold levels should be equal to or less than, AND in the same general proportions-as outdoors.
If the mold levels are considerably above what is outdoors, or if there is a predominant mold not found in the same proportions as outdoors, something is going on inside that results in mold growth and propagation.
Measuring mold quantities is a controversial subject as well. Simply setting out a culture plate even for a measured amount of time is not an effective measurement tool. (A little science is worse than no science at all!) Mold and mold spores are so small that they don’t readily settle unless they attach themselves to dust or moisture that permits them to reach a surface such as a sofa, floor or wall. An air sampling device that draws in a known quantity of air onto a growth medium is a much better test of what is in the air and what can be inhaled or become attached to skin or clothing.
Further, a surface sample or wipe test, carefully performed over a measured surface, is a better test of what is on a surface than on an open culture plate.
There are four different aspects of a mold that can come in contact with human beings. The First is the living mold itself—the live, growing plant. The Second is the spore—a “seed” that can be in a dormant state for a long time waiting for the right conditions for growth. The Third is the dead material—“the carcass”—of protein and other molecules that are present even when the mold is no longer alive and not capable of growing. The Fourth are mycotoxins which are waste products generated by molds.
Each one of these materials: living mold, spore, carcass or mycotoxin, can adversely affect a human.
Though mycotoxins seem to be in the public eye right now, there is little scientific evidence that mycotoxins are the predominant cause of Indoor Air Quality related illnesses. It is just one of the factors in the mold life cycle that can adversely affect human beings. In the overwhelming majority of cases, the amount of mycotoxin is far too little to adversely affect a human being.
There is much more than can, and needs, to be explained on this subject, but the first point to understand is that molds, specific to certain climates and environments, are always present. Usually in small quantities that do not affect most people. They do not magically appear but simply grow from a few spores when conditions are favorable.
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