Indoor air quality has become a hot topic lately due to the COVID-19 pandemic. But while the danger of airborne viruses may be uppermost in our minds, we’re likely less aware of other serious health threats present in the air we breathe in our homes. In fact, the EPA estimates that 25-50 percent of all buildings in the U.S. are water damaged, and likely contaminated with mold—the foundation of “sick buildings.” “Mold and other microbes thrive in water damaged buildings, but not all of the growth is visible,” notes Bill Dolch of Certified Indoor Air“If you can’t see it, that doesn’t mean you don’t have it. In a water-damaged building, we breathe in the air from that space, air that includes toxins produced by molds and other microbes, along with spores as they spread to new areas. “The inhalation of these microbial antigens can cause illness,” he explains. “It is estimated that for three-quarters of the population, it may not become a significant issue, but one out of every four people carries at least one type of gene that reduces their body’s ability to eradicate mold spores, fragments, toxins, or volatile organic chemicals. And for these individuals, living or working in a moldy building can make them very sick.” Symptoms can range from fatigue, pain, brain fog, rashes, weight gain, immune challenges to many more—reflecting the multisystem, multi-symptom nature of Chronic Inflammatory Response Syndrome (CIRS). While there are several methods to test a building, the Environmental Relative Moldiness Index (ERMI) correlates with human illness and should always be done when an inhabitant is sick. Bill Dolch and his son, David, are experts in such comprehensive home health assessments. They point out that most people with mold problems usually have three questions—What is it and how bad is it? Where’s it coming from? How much does it cost to get rid of it?—and their job is to find the answers.
Health & Healing: When you assess home health, how do you know you’ve found the source?
DAVID DOLCH: There are a lot of things you look for on the exterior that lead to further interior investigation. Once we get inside, we moisture map around the plumbing areas. We check for separation of building materials, any signs of growth, or maybe a bulging wall. Those are obvious visual things, but we always do moisture meter checks as well.
BILL DOLCH: Once the inspection is completed, then we discuss our recommendations on what to sample with the homeowner. Based on where we think the problem areas are, we take samples to try to eliminate or confirm them.
H&H: What about the HVAC system—how does that contribute to the problem and how does mold spread?
BILL DOLCH: The HVAC system is like the lungs of the house—it’s a critical piece to the puzzle. A good assessment includes an inspection where we understand the HVAC system and how it works, and the passageways by which these molds are spreading throughout the home. A lot of times, the HVAC system provides the passageways.
DAVID DOLCH: It takes 24 to 48 hours after a water event for mold to start to colonize. After that, the mold spores become ambient, then start to attack the return filter. They get through there, and then get recycled at the blower fan where we sample. When it comes back out, obviously it’s going to be ambient in the air. Then it gets recycled again through the return filter. Mold will even harbor in the dust there. All these source areas affect the health of the home.
H&H: Is mold your only concern when testing, or do you look for other contaminants and pollutants?
BILL DOLCH: A good assessment includes inspection, the HVAC system, and the passageways that we just talked about, but the fourth piece is to consult with the residents of the home. We need to learn of any symptoms they’re experiencing and health issues that are concerning. That information can tell us a lot about potential contamination we should be testing for. And mold is not necessarily the only problem contaminant, we also test for mycotoxins and endotoxins in the indoor environment. We can test for volatile organic compounds, such as you might find from off-gassing in a new house or with new furniture.
DAVID DOLCH: Bacteria is a big one. Just like mold spores, they harbor in the dust in your home that’s being pushed around by your air system. So, we collect a sample of the dust, and then have it analyzed for bacteria and for the exact species of mold. Typically, at the end of the inspection, we present our surface and air samples as source mold areas for proper remediation. The ERMI test looks for 36 molds by species, and we use this information along with our air and surface samples to compare, to figure out exactly which dangerous molds exist in the surface and air samples.
H&H: Although you focus exclusively on assessment and not the remediation phase, what might people expect when remediating significant mold issues?
BILL DOLCH: When we complete our assessment, we’ll provide the information you need to take to a remediation company, and they will tackle the problem of eliminating the sources of contamination. Remediation is not the same as remodeling—and nowhere near as extensive a process. The difference between remodeling and remediation is the attention to containment. They’ll contain the contaminating materials—such as mold spores; and will replace infected building materials.
DAVID DOLCH: We’ll certainly offer a remediation strategy or protocol, and we collaborate with the builder and remediation companies as requested. When we have someone with a suppressed immune system, mold overexposure can further inflame the system, triggering adverse health effects. That’s why checking the air system for mold and bacteria is so important, particularly in those cases.