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On the Trail of Toxic Mold

As mold-related litigation grows, occupational safety and health professionals are focusing more of their time on this pervasive problem.

Ed McMahon has a problem with mold, and he's not alone. In April, McMahon, the longtime "Tonight Show" sidekick and veteran television pitchman, sued his home insuror, American Equity Insurance Co., and several contractors for $20 million. In the suit, he said that a pipe burst in his Los Angeles home last July, causing his den to flood. The contractors brought in by his insuror failed to properly clean up the damage, resulting in mold spreading through his luxury home. He said he, his wife and their household staff became ill as a result, and his dog died because of a mold-related infection.

McMahon's case is far from unique. At a recent seminar, experts reported that some 9,000 toxic mold and mildew-related claims have been filed in the United States and Canada in the past decade. Texas will have an estimated 50,000 to 60,000 active mold claims by the end of this year. There are an estimated 2,000 plaintiffs in mold-related lawsuits in California.

High-profile cases include a $32 million award to a Texas family who charged that their insurance firm improperly handled a claim for water damage, allowing toxic mold to form and take over the family's $3 million home. Other major cases include an $18.5 million award to a California homeowner and an action by a New York employee seeking $65 million for workplace mold exposure. Some observers have likened this wave of litigation to what has occurred with asbestos.

According to the Environmental Protection Agency, molds typically grow in buildings affected by water damage. They have been found in homes, hospitals, schools and office buildings. It is estimated that about 50 to l00 common indoor mold types have the potential for creating health problems. Exposure to mold has been associated with health problems including asthma, sinusitis and infections.

Industrial hygienist Brian Ruffe is one of a growing number of occupational safety and health professionals who spend a good deal of their time hunting toxic mold. Ruffe, director of Indoor Air Quality Services for BEM Systems Inc., Chatham, N.J., said his firm's work in this has grown out of its due diligence indoor air quality surveys. In looking at HVAC systems, checking potential indoor air contaminants and interviewing employees, Ruffe and his co-workers have found a number of cases where mold has infested a building.

When it comes to mold, Ruffe said, "If you can see it, you want to get rid of it." He said mold is often found in basements, behind walls where moisture has seeped in, along baseboard moldings, under carpets, in the ductwork of air handling units and in the condensate pans of these units.

Where mold is not visible but suspected, Ruffe conducts monitoring. Using an aerosol cassette, he takes samples outside, in both the morning and the afternoon. He also takes culture samples for laboratory analysis to determine the species of the mold.

Next, Ruffe moves inside, taking samples first in a control area. If there is not a problem in that area, the species of mold should be similar to the ambient air outside, and the number of mold spores should be much lower. Then he samples the suspect area. "If the species that I collect are different from outside and the numbers are higher, then it tells me there may be a problem here," he said.

Mold problems are associated with old and new buildings. In older buildings that are not properly maintained, Ruffe said, "You're going to have cracks, leaking roofs and pipes that are going to break. That lends itself to a moisture problem, which will lead to a mold problem."

In newer buildings, Ruffe explained, the construction materials themselves and some construction practices contribute to mold growth. "For instance, if the vapor barrier is not installed correctly, you're going to have a problem because the moisture that comes inside cannot escape."

Much of BEM's work in the mold area now involves reviewing reports by other hygienists and laboratories for defense counsel. Without standards to reference, Ruffe noted, air sampling and professional conclusions are open to interpretation. "The 1,000 spores-per-cubic meter number is being bantered around as a potential threshold," he noted, but added that using such a number fails to take into account the mold species, the nature of the building environment and personal sensitivities. Even without an OSHA PEL, though, Ruffe asserts that practitioners have "the science and methodologies to determine if there is a valid association between mold conditions and risk to health."

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