School Climate & Safety

School Mold Problems Spur Growth Of Cleanup Industry

By Joetta L. Sack — February 04, 2004 7 min read
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“There’s gold in mold.”

That catchphrase pops up on the Internet in a number of places in reference to lawyers who see riches in lawsuits against the managers and builders of mold-infested buildings. But experts say the phrase could just as well be a rallying cry for the growing number of companies that clean mold out of school buildings.

As more and more schools confront the problem of mold, plenty of individuals and companies, some reputable and some not, are seeking to profit from the situation.

Health concerns aside, the discovery of mold in a school can drain administrators’ time and a district’s budget. (“Mold Fears,” Nov. 19, 2003.)

The ensuing business issues—including legal, insurance, and cleanup costs—can overwhelm ill-prepared officials. And that, some experts say, makes districts vulnerable to fraudulent or poorly qualified companies.

“I think there are a lot of districts at risk because they don’t have a good [environmental] consultant, particularly smaller districts,” said Amador V. Garza, the executive director of facilities maintenance and improvement for the 56,000- student Northeast Independent School District in San Antonio.

To complicate matters, experts say mold is becoming more feared by parents as the public has become more aware of its potential health hazards.

“I don’t think there’s been an increase in mold, just an increase in public awareness,” said Edward P. Maloney, the director of technical field services for Mold Free, a Detroit- based mold-removal company that now handles about 1,000 school cases across the country each year.

As a result, many administrators say they’ve seen a marked increase in solicitations for mold-removal products and services in the past two or three years, especially if there have been news reports of mold in their schools.

School facilities managers in Madison, Wis., for instance, were inundated with solicitations about two years ago after they shut down a brand-new elementary school because of mold.

“Immediately after [the story] hit the papers, we received all kinds of ‘this is the only kind of thing that will work for you’ solicitations,” said Doug Pearson, the director of building services for the 25,000-student Madison Metropolitan School District. “But we knew that if it sounded too good to be true, it probably was.”

‘It’s Mushrooming’

There are countless local mold-removal companies, but only a handful do national or regional work, such as Mold Free. A few of the larger certified companies are Lightning Hits in Grover Beach, Calif.; Alliance Environmental Services in Chico, Calif.; EastCoast Mold Specialists Inc. in New York City; and A-1 Mold Testing and Remediation Services in Lincoln, Neb.

But experts contend there are many uncertified or fly-by-night businesses and individuals that are trying to make money in the fledgling field.

“It’s mushrooming with people wanting to get into the industry,” said Seth M. Norman, the director of the 1,000-member National Association of Mold Professionals, based in Walled Lake, Mich.

The problem, he added, is that no states have standards for certifying mold inspectors.

“In most states, anybody who wants to say they are a mold inspector is a mold inspector,” Mr. Norman said. “There are a lot of people who are not qualified, and that’s really the shame of it.”

Unfortunately, fraudulent certification practices exist, Mr. Norman said. He said one company continues to sell “certifications” for $150, without requiring any training or expertise.

Mr. Maloney is worried that those companies are hurting legitimate businesses such as Mold Free, which hires biochemists to lead mold-removal teams in schools and businesses.

“A lot of times we’re underbid by companies that go in and splash bleach on the wall,” he said. “The mold comes back in a couple months, and the clients don’t get anything for their money.”

Experts advise school officials to research and learn about mold issues before hiring a consultant or paying for services they may not need.

A bundle of free information for schools is available on the Internet, said Anne W. Miller, the executive director of the Reston, Va.-based Association of School Business Officials International. She said school leaders should check Web sites such as the federal Environmental Protection Agency’s “Indoor Air Quality Tools for Schools” program.

“Even if they do wind up going to a contractor or company, they will know more about what they need,” said Ms. Miller, whose group itself is planning to hire a specialist in indoor-air quality to provide guidance to schools.

To begin with, school officials should check the credentials of anyone that they hire, Mr. Norman said. They should also check that the credentialing agency has stringent requirements for certification. The National Association of Mold Professionals, for instance, offers intensive certification classes taught by scientific experts.

Mr. Norman also recommends that districts find out the number of years a person has been performing inspections, check references, and examine a prospective mold inspector’s general education background and experience.

Because mold removal is such a new field, Mr. Norman said, schools are unlikely to find many people with extensive experience. But he pointed out that experience in asbestos removal is also a good qualification, because that field uses similar protocols.

The costs of mold removal can range from a couple thousand dollars to remove mold on one wall, Mr. Maloney said, to tens of thousands of dollars for more invasive problems that could take months to fix.

In the Madison district, for example, officials hired a local firm to remove the mold, at a cost of about $1.8 million, and reopened the building this school year. Roger Price, the district’s assistant superintendent for business services, said no further problems have been reported.

‘Respond Immediately’

Just how dangerous mold can be is still the source of heated debates, with experts disagreeing on a number of points.

All experts point out that mold is present everywhere in the environment, at all times, and that the vast majority of forms of mold are considered harmless. But it’s when elevated levels of mold are found—usually as a result of excess moisture—that problems can arise.

Most health professionals agree that certain types of mold can aggravate allergies and asthma for students and adults in school buildings. Mold has also been linked to symptoms such as bloody noses and sinus problems, headaches, lethargy, and watery eyes.

In some cases, though, teachers and students have reported debilitating health problems because of molds believed to be toxic. Such cases have cost dozens of districts hundreds of thousands of dollars each because of lawsuits.

A new legal debate is emerging over who is responsible when mold is found in a building, particularly newer buildings. Building owners and managers, school district officials, contractors, designers, and materials manufacturers have all been targeted in lawsuits. Some districts have successfully sued the builders of newly constructed schools to recoup some of their costs of mold problems.

In Texas’ San Antonio area, a region that has had severe problems with mold because of its humid climate, the Northeast Independent School District recently spent $6 million to replace mold- contaminated vinyl wallpaper and sheetrock in three schools, all built within the last eight years. The district hired two local companies for the work. The unexpected costs took a sizable chunk out of the district’s $341 million operating budget, and the district is now in mediation with the builders of the schools to decide who will ultimately pay.

“What I feel has helped us a great deal is that we do respond immediately, and look for the source,” said the Northeast district’s Mr. Garza. Many times, the culprit has turned out to be harmless, such as a forgotten lunch or a child’s wet sneakers, he said.

At the same time that lawsuits and cleanup costs are increasing, many insurance companies are refusing to cover the costs of mold litigation and cleanup. The insurance industry has become wary of the problem after being ordered by courts to pay multimillion-dollar settlements for lawsuits in recent years.

That means many districts may have to bear such costs themselves, said Fred Krimgold, the director of the Virginia Tech Center for Disaster Risk Management, based in Alexandria, Va.

His center—which calculates the risk of natural and manmade disasters such as hurricanes and terrorism for the insurance industry—is now tackling the mold issue.

“The great horrible specter of mold is still beyond the realm of actuarial control or understanding,” Mr. Krimgold said. “The result is that the industry has been excluding mold [from policies], and that’s what makes it a major problem.”

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