Getting the Dirt on Mold
Mold. Whether it's the beard forming on an old peach or a furry mass in your master bathroom, no one likes it. But you don't necessarily need to fear it according to microbiologist Rich Valdez, whom I interviewed about this potentially destructive home-wrecker. Valdez is a trained microbiologist and founder of California Microbial, a company that identifies, investigates and tests the origins of mold.
In addition to performing over 4,000 mold investigations, Valdez is also former star of the short-lived Discovery channel reality show, 'The Undetectables,' where he conducted mold investigations on-camera to show how mold can adversely affect people inside their homes.
I caught up with Valdez after he inspected a bathroom for this cunning green culprit.
An Interview With Rich Valdez
- What harmful health effects would occur if mold goes untreated?
- Rich: Mold essentially is an allergen. There's a big debate on the toxicity of mold. What happens is, in nature, molds produce something called mycotoxins... People have kind of associated mycotoxin with toxic molds... But the health relation to humans, if there's any pathogenic issues in molds, it's not well understood yet.
- I saw a 'Dateline' story once that exposed some of the fraud in this area. How can consumers avoid dealing with unsavory mold inspectors?
- Rich: The norm for a mold inspector is they will take a weekend course... it's like $1,000. You go for two days; they essentially teach you how to take samples. There's no investigational knowledge given. It's just a lecture. You take a ridiculous test and you become a certified mold inspector. So a lot of these guys are ex-home inspectors, ex-plumbers, ex-whatever. And they come out and say "we're certified." There's no college, no academic background... They are not biologists. Let me give you a scenario of a scary mold inspector coming to your house... so you can see the difference in the way we do things:
So I looked up in your bathroom and I see growth everywhere. This is really BAD stuff. It's green, do you smell that? This could be toxic mold. Your whole house could be contaminated. You may be getting sick right now as we sit here being exposed to this. I think what we have to do is... test the mold to see what it is -- it could be the toxic kind. And we should do air samples all throughout your house because this stuff could have spread everywhere. You may be living in a real hazardous environment right now. So, for the samples, we can do the whole house for $1,000... This is the safe way to go. If you're really concerned about your health and the health of your family, it's really important you spend $1,200 right now to find out.
That's the scary mold inspector... Their goal is to actually make money on testing. That's the dark area about home inspections.
- And the solution to that quandary?
- Rich: Have an objective scientist or somebody that is an academic come by. I've seen mold 10,000 times, I know that's mold there... We can get laboratory confirmation if you really want to know what type it is. We'll do that if we have a request for legal reason or if your physician is in the middle of an examination with you because of some respiratory problem they suspect as a mold issue. [In that case], it's important to actually know what that is. Because we'll culture that and specifically give you some data to give to your doctor.
- What are the biggest causers of mold problems?
- Rich: It's essentially water. It's water impacting organic material... the wallpaper and paper behind drywall. There's a big myth about how if you live close to the beach, you'll have all these mold issues. It's almost like urban legend. It doesn't happen. It's just humidity. The problems we find in our investigations are actually concealed mold issues. Things from water damage, leaks, plumbing issues, things like that. And you'll find them in any house.
What is toxic mold, by the way?
- Rich: The most notorious one that produces a "toxin" is Stachybotrys... It produces that type of mycotoxin we're talking about. People have called Stachybotrys "black mold" or "toxic mold." It's really kind of a media term... If you do your research, you won't ever hear an academic or a physician say "toxic mold." Toxic implies it's going to kill you -- toxic radiation, things like that. Mold shouldn't be thought of as toxic, it's just an allergen. And what people tend to forget is that mold is all around us. It's a naturally occurring biological entity. And its primary function in nature is to decompose material -- and that's what it's doing in houses.
- Is the remediation process the same for black mold as regular mold?
- Rich: Regardless of what kind of mold it is, it just depends on how much mold is there. There are like 20 different kinds of mold that we test for. It's the same type of work. It doesn't change anything.
- Tell me a quick mold horror story... one that required immediate remediation:
- Rich: There was a house that was about two years old -- a brand new construction... We got called because there was a musty smell coming out of all the electrical outlets. Their housekeeper was getting sick actually. So we did our investigation, in a case like this it was appropriate to do testing because it was a mystery smell. So we identified massive mold infestations inside the actual wall structures... essentially about 80% of the house was infected with this mold, fungus material. It ended up being a construction defect from the person who built the house. They built the house in a way that... allowed rainwater to get into essentially all the walls from the parapets on the very top level. So that's a $4 million house that essentially had all the walls inside and outside removed... Once again, they would never have known that without having a mold inspection done to uncover this big Pandora's Box of mold infestation in their house. That's the value of having an investigator.
- As a homeowner, what's the best measure you can take to prevent mold?
- Rich: You just have to be diligent about water... water is the key. So if you have any leaks, you've got to be diligent about taking care of those right away. If something's flooded, you've got to get somebody to dry it out or take out the dry wall immediately. The clock starts once the water hits material. It's usually a 2-3 day lag time before you start to get mold growing.
Another thing a homeowner can be diligent for are strange smells. Any time something biological is growing, either mold or bacteria -- you're going to get off-gassing. You're going to get a byproduct called a VOC -- it's a volatile organic compound. That's the earthy, mustiness that you smell... If normally in your everyday existence you're in the house and all of sudden you notice a smell like that in the other half of the room, something's going on behind the scenes.
- Does mold ever get old?
- Rich: I think the hysteria surrounding mold is starting to calm down a little bit, which is the way it should be. A lot of the mold inspectors who were kind of shady have kind of dropped off... they kind of went out of business.