Mold can happen to any building at any time if the conditions are right. Mold is three things: persistent, resourceful, and low maintenance. It requires very little to live and can sneak right into any type of facility if given the opportunity. Once it starts growing, it can quickly become a large-scale problem and begin affecting the health of anyone exposed to the poor indoor air quality, whether a customer, visitor, client, or employee.
That makes mold a facility manager’s worst nightmare and is why managers need to have a solid foundation of mold knowledge, awareness, and action plans to help deal with this tenacious fungus. Being a mold aficionado helps to ensure that anyone visiting the facility doesn’t experience the adverse health effects that can be triggered by mold exposure.
Mold Awareness 101
At present, there are quite a few misconceptions and misinformation about mold.
For instance, what is mold? The term refers to over 100,000 species of fungus that fall under the “mold” umbrella. It also encompasses two sides of mold: the non-living part and the living part. Every species of mold reproduces by creating microscopic spores that they release into the air. With over 100,000 species, it’s easy to say that these tiny particles are everywhere. A few encountered here and there throughout the day aren’t a problem for our immune systems.
When a mold spore stumbles upon a habitable location, it will transform into a living being, set down roots (literally), and begin to grow and colonize the space. When this happens inside a facility, all of the spores are trapped within the walls of that structure, tanking the indoor air quality and opening the door for adverse health reactions to occur. Some species of mold can also create and release microscopic toxins called mycotoxins that also trigger adverse reactions in anyone exposed.
Having this understanding of mold is important for a couple of reasons. It breaks down the misconception that “mold is everywhere.” Mold spores are all over the place, but they’re spaced out and don’t cause much of an issue. Colonized mold is not everywhere and can cause real problems when it starts to grow in facilities as those within the building continue to breathe in all of those moldy particles.
This understanding also highlights the importance of proper mold removal, which includes taking care of the living mold inside of the building and removing any invisible contaminants that come along with it. Otherwise, exposure to the contaminants will continue.
Mold and Health
Mold exposure affects everyone differently for a variety of reasons. Things like the following all play a role:
- Pre-existing conditions
- Length of exposure
- Species of mold
- Presence of mycotoxins
Researchers are still trying to nail down exactly how mold exposure affects the body, but there are a lot of factors to consider. Some individuals may experience no symptoms from exposure, while others will immediately develop a wide range of possible reactions. These could include rashes, sneezing, coughing, neurological issues, digestive issues, and brain fog, among others. You just never know. What researchers do know is that anyone with a developing or compromised immune system is at a higher risk of experiencing symptoms.
When push comes to shove, humans take an average of 20,000 breaths per day. That’s about 14 breaths per minute. Every minute spent inside of a facility with poor indoor air quality from mold spores and its byproducts has the potential to severely impact an individual’s health. Creating a safe space with top-notch air quality and free from indoor mold growth is crucial to ensuring those inside the space remain healthy.
Preventing Indoor Mold Growth
The best way to manage indoor mold growth is to prevent it from starting in the first place. This predominantly rests on facility managers’ shoulders as it requires a comprehensive plan, delegation, and communication.
A mold spore’s journey into the world of the living requires very little, which is why it’s fairly easy for a facility to develop a mold problem if preventive actions aren’t taken. Giving this tiny particle four simple things and leaving it undisturbed for 24-48 hours can result in a mold colony. These four life-giving ingredients include:
- Oxygen (they require very little, which is why mold can live inside of walls)
- Temperature (most prefer 40-90 degrees Fahrenheit, but some species can live in extremes)
- Food (they eat almost anything, such as dust, wood, paper, and organic matter)
- Moisture (the aspect most often missing)
Facilities offer an abundance of the first three things necessary for a mold spore to begin growing. Preventing wet opportunities will be at the top of the list for avoiding indoor growth.
The following are steps a facility manager can take to avoid mold growth:
- Maintain low indoor humidity: Mold can grow in high humidity, so keep levels between 30% and 50%.
- Consider a dehumidifying system: If the humidity levels continue to stay high despite your best efforts, a dehumidifying system can help pull that excess moisture from the air.
- Clean up any spills and fix any leaks immediately: Mold can grow in as little as 24 hours, so eliminating these wet opportunities correctly and quickly removes growth potential.
- Vent any exhaust outside: This could include bathroom exhaust fans, kitchen fans, dryers, etc. When they’re vented into a location inside of the building, condensation can build up and allow for mold growth.
- Keep up with the HVAC system: This includes scheduling regular maintenance and inspections to make sure the system is operating properly. A faulty HVAC can create moldy opportunities and spread spores and particles throughout the entire facility. Having ventilation that works properly can also help to circulate out mold spores and reduce wet opportunities.
- Invest in high-quality commercial air purifiers: These products can capture and remove up to 99.99% of particles, all the way down to the size of 0.007 microns. This is great for eliminating rogue mold spores and viruses like COVID-19, so it’s a double whammy for indoor air quality.
- Create regular cleaning schedules: This removes any spores and food sources like dust. Make sure to use EPA-approved cleaning products that actually manage mold and tools like HEPA vacuum cleaners.
- Set a schedule for building inspections: This includes a thorough walkthrough of the entire building from top to bottom (especially less frequented spaces) to check for any leaks, water damage, or visible mold. Use your nose here! Mold can be hidden from view but will create a musty, earthy, stale scent that can tip you off to a problem.
This isn’t an exhaustive list for preventing mold growth, but it’s a great start. Contacting an expert is also a great option to figure out specific preventive actions for the building they are working to keep healthy. By reducing the opportunities for mold to start growing, facility managers can avoid larger mold problems that can cost more money to remove and have a greater impact on the health of those inside the building.
Handling a Mold Problem
Sometimes, mold manages to slip in no matter how many preventive measures are taken. Things like leaks, hidden water events, and massive flooding happen. The tricky thing about mold is that once it starts growing, those spores, byproducts, and other contaminants begin circulating in that indoor air wherever that leads them. They also adhere to any surface they come into contact with. Removing the mold problem involves getting rid of the growth as well as all of the contamination that came along with it both in that area and any other location inside of the building that it managed to spread to.
Having a plan of action in place to quickly and efficiently handle the problem can save time and money, as well as prevent any of the negative health effects that go along with exposure. This plan should involve:
- Shutting off HVAC systems: This prevents mold particles from transferring from one location inside of the building to the other. Not to mention the contamination that can build up within the ducts.
- Relocate any humans inside of the building: The potential for mold to affect health means that any potential exposure should be stopped immediately.
- Stop the source of water intrusion ASAP if it hasn’t been repaired already: Mold will continue to grow as long as that wet opportunity exists. Fixing this should be at the top of the list so the problem remains contained and doesn’t spiral out of control.
- Hire a qualified mold inspector: Not all mold inspectors are made equal. Facility managers should ensure this individual completes comprehensive testing (not just air tests) to find the extent of the contamination problem so that it can be fixed and those within the building can safely return. This process should cover the entire building, use a variety of testing techniques, and assess for other contaminants like mycotoxins and bacteria.
- Find a remediation company that’s equipped to handle technical problems like mold growth in facility buildings: Like mold inspectors, not all mold remediation teams are created equal. Successful remediation should include three key pillars for success: remediating the sources properly, identifying and addressing the problems that led to the sources in the first place, and removing all contamination present. Not ticking any of these boxes can lead to the mold growing back or exposure continuing when individuals are brought back into the building.
The key to tackling a mold problem is to address it safely, correctly, and quickly. Having a plan in place at the get-go, knowing who to call, and understanding what to expect can save money and time, as well as reduce anxiety.
Maintaining a Safe Work Environment
Facility managers juggle a million different tasks at once, but workplace safety is at the top of the list. While indoor air quality isn’t always front and center during safety planning, it’s incredibly important to help maintain the health of those inside the building.
Prevention and action plans, as well as creating a mold awareness foundation, are imperative for the success of a healthy work environment. Every breath workers or visitors take within those walls can affect their health. Clean indoor air is crucial.
Michael Rubino is an air quality expert and advocate. As President of All American Restoration, Rubino specializes in working with people who are immunocompromised or have acute and sustained reactions to mold exposure. He is also a council-certified Mold Remediator by IICRC and ACAC and is a contributing member, sponsor, and speaker for the Indoor Air Quality Association. He is the author of The Mold Medic and a contributor to MindBodyGreen. He also hosts the YouTube series “Mold Talks,” where guests include medical experts as well as mold recovery patients.