Water damage in a home can be obvious. But, in some cases, water damage can develop gradually as a result of slow roof leaks, plumbing leaks, or HVAC issues. In any case, contamination from water damage may be dangerous for the occupants including pets. Ridding your home of contamination can be a long and frustrating process especially when you don’t understand the process. There are several steps involved which can include multiple professionals. This guide is intended to help homeowners see the overall process for remedying issues involving water damage and ensuing microbial contamination. Please keep in mind that every situation is different.
Minimize your exposure
Your options include getting at least one or more quality air filtration devices and removing yourself, family, and pets as far away from the contamination as possible. The air filtration devices should be positioned near where you are when in the home. Moving away from the contamination may mean to physically move out of your home into a temporary location or sealing off the contaminated area(s) while you live in the home. Minimizing exposure also means cleaning contaminated contents, when applicable, in accordance with proven protocols. Your Mold Assessment Consultant should advise you on what contents need to be cleaned and how to do it or have it done. Contents may include any porous materials including clothes, furniture, drapes, carpet, rugs, bed linens, towels, as well as non-porous items and surfaces (anything that collects dust like counters, refrigerator tops, ceiling fans, shelving, TVs, etc.).
Determine course of action for assessment and possible sampling
An assessment should be done by a qualified, experienced, knowledgeable, and licensed Mold Assessment Consultant who, ideally, is also an environmental microbiologist who could perform testing. An assessment includes but is not limited to all rooms, walls, ceilings, floor coverings, plumbing, ventilation, fireplaces, HVAC unit(s), hot water heaters, and large appliances. Photos and notes about the damage, cause, and actions to be taken are made to document the assessment and recommendations. The assessment determines the type of sampling needed and the sampling results determine the extent of the remediation needed.
Air sampling is sometimes required by the insurance company or other entity especially if there is potential litigation involved. However, the most beneficial and informative testing may be “source” sampling from areas near or at the water damaged/contaminated sites and from fan housings. Sampling of fan housing of the HVAC unit(s), the refrigerator fan housing, pieces of water damaged sheetrock and/or wood, and settled dust from undisturbed locations (like lampshades) may reveal significant pathogenic and toxigenic organisms circulating in the home. These samples can either be cultured for fungus and/or bacteria (including enteric bacteria) and/or viewed by direct exam. Cultures take 2 to 4 weeks to be completed as there is no rushing of growing organisms. While direct exams take less time, they do not provide the specifics and quantity like cultures do.
The Mold Assessment Consultant does not perform the remediation but provides the remediation plan and protocols for the remediation contractor to follow. Before remediation begins, it may be necessary to determine if a 3rd party is liable for payment for the remediation and build back. Will it be the builder, the insurance company (of the builder, homeowner, or previous seller), or the homeowner themselves? Will it be necessary to get an attorney involved if the responsible party drops the ball? If insurance and/or an attorney (and possible lawsuit) will be involved, it is most likely that both air and source sample testing may need to be taken initially to determine the level of contamination. In some cases, the homeowner hires a public adjuster consultant to represent the homeowner for confirming that the insurance company will pay.
The final remediation plan is completed after the sample results are final. As a reminder, cultures can take 2 to 4 weeks or more to complete. In the meantime, a schematic can be provided for the remediation contractor along with a draft of the remediation plan to help get the remediation started. Typically, a homeowner will wait for a remediation plan to give to the remediation contractor so they can bid on the job. Other professionals may be needed such as a forensic engineer, plumber, electrician, HVAC professional who specializes in Indoor Air Quality (IAQ), and other trade professionals depending on the situation. In some cases, the remediation contractor can do the bid based on a conversation with the Mold Assessment Consultant and a walk thru of the space. Once the bid is done, it can change somewhat as the project progresses and more details are confirmed about the contamination.
Remediation to remove contaminated structures & disinfect
Whether samples are collected or not, the remediation contractor can provide a bid and once selected, can begin by setting up “scrubbers” to scrub the air and setting up containment to seal off contaminated areas before the contaminated building materials like sheetrock and carpet are removed. In addition to a remediation evaluation and bid, the HVAC(s) usually needs to be evaluated to see how it impacts the remediation and a bid obtained. Using proper remediation processes, all contaminated materials are removed, and disinfection is performed. This can include but is not limited to infrastructure/building materials, contents, cabinetry, and HVAC units. Depending on how many contaminated areas are involved, this step may be done in one stage or at different stages and may involve other professionals. Every remediation project is different but uses the same containment and disinfection methods and protocols.
Visual clearance and clearance testing
After (and sometimes during) the remediation by the contractor, the Mold Assessment Consultant will do a visual clearance assessment to determine if the remediation has been done properly and to see if the home is ready for “clearance testing.” If there is still more disinfection / remediation to be done as determined by the Mold Assessment Consultant, an additional visual clearance assessment will need to be conducted after the additional remediation is completed. Once the visual assessment passes, “clearance testing” can be performed. This may consist of air samples along with 2 or 3 source samples. The air samples should be ready in about a week and the source samples in about 2 weeks unless they are viewed by direct exam and not cultured. If the samples pass, the home can then be “built back” and renovation can proceed. If the testing does not pass, then steps must be taken to prepare for additional clearance testing and the cycle repeats. It is during this point of the remediation of the home where costly mistakes can be made because clearance testing was not done or not done properly, and the home was built back when there was still contamination lingering. To avoid this pitfall, it is essential that an accredited environmental microbiology laboratory be used along with an environmental microbiologist who has experience with the entire process including clearance testing.
In summary, properly ridding a home or other building from microbial contamination can take weeks or months depending on the severity of the growth. The longer that pathogenic and toxigenic organisms are present and have “set up housekeeping” and are supplied with nutrients (moisture, cellulose, and many other elements), the worse the toxicity and danger can be to occupants. The main thing is to properly shield or remove people and pets from the contamination and, secondly, not to rush the critical steps needed to properly assess and bring the building back to a condition that is safe for occupancy.