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To Sample or Not to Sample – That is the Question

Property owners and restorers are faced with the question about whether or not to have the worksite sampled prior to starting work. In this article we will discuss why this is an issue from a cost standpoint; why sampling is the only way to determine what the real scope of work should be; and the risks associated with not sampling prior to starting mold remediation.

To begin, the mold remediation industry is guided by an American National Standards Institute (ANSI) standard entitled the ANSI/IICRC S520 Standard and Reference Guide for Professional Mold Remediation (S520).  The S520 describes three conditions that can exist in a property in the following terms:

Condition 1 (normal fungal ecology): an indoor environment that may have settled spores, fungal fragments or traces of actual growth whose identity, location and quantity are reflective of a normal fungal ecology for a similar indoor environment.

Condition 2 (settled spores): an indoor environment which is primarily contaminated with settled spores that were dispersed directly or indirectly from a Condition 3 area, and which may have traces of actual growth.

Condition 3 (actual growth): an indoor environment contaminated with the presence of actual mold growth and associated spores.  Actual growth includes growth that is active or dormant, visible or hidden.

When molds begin to grow to the extent that they become a problem, they are referred to as a Condition 3. In a Condition 3 environment, molds will grow together to the point that they are usually visible, though the growth might be concealed by base cabinets or within wall cavities. As molds continue to grow, they disperse millions of spores into to the air that will settle out on other surfaces within the property. These dispersed and settled spores are microscopic and are not detectable without the aid of a microscope.

People don’t have an adverse reaction to the mold that is growing on something. They have a reaction to the dispersed spores that are in the air on surfaces. You have to come in contact with the mold to have a reaction. To learn more about the consequences of exposure to mold you can go to the article “Mold – What Is it and Should You Be Concerned?

When mold is discovered, it is usually because it is visible or a Condition 3. In addition to being visible, there might also be an odor that is musty or “moldy”. The odor only occurs when there is sufficient moisture or water present for the mold to grow. The absence of odor does not mean that you don’t have a problem.

Most remediation efforts focus on Condition 3 (what you can see and is not a direct exposure issue). Unfortunately, it is Condition 2 (what you can’t see and can harm you) that should be as much of or a greater concern than Condition 3.  The problem is that in order to determine whether or not you have a Condition 2 requires sampling (i.e., assessment) or making an assumption (fancy word for a guess). An appropriate scope of remediation includes the cleanup of both Condition 3 and Condition 2 areas.

The S520 says that “When a preliminary determination indicates that mold contamination exists or is likely to exist, an assessment should be performed prior to starting remediation.  An independent IEP [indoor environmental professional] who has no business affiliation with the remediator should be used for this purpose.  . . . Notwithstanding the foregoing, if health issues are discovered or apparent that seem to be related to the actual or suspected mold contamination, an IEP or other appropriate professional should be engaged by the property owner and the extent and Condition (1, 2 or 3) to which areas of the structure, systems and contents are potentially mold-contaminated should be assessed, documented, and reported to the client.

One purpose of this assessment is to identify what areas are contaminated as a Condition 2. The problem is that appropriate sampling by a competent person is expensive ($500 to $1500 for a small residential problem) and there is a reluctance to pay for it.  This is complicated by the fact that some insurance companies claim that their policy does not provide coverage for mold. Others have allowed for you to purchase additional coverage that will give you from $5,000 to $25,000 additional. Frequently insurers do not want to pay for sampling prior to remediation, but might allow for sampling after remediation. That might sound like a good option, but requires that the remediator guess at what is a Condition 2 or not consider it at all.

Allow me to share with you a real life example of this problem. A restoration firm that had been trained to perform mold remediation services, found themselves on a water damage job that had resulted in a severe mold problem. The insurance company had agreed to pay for the remediation services including the sampling after the remediation. However, the insurance company did not want to pay for the additional cost of sampling at the beginning of the job. The restorer went ahead and performed the specified remediation services. Sampling was performed after the remediation inside the work area and the results were unacceptable.  Sampling was also performed outside the contained work area and the remainder of the home was found to be unacceptable.  The resulting dilemma: was the spread of the mold spores a result of the remediation firm failing to adequately contain the remediation work area or was the elevated mold spore levels (Condition 2) there prior to the work being performed? If sampling had been performed at the beginning of the job, it would have helped in establishing a more accurate scope of work (Condition 2 and 3). If mold spores had been found throughout the home as a result of the proposed initial sampling, it would have either indicated the need to perform additional cleaning of settled spores as part of the original scope of work or that there was a need for further investigation of the home to determine if there were other areas of water intrusion that might have resulted in mold growth. If the sampling at the beginning of the project did not show an elevated level of molds outside of the original work area, then the clearance sampling might indicate that the responsibility for the contamination was the restorers. Additional investigation and sampling indicated that the mold spore levels were as a result of improperly installed windows and not from the restorer. For four years the house remained unoccupied while the case was in the hands of attorneys.