By Abigail Napp
The pandemic made millennials and Boomers alike reevaluate their life’s choices, especially where to live and the quality of life those choices brought. The second home market has been booming as a result, with Florida being the No. 1 destination. Buyers were willing to give up midnight deliveries of pizza topped with truffle oil and arugula for warm weather, a swimming pool and 5000 square feet of living. While home offices were a must have on the checklist and the customary inspections of the property were ordered, there are hidden dangers that just don’t appear on the radar of potential buyers until, well, they do. The Escape Home’s Abigail Napp has the story.
A few months after moving into a brand-new apartment building in West Palm Beach, Florida, one of the renters began having strange health issues. Both she and her husband worked from home and were excited to live in a warm climate for the first time. But nighttime brought multiple trips to the ER for shortness of breath, panic attacks and brain fog. This was new territory, and despite what the doctors initially thought, it wasn’t Covid-19.
“A lot of my symptoms were neuropathy related, and half of them are caused by scary things, so I started thinking about what was in my environment,” said the 31-year-old nutritionist who asked not to be named due to pending litigation.
She noticed the HVAC system in their apartment was leaking, so she told the building.
“It took them two months to fix the leak, which is absurd,” she said. When she asked about air quality tests, they said the humidity levels were “normal,” so nothing further was needed.
But her symptoms persisted, and it seemed no doctor could connect the dots. A week before Thanksgiving, her husband noticed the wooden floorboards beneath his desk in the living room were wet and soggy. They had found yet another leak.
This time, the building promised to take care of the water damage and to clean the air vents. It hired a disaster-relief remediation team to start repairs. When they broke down the walls, sure enough they discovered black mold. They sealed up the room, fixed the leaks, replaced the drywall, and repainted.
But she quickly learned that would not solve the problem. “You want to get it tested right after you find the mold to find out which kinds you have, because some are toxic and some are not,” she said.
On their own dime, the couple hired a consultancy who advised them to do a PCR test for mold — not just an air sample, which will not detect everything in the home. They also did a micro-toxin check on their blood and urine.
There’s remediation and then there’s remediation
They discovered that even after remediation, the mold had spread throughout the home and invaded their bodies, reaching toxic levels. The results even showed a bacteria, Gram-Negative — the kind that can cause sepsis in hospitals — had grown well beyond the healthy threshold. Adding to their confusion, her husband was asymptomatic despite having higher levels. Her suspicions had been right all along.
“They say 1 in 4 people are mold sensitive, and that’s the scary part. We’ve both been exposed and the testing shows we’re both suffering internally, but someone like my husband may not know it, because he doesn’t have the symptoms,” she said. “It can lead to auto-immune disorders and cancer.”
The woman and her husband filed a lawsuit against the property management company. On top of thousands of dollars in medical bills, the out-of-pocket detox treatment may take years to have an effect. They could spend thousands more dollars cleaning their belongings and securing a new home, just because the property was not mold-free. Two years into marriage, they have been forced to throw out many sentimental possessions.
Mold experts will tell you this is all too common. Since mold problems often involve at least four different parties — the victim, doctors, remediation experts with proper certifications and property owners — it can be a complex investigation that requires immediate attention and a scientific approach.
“Now we’ve started to see that a majority of homes that we test do have mold,” said Corey Levy, a second-generation indoor air quality expert and certified microbial investigator based in Florida and New York. “Too many people are being misdiagnosed and being told they’re crazy. They’re given a band aid solution that will not get to the source of their problem.”
And because most home insurance covers only water damage, many homes are never tested and inspected. Mold can spread in the air, so simply removing a piece of drywall or wet cabinet will often not get rid of the organism, especially if it’s been sitting there for a long time. Many homes are “restored” without ever taking into account what’s actually going on. Without a microbial approach, the health ramifications can be serious.
“Mold is everywhere, but the idea is that your body gets a break from environmental toxins when you’re in your house,” said Liz Keefer, a certified indoor environmental consultant who studies the indoor environment and handles mold issues in the South. “In the past, it was hard to prove that a building got somebody sick. But with many people working from home, it’s easier to rule everything out.”
Business is booming … unfortunately
Mold experts said they are not happy to see that business is in demand because more and more people are getting sick. Historic temperature extremes, airtight energy-efficient homes, and a shortage of housing means that the foundations and walls of our homes are prone to moisture and will be neglected over time. As of now, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) does not do mold inspections despite the World Health Organization and other medical publications’ efforts to prove the adverse effects of mold on human health. Not only are there more conditions for mold to grow, there are few regulations to protect our indoor air quality.
Michael Rubino, a certified mold remediator and water damage expert who focuses on helping people who are immune-compromised and survivors of mold exposure, said the problem is in part education.
“It’s really difficult because our society hasn’t become aware of this on the level we need to.”
“I’m a huge advocate for awareness, because so many people go through it and suffer for long periods of time before understanding that their environment is exacerbating their illness,” he said. “I go to doctors all the time—we all do. I do a yearly physical, but they never ask anything about my environment. It’s baffling to me. We take 20,000 breaths per day. Air is extremely important to our existence.”
Five preventative measures for staying on top of mold
- Before you move in, do a mold inspection. Most home inspections do not include this step. If you’re sensitive to contaminants in the environment, it is recommended that you hire a certified inspector to fully understand if mold is present in your home. Liz Keefer said the average home of 3,000 square feet will cost around $650 to test. It includes five tests that will detect moisture through thermal imaging, moisture readings, particle counts and with building diagnostics (to cover things like humidity.) Another safe option is to purchase an ERMI test online and ask a certified mold inspector to interpret the results.
- Always monitor the temperature of your home. If you live in a tropical climate and are away for an extended period, you’ll want to know the humidity levels at home. “If you control moisture, you control mold,” says Keefer, who was poisoned by mold and has since recovered. “Mold used to confuse me and I hated it, because I couldn’t understand it, but it literally comes down to monitoring relative humidity and controlling moisture by having a system in your house.” Keefer recommends Nest for controlling temperatures and says if you live in warmer climates keep your HVAC systems on, consider purchasing a dehumidifier and check your windows to make sure there are no leaks.
- Always use the vents in kitchens and bathrooms. This keeps air moving to reduce condensation and moisture while cooking and bathing.
- Install sensors on water pipes to monitor leaks before they go unnoticed. If your pipes are at risk of freezing, turn off the water before you leave. “A lot of people have leaks and don’t even realize it,” says Keefer. “You can stare at a wall filled with 100 percent moisture content and not even know without proper meters.”
- Consider purchasing air filters and dehumidifiers to help mitigate dust and moisture.