For the past several years, the real estate industry has been rocked by fears associated with mold (fungus). Never mind that mold is everywhere and has been around since almost the beginning of life on the planet. Daily newspaper headlines alleging unproven mold claims fueled consumer fears. Trial lawyers looking for new business embraced mold as the next big toxic tort.

High-profile cases involving celebrity plaintiffs, including Erin Brockovich, Ed McMahon and Michael Jordan, triggered even more exaggerated mold hype. Insured losses from mold rose from $700 million in 2000 to $3 billion in 2002, leading many insurers to exclude mold from their policies. No property type was spared. Mold was found in water-damaged libraries, courthouses, schools, apartments, offices, hotels and single-family homes across the country.

Scientists Weigh In

But a new study by the federally chartered Institute of Medicine (IOM) may help inject some common sense into the mold debate and bring relief to the real estate industry. The $64,000 question about mold has always been whether it can cause the serious illnesses claimed by some litigants. To answer that question, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) commissioned the IOM to examine the health effects associated with mold exposure in indoor environments.

After two years of research by environmental, health and building scientists, the IOM report concluded that while exposure to excessively damp indoor spaces can trigger coughing, wheezing and asthma in susceptible individuals, there is no evidence that mold causes other health risks — including cancer, debilitating fatigue, immune diseases, cognitive/neurological dysfunction or asthma — often claimed by litigants. This finding should, at a minimum, limit the potential claims against property owners and limit trial lawyers' enthusiasm for mold-related claims.

What about all those people who swear that their severe health problems disappeared when they left their moisture-damaged environment, be it an apartment, office or school? The IOM report, titled “Damp Indoor Spaces and Health,” says there is no way to isolate mold as the cause of illness because there are too many other factors in the typical indoor environment that could elicit an allergic response in sensitized individuals. In addition to mold, the report says that the air in excessively damp buildings contains a number of chemicals emitted from degraded building materials and furnishings as well as biological elements such as dust mites, bacteria and cockroaches.

Vigilance Still Needed

Even though the report rejects the most sensational mold-related health claims, property owners still need to deal promptly with moisture intrusion. As Noreen Clark, dean of the School of Public Health at the University of Michigan and chair of the IOM Committee noted, “excessive indoor dampness is a widespread problem that warrants action at the local, state and national levels.”

Pending improved construction techniques and materials, a comprehensive moisture operations and maintenance plan remains the most effective way of dealing with these issues. If property owners find damp conditions, they should isolate the source of the water, remove or repair any damaged materials and take appropriate measures to clean up any mold.

Depending on the size of the remediation project, an owner may seek to hire a remediation contractor to carry out the cleanup. If the scope of the problem is unclear, a building scientist or certified industrial hygienist should be consulted to help develop a plan for mitigation and ongoing maintenance.

Property owners also should continue to educate their residents that they share responsibility for managing moisture in the building. While management is responsible for the structure and its systems, some moisture control and hygiene issues are under the control of the building occupants.

More Education Needed

In the meantime, the report calls upon the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development or other appropriate government agency to help develop guidelines on building design, construction and operation/maintenance to prevent dampness problems. It also calls on the government and the private sector to educate building professionals (builders, facility managers, code officials and insurers) on how to prevent dampness problems. With the IOM study, it is clear that mold remains an issue for the real estate industry, but the worst may be over.

Eileen Lee, Ph.D is vice president of environment for the Washington, D.C.-based National Multi Housing Council.




Copies of the report, “Damp Indoor Spaces and Health,” prepared by the Board on Health Promotion and Disease Prevention of the Institute of Medicine, can be ordered at http://www.nap.edu/catalog/11011.html.