CANONSBURG — Mold remediation is a relatively new industry in Western Pa. Martin Zupancic is a trend setter. As the owner of the ServiceMaster Co. franchise in Canonsburg, Washington County, Mr. Zupancic is likely to find himself extremely busy in the coming months with a relatively new, albeit common problem — black mold. He is one of only a handful of people in Western Pennsylvania certified as a mold remediator by the Indoor Air Quality Association in San Antonio, Texas. This certification means that Mr. Zupancic is qualified to remove black mold from homes and buildings.
“This is a very new industry,” he said. Black mold, or stachybotrys chartarum, has been around for years. But, it has becoming a hot button issue in the Western Pennsylvania residential real estate community, as well as the rest of the nation because of recent lawsuits, and high-profile cases like that of Ed McMahon, Johnny Carson’s longtime sidekick.
“While mold litigation is becoming more prevalent throughout the country, we have not seen any major activity in Western Pennsylvania,” said Jesse Sweet, a construction and environmental attorney with Thorp Reed Armstrong, a Downtown law firm. “I would expect, however, that litigation in this area will become even more widespread and will hit the area sooner rather than later.”
Ellen Renish, president of the Pennsylvania Association of Realtors, agreed. “Everything always filters to us eventually,” said Ms. Renish, a Montgomery County realtor. “I am going to be appointing a task force of realtor members to review this. People need to be educated as well.”
What is Black Mold?
Mold is a fuzzy, web-like growth produced by several types of fungi. Mold and mildew are commonly used interchangeably, although mold is often applied to blue, black, green and red fungal growths, and mildew to white growths. Out of 1,000 U.S. mold varieties, only 24 are hazardous, including black mold. This mold begins as a microscopic, airborne spore that germinates on contact with a moist surface. And it can spread rapidly. Too much exposure to stachybotrys can cause breathing problems, like asthma, hay fever, coughing, wheezing, a sore throat, nasal and sinus congestion, as well as upper-respiratory infections. But it’s hard for home owners to be able to tell whether they have black mold. The only real way to determine the kind of mold is to have it tested, experts say.
In the last two years, it has becoming increasingly common for local home inspectors to test mold. Mold tests are done three ways, swabbing the mold, as well as taking air and carpet samples. The average cost of the test is $300. “We’re doing more and more each week,” said Brendan Ryan, owner of Component Systems Analysis Inc., a home inspection company in a Middlesex Township, Butler County. “Some people will call because they have a sick child and can’t figure out what is wrong.” Learn more about Stachybotrys, the “Black Mold”.
Starting Out West
Black mold problems tend to be more prevalent out west in areas like Southern California and Texas, or in Florida, where the weather is warmer, the housing stock newer and the terrain more flat. “A lot of the black mold is occurring in homes that are 30 years old or newer,” Mr. Ryan said.
“In the mid-1970s, we were in the middle of the energy crisis and were very energy conscious. As a result, we built tighter houses. That led to a lack of ventilation and the growth of mold problems,” Mr. Ryan said. In the last 10 years that trend has been reversed. Homes are now better ventilated, Mr. Ryan said.
Another reason why black mold has not been a problem in Western Pennsylvania is its terrain. The region is hilly and water is naturally drained away from homes. “We’re very lucky with our terrain,” said Penny Kennedy, the concierge for McCandless-based Coldwell Baker Pittsburgh, one of the area’s largest residential brokerages. “When you have a flat area, the water tends to lay there.”
Tom Hosack, COO of Northwood Realty Services of McCandless, another large residential real estate brokerage, said he has seen only two cases of black mold in the area and both were in Butler. The first was a vacant house in Butler. The house was listed for $22,000. But, there was water in the basement, that in turn generated black mold. The problem was so extensive that it would have cost $40,000 to remediate the mold. It is still being decided what to do about the property, he said.
The second incident involved a 20-year-old house that was listed for $125,000. “There was a spot on the basement wall,” Mr. Hosack said.
“It was tested and found to be black mold. It would have cost $14,000 to remediate. The deal fell through.”
Ed McMahon’s Case
In April, entertainer Ed McMahon filed a $20 million lawsuit against his insurance company, the Los Angeles Times reported. Mr. McMahon alleged he was sickened by black mold after contractors cleaning up from a broken pipe didn’t do their job correctly. In the lawsuit, Mr. McMahon said in July 2001 a pipe broke in his den, causing it to flood. A month after the flood, mold was discovered. Mr. McMahon said he was assured that he and his wife could stay in their home during the cleanup even though mold had spread through their home’s HVAC system and entered the couple’s closest contaminating their clothes, the Times said. The mold was also found underneath their Jacuzzi in the master bedroom. The lawsuit says the McMahons questioned the cleanup methods. As the cleanup became more extensive and costly, his insurance company and contractors abandoned the project.
The McMahons also claim they developed sneezing and wheezing problems. Plus, they claim their dog, Muffin, developed a respiratory problem shortly after the mold was discovered and had to be put down.
“The question of who is responsible is often the key issue in a mold case,” Mr. Sweet said. “If a plaintiff is a home owner, he or she might sue general contractors and subcontractors who built the house. Potential targets may specifically include anyone involved in HVAC work, because mold grows in areas where moisture accumulates and there is very little ventilation that permits the moisture to dry. “Finally, insurance companies are often targets of mold litigation, regardless of the type of plaintiff.”
Making it Public
It is now becoming more commonplace nationwide in the buying and selling of homes to have the seller disclose whether they have, or have had, black mold. In California, for instance, mold is now included on the state-mandated transfer disclosure statement. Plus, the state of California Department of Health Services has included a section on mold in its Environmental Hazards Disclosure book.
In Pennsylvania within the last two months, it has become mandatory to say whether there is a black mold in the seller’s disclosure form, Ms. Renish said. “We have the obligation to inform any prospective buyer of a material defect,” she said.