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What to do about mold?

What to do about mold?

By Jerry Deschane

Sept. 11, 2002

Jerry Deschane
D eputy Executive
Vice President
Wisconsin Builders Association

These days, you can’t get a group of builders together without talking about mold. Seminars on indoor air quality are dominated by it, fall legislative planning meetings dwell on it and conversations with liability insurance carriers eventually get around to it.

Even the state’s mammoth teachers’ union, the Wisconsin Education Association Council, has issued a press release calling for mold legislation. Mold conversations, like the green/black/white fuzzy stuff itself, are everywhere.

To a large extent, these conversations are like the old saying about the weather: Everyone talks about it, but nobody does anything about it. That’s because nearly all aspects of mold prevention and mediation are in the formative stages; clear answers are in short supply.

There is no federal health standard saying this much mold is okay, but more is bad. There is no building code chapter that says, "Build this way and there will never be mold." There isn’t a licensing classification for Mold Expert. There isn’t a scientific equation that says, "X percent humidity times Y square feet added to Z dampness yields mold." And, perhaps most important, there is no maintenance manual that says if you keep your building at this humidity, you will not get mold.

This is not to say there’s no information out there. There’s plenty. A lot of it is very good, some of it is unclear and of course there’s a lot of info-junk. Our challenges, as builders, architects, lobbyists, teachers, maintenance people, home owners, legislators and the governor, are to not panic and to act based on facts.

Remain calm

First, don’t panic. Mold is older than human beings. It’s been around forever, and we’ve been living next to it, over it, under it and breathing it for as long as we’ve been a species.

You’ll probably be exposed to more mold in your yard than in your musty basement. What’s new is our awareness of mold as an issue, combined with headline-making lawsuits about it and a very tight insurance market. These are very real problems, but they are not a public-health crisis.

Second, act on facts. Wisconsin needs to look no further than across the Mississippi for lessons in what not to do.

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Wisconsin Education Association Council

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Minnesota has an extremely stringent law on energy efficiency. In fact, state law in Minnesota has for a number of years required its code to exceed every other state. The result? Homes built too tightly for the climatic conditions and with techniques that were not fully tried, tested and understood. And, oh yes, severe mold problems. Let’s not go there.

Finding solutions

What is missing in Wisconsin is a discussion of the ongoing operation of a building. Modern buildings have been sealed from outside air and then filled with appliances, people and plants that emit moisture. Those emissions can be managed. However, they need to be managed in an ongoing manner, with the owner understanding and accepting his responsibility to operate his home.

Wisconsin would benefit from a discussion and perhaps a move toward standards for b
uilding maintenance and operation.

Wisconsin also needs to look at its liability laws. The first reaction, upon finding mold, should be what to do about it, not who to sue about it. Businesses, property owners and trial attorneys found peace on lead-paint legislation, and we need to find that middle ground here. Otherwise, housing affordability and business productivity will suffer as insurance companies either exclude mold coverage or, even worse, simply stop providing any coverage to entire industries.

The issue is important, and it will not go away. Wisconsin property owners, legislators and regulators need to sit down together, separate fact from fiction and come up with solutions. If we succeed, we’ll be one of the first states to accomplish it. If we fail, we will hurt families, businesses and Wisconsin’s economy.

Jerry Deschane is the deputy executive vice president of the Wisconsin Builders Association.

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