Mold may be the biggest issue facing the remodeling industry. Can the asbestos, radon, and lead paint scares teach us what to expect, or are we facing a whole new animal? Five years ago, when Brothers Strong, in Houston, came across household mold in the course of a project, "you didn't even talk about it," recalls company owner Michael Strong. "If it was small, you'd scratch it down and spritz some bleach on it. Or if there was a noticeable [water] leak causing the mold, you'd fix it."

Not anymore. When mold rears its head, Brothers Strong now provides written notification and leaves remediation in the owner's hands. It also has turned down post-mitigation remodeling jobs.

Remodelers around the country are ducking under the same contractual cover to keep from being blown up by what one called this industry's "new time bomb."

"Mold should be treated by contractors with respect," advises D.S. Berenson, an attorney with the Washington firm Johanson Berenson, whose clientele includes many remodelers. "It's not a fire drill or a joke. The situation is no different than when a contractor encounters some other variable -- like insect infestation -- that he isn't equipped to handle."

Remodelers say that mold is more complicated and potentially more troublesome than hazards like lead paint, asbestos, and radon. The health threat posed by mold, while real, remains scientifically ambiguous. Mitigation is an unregulated free-for-all. Insurance covering mitigation is being rewritten out of existence. And panicky homeowners facing $35,000 or more in out-of-pocket expenses for mold remediation may decide to scale back or postpone the remodeling project that uncovered the mold in the first place.

Illnesses linked to construction

Experts estimate that remediable mold is present in 20% to 60% of America's homes. Mold tends to spread after water damage, or when basic repairs like a leaky roof or cracked shower wall go unattended. Mold growth can also occur when the relative humidity of a house exceeds 70%.

In muggy Indiana, Weiss and Co. has installed heating systems in the walk-in areas of homes to hinder mold growth. "That was before we realized that this little speckly thing was a silent killer," says Mike Weiss, president of the Carmel, Ind., remodeling company. Six months ago Weiss and Co. settled on new language in its contract, which now states that mold growth "is out of our control," and that "we are not responsible for mitigation, treatment, or removal."

Contract revision is the option many remodelers favor at a time when litigation concerning health and property damage attributable to mold has spun out of control -- more than 10,000 lawsuits are pending in state courts.

Much has been written about how the "tightness" of new homes creates a ventilation-deprived environment that enables mold growth. And with more people claiming to be getting sick from exposure to indoor mold, the link tying those illnesses to construction practices, say remodelers, is unprecedented.

"The linkage between cancer and asbestos or lead paint was rarely, if ever, connected to construction of the home, per se," observes Roger Friedell, who owns Friedell Construction, Minneapolis.

There are 24 species of mold that produce mycotoxins. But the data analyzing the connection between mold exposure and illness are inconclusive, so it's difficult to dismiss anyone's claims about mold-related maladies. "We're all out there hanging if someone starts coughing down the road," says Don Van Cura, president of Don Van Cura Construction in Chicago.

Even if anecdotally, remodelers concede that mold exposure does seem to affect some people adversely. Jim Kowalski, owner of Kowalski Construction, a remediation specialist in Phoenix, has seen homeowners, whose houses had indoor mold, with puffy eyes and raspy voices that cleared up only after they stepped outside. Friedell notes that his company discovered mold in the room of a child who, according to her parents, had never slept through an entire night. Once the family moved out during the project, "the girl didn't have any trouble sleeping. Is that a coincidence?" he asks.

Remodelers see little evidence yet that the public hysteria about mold is dissipating, as it did eventually with other home health hazards.

The still-real dangers of lead paint exposure fell off the public's radar screen once products with lead content were pulled from the market. Over the past decade, the Centers for Disease Control has cut in half its estimates of elevated blood levels in young children from lead exposure. That reduction was achieved "even though there have been no real changes in construction or remodeling procedures," notes Bob Hanbury, president of House of Hanbury, Newington, Conn., who sits on the NAHB's lead exposure subcommittee. "Education and awareness are what solve most of these problems."

The Environmental Protection Agency claims that one in 15 homes has unacceptably high levels of radon, and that 22,000 people die from exposure to it every year. But radon doesn't incite anywhere near the negative press or public anxiety it once did. Its abatement is a relatively straightforward process that usually requires little, if any, demolition. This odorless gas seems to have evaporated as a health issue for a public that is more frightened by the mold they can see.

"Radon, asbestos, and lead paint are not good models for mold because each is a single contaminant with definable health risks that is generally confined to a structure," says Terry Brennan, president of Camroden Associates, a firm specializing in building forensics and design. "Mold, on the other hand, is everywhere; it's tens of thousands of contaminants waiting for the happy coincidence of nutrients and moisture. Their health effects are relatively unknown."

Unregulated fixes

These uncertainties are why remodelers say they will suspend a project whenever they come across mold and advise homeowners to hire an expert to test and remove it. Several of Handyman Connection's 145 franchises across North America are recommending remediation specialists with which they've formed strategic alliances, according to Jim Rochetta, marketing director for the Cincinnati-based company.

But finding reputable partners may be harder for remodelers than detecting invisible mold. Certified remediators are scarce, and the industry is virtually unregulated. Kowalski's company recently lost a remediation job -- which typically involves Tyvek space suits, industrial-grade respirators, and negative air-pressure equipment -- to a competitor Kowalski says sent an employee to the jobsite armed with "a carpenter's mask and Playtex gloves."

Strong of Brothers Strong says that anyone driving around Houston for an hour would see "at least 20 billboards" hawking mold removal services. "Many of these guys are unscrupulous -- they will come in and tear your house apart."

On the opposite end of the remediation spectrum, Seth Norman, a director with the National Association of Mold Professionals in Michigan, notes that some government Web sites still recommend that "you can splash bleach onto a wall and mold will go away. Bleach isn't going to penetrate the surface, though."

NAMP drew attendees from 16 states to a mold inspection and remediation certification class it conducted in January, and that it will offer several other times this year. In fact, the prospect of greater professionalism in this field could be on the horizon. A bill now in the Texas legislature would require remediators to be licensed, and Brennan notes that California is considering similar laws. The Minneapolis-based Indoor Environmental Standards Organization recently released the first edition of its mold inspection standards, which it hopes will become widely accepted.

Other home health hazards have ushered in regulations and mitigation standards, too. Contractors working on homes built before 1978 are required by law to provide lead information pamphlets to homeowners before any project is started.

The EPA requires that all friable materials must be removed prior to any renovations, to minimize air contamination. So certified asbestos remediation follows rigorous procedures that add significantly to the price tag of a project. Less-costly options, such as encapsulation, are not as widely practiced as they once were, contends Ted Dawson, senior project manager for Compass Environmental, an industrial hygiene consultant.

"Many feel that asbestos [removal] is overly regulated," says Dawson, "and [government officials] don't want to make the same mistake with mold."

With 100,000 species floating around everywhere, mold never really goes away, and its mitigation inside a house won't lend itself so readily to standards and protocols.

National Mold Specialists, a Maryland-based remediator, guarantees a mold-free environment for only 72 hours after remediation, says its president Rick Pirozzi. Nels Veland, National's VP-operations, adds that the industry has yet to establish a pricing structure for mold remediating, which isn't surprising because there's no consensus about how best to test for mold.

Dealing with mold as a health risk is expensive because testing typically requires the services of industrial hygienists. Indoor air sampling is a lot cheaper, but it's inadequate, according to the CDC, because there are "no effective standards" for sampling or for "interpreting data in terms of human health."

Do it yourself?

Sampling has its proponents, though. Mike Buettner, director of strategic markets for Aerotech Laboratories, one of the country's top testing facilities, says there's a simple test available that, "for a couple hundred dollars, you can draw samples of indoor and outdoor air. If the count inside is 10 times higher than outside, you probably have a problem."

That argument could be persuasive to homeowners who realize they are going to be footing the bill to rid their dwellings of mold.

Mold remediation costs have soared. P.J. Crowley, vice president with the Insurance Information Institute, notes that in Texas (which has emerged as Ground Zero for mold claims and lawsuits), insurers handled 1,000 mold claims in the first quarter of 2000, with an average payout for remediation of $13,700. By the fourth quarter of 2001, the claims had risen to 15,000 and the payouts to $34,500. Melinda Ballard, president of Austin-based Policyholders of America, says her database has information on 35,000 mold cases where remediation claims average $97,000.

Predictably, insurers are attempting to cap their liability. Thirty-five states allow insurers to exclude coverage for loss caused by mold unless it is deemed a "covered peril," at which point the coverage would be limited to $10,000. States and insurers are trying to stem what has become a litigation whirlwind that has resulted in some jaw-dropping jury awards to mold-afflicted homeowners, including Ballard, who won $32 million in 2001. (A Texas Court of Appeals recently reduced her award to $4 million.)

With its eye on the future, when homeowners' capacity to pay for remediation may be diminished, National Mold Specialists has set up a partnership with a financing company to help owners negotiate these expenses.

Other remodelers suggest, perhaps quixotically, that as remediation sticker shock sets in, homeowners will be forced to take a closer look at the root causes of mold in their homes.

Cavalry Construction in Fort Worth, Texas, is giving some thought to offering a maintenance and inspection service to help homeowners spot problems like mold early, according to its divisional manager, Lynn Motheral. Tom Sertich, president of Kirk Construction in Phoenix, envisions a service that, for $75 to $100 per month, could check a home's filters, plumbing and electrical systems, and basic structural integrity.

But when some people still use pots to capture rainwater dripping in from a leaky roof (as Strong observed in a Houston home recently), one wonders whether mold will need to crawl up homeowners' legs before they do anything about it. --John Caulfield is a freelance writer and editor based in New Jersey. He has been reporting on the home improvement field for more than two decades.