Lessons on Moldy Homes from Snow Fall

Lessons on Moldy Homes from Snow Fall

Remember the old joke about the guy who retires to Boston, Massachusetts? With the first snow of November he loves the quiet beauty, the other-worldness, the gentleness of the first snowfall. Shoveling, trying to stay warm and dealing with the snow plows closing off his newly-shoveled driveway start to torture the guy’s sense of order and sanity. Not to mention the snow melting into his basement. He quickly gets mad about the snow, as one storm after another just compound his misery by Christmas. No end to the storms is in sight. He ends up going mad, losing his marriage, burning down the house and attacking the snow plow driver.

Funny, but I thought his psychiatric problems were due to the mold in his basement.

We live in a protected pocket of land between the Chesapeake Bay and the Atlantic Ocean. Sure we get an occasional nor’easter and some cold weather (I remember when a cold snap wasn’t called a polar vortex), but mostly snow is no big deal around here. With news of the polar air mass coming to visit for more than three days, I have loaded up on firewood. It looks like this winter will set a record for our wood consumption; we are on pace to burn six cords by Spring.

Still, I am not complaining about having to haul wood as that fuel keeps us warm five times. Cut it, haul it to storage, stack it, haul it inside, burn it. There is just something about a woodpile in fall and the radiant heat of our Defiant stove in winter that is soul heartening. Around here, we have a simple plan for snow removal: just wait two days. The guy in the Boston joke could have moved here!

So when the storm (Really, Weather Channel, Janus?) finally got here a few hours late, the accompanying fall in temperature from 61 degrees to 8 degrees overnight was impressive. And the high temperature the next few days will be 15 degrees! And then another cold snap (oops, vortex) is just around the corner with a third on the way after that. The four inches of snow that stayed on the ground isn’t going to melt any time soon.

Our two year old Dudley Labrador retriever, Celia (no, her name is not from the Cree word meaning “yellow snow”), is just looking at me. Quietly demanding is a better term. It is time for her morning walk before I go to the office. She always gets a walk around the ponds and forests of our 15 acres. Always!

“Celia, it is 7 degrees out. Your stick from last night’s play is still covered with snow in the garage. It’s just too cold.” The dog looks so sad. Oh, all right. My bride laughs as I get on some warm clothes to walk and play with the dog. The dog wins again.

The air is so crisp but oh, so cold. The morning sun is melting small amounts of snow on each Western side of tall trees, but not in the shadow line. My eye glasses are coated with frozen breath. “Seeing your breath,” means seeing through your breath on days this cold. What looks like steam is coming off the east-facing tops of roof lines but I know it isn’t steam. I feel sublime. I step through the soft, fluffy powder; there is no crunch. There are almost no tracks in the snow. Our pasture looks like one long stretch of fresh drywall. Everything looks so different, with frozen white outlines against frozen blue sky.

Celia smells unseen critters as always, but this time I have a chance to see what draws her nose down. Animal tracks in the snow! Yep, that was a small deer, walking, not running, by the length of the stride. And Mr. Fox was here, following along the fence row, stopping to climb in and around the brush piles. I look for a pile of feathers of a sparrow or wren but see none. The tracks disappear at the top of the gate where the wind whistles through, but then the tracks reappear, just down the hill. The red tailed hawk calls, seemingly so much insistent since it is closer. Or maybe the frozen air conducts the piercingly shrill hawk call better. Back in the forest by the cabin in the clearing surrounded by tall beeches, mountain laurels and yellow lady slippers (in June) I see where a flock of turkeys roosted for the night. Hope they stayed warm. I look but there are no piles of turkey feathers nearby.

Tracks tell us by observation what animal made them. There isn’t any board to certify the ability to read tracks. People already know what individual animal tracks look like in exhaustive detail so that when we see them we can rely on established knowledge to base our conclusion of causation that a fox or a turkey was walking in this snow a while ago.

Not so in proving causation of mold cases, I think. What a shame.

If I could only see through my glasses, those little birds, fluffed up as full as they can be, might be kinglets, but what color are their crowns? Can’t tell. The cypress trees move differently in the cold wind, I can’t tell just what is different, but the motion is surely changed from just two days ago. Aha! A possum was here. I can see the line its tail left in the snow. And look, a rabbit was running fast until the track stops under the low branches of the Atlantic white cedar. Boy, Celia, this is great fun! What good fortune we have to see all the unseen things that are always here, always going on right under our noses. The snow tells us about the behaviors ongoing in our complex ecosystem.

We have to use other devices to see what goes on in the air inside moldy houses.

The day passes as a blur. More wood in the stove; let’s do something fun inside. Time for the afternoon dog walk. I’ll skip the glasses this time. Just look at all the new tracks, maybe a bit blurry but there. What are those side by side? Cute little tracks, with maybe a tail line? Mice? Voles? There’s a wing swath over there where the mouse trail stops. Mr. Hawk doesn’t need glasses. The once uniform drywall surface of the snow pack is now changing with wind, animal use, birds hunting for anything to eat and more. Now, in just eight hours the snow top has a crunch to it. Must be the movement of water up from reservoirs of Mother Earth (“destructive metamorphosis,” no kidding) to the top of the snow where it meets the colder temps outside the insulating layers of snow. As the moisture moves upwards, it meets the freezing air thereby coalescing the powdery snow into a solid mass. “Sintering,” I was told was the name for the phenomenon that made our snow crunch. At any rate, the newly sintered snow becomes a better insulator, stopping loss of powder in the 40 mile per hour gusts. For creatures that live under the snow pack the sinter set up the center of their new universe.

Everything has a name; there is a word for everything. Words (and word games) grow their own lives out here in wind chill city. I asked Celia to say the “sinister sintering sister ran for Senator” three times. She didn’t bite.

Still, just imagine the changes of an indoor surface where newly damp drywall attached over damp wall cavities meets the warmed indoor air. Could that little difference in the boundary between reservoirs of moisture create a fantastic ecological change through sintering? Microbes grow on the sintered side of drywall. Sounds sinister. Too bad we don’t have indoor hawks swooping down to take out the products of the Earth-temp moisture coming out from structures like crawlspaces and basements.

The next day the temperature has risen to 10 degrees. “Heat wave,” the guy on the radio called it. Dog walk again. More tracks. Raccoon or feral cat? I can’t tell. I can hear the defense attorney: “Now, Dr. Shoemaker, isn’t it true that you can’t tell the difference between the track of a feral cat and a raccoon after a night of sintering and freezing?”

Bunnies and possums were here. More foxes and a few deer! Hey, just look at the size of that hoof! That print looks bigger than an elk. [No, not an elk; just the sun melting away some of a normal size deer track with some wind effect thrown in.] Celia trots along after retrieving her stick, almost prancing but skipping really. Her track is different from the full tilt bullet run of yesterday. Now she is just kicking the front edge of her normal heel track. Same dog, same snow, different appearance of the track.

Does this create reasonable doubt that these tracks were made by the same dog? Or just different behaviors of the same dog?

25 degrees today. Still not much snow melt judging by the trickle of water flowing through the water control structures protecting the ponds but the snow surface sure has degraded. Culprits? Wind, UV light and surface traffic change on the snow but most of the change is due to ongoing degradation from moisture moving upwards. Now is the time of the greatest fungal blooms under the snow. Moisture trapped under a protective insulating layer over a rich supply of foodstuffs fuels growth of fungi and bacteria for sure. Greg, the local weatherman, says that tomorrow will hit 35 and 41 on Sunday.

Years ago one of my favorite magazines, Country Journal, ran an article on the subnivean zone, the area between soil and the top of the snow pack. I think nieve means snow in Spanish. There must be some neat word origins in action that led to the term “subnivean zone.” Further north, the zone lasts more than a few days and is undoubtedly much more complex than ours. Our mice barely have time to make their streets of tunnels atop our pastures before the dog (or me) might step on them. But just because I can’t see them doesn’t mean they aren’t there. They are.

Still, the physiology of the subnivean zone (SNZ) was eerily similar to what I saw happening inside wet buildings. Change water conditions inside and watch the ecology change. One can’t tell what the changes are underneath just by looking at the top of the sintered snow. It takes much more observation and skill than just walking with a dog to learn the SNZ. I am amazed that it takes just two days to start to see fungal blooms outdoors under the SNZ. Same as inside homes. Maybe I could get skilled at reading animal tracks to see what was going on in the SNZ? No, that wouldn’t help me see mice and voles even if I could tell the difference in their tracks, as by snow day four the tunnels would be up and the little rodents running.

And if an inspector with a really slanted attitude told me he could tell he difference between the tracks of a red fox and a grey fox, I wouldn’t believe him just like I will discard reports of air samples since they can’t show me what is Aspergillus (and which kind), or what is Penicillium (and which kind). Not to mention that I never saw coyote tracks even though they now live here. Just like air samples will never show me Wallemia, a bad one for mold patients for sure. Imagine saying that absence of finding a coyote print on several dog walks would let me say there were no coyotes here. “And so, Dr. Shoemaker, you can’t tell me if Wallemia was in this room, now can you?”

The Inuit are reported to have 55 different names for kinds of snow. If my musings here are based on an analogy between wet buildings/microbial growth and snow/SNZ, how many different kinds of wet buildings do we have? And yet the ERMI and HERTSMI-2 show that despite individual differences between buildings, it is the totality of the score that creates a marker for human health risk, not just one specific element in the score.

Let us not forget the diversity of organisms in the SNZ. From fungi to bacteria and actinomycetes to mousies and weasels (do we have any correlates to weasels in wet buildings?), all our friends from the winter kingdoms of living critters are here. If I see degraded snow pack from unknown sources, how do I have any chance of blaming that change in the snow solely on a mouse or vole acting in the SNZ?

Let’s not forget the defense consultant in mold litigation. He’s the guy who never leaves his gas-powered heater (full of forced hot air) but feels that he can look out at the snow and testify there is no SNZ. He doesn’t see it because he has never in his life actually looked. He would then opine that the tracks made by foxes, deer and turkeys weren’t animal tracks at all since we didn’t have photos showing the animal making the tracks. In his long and esteemed career, righteously citing all of his education and experience, he would solemnly pronounce, “The wind did it.” And he likely could get some lawyer to try to persuade a judge that the esteemed groups of forced hot air experts, in which he is a member, all agree that they had looked “rigorously” at published evidence of snow and found nothing to support the existence of the SNZ. Once again, he and his comrades never looked.

Even worse, he probably will testify that Nivea is just some kind of skin cream.

I bet some judge will buy the opinion of the esteemed expert too. Surely, the opinion of someone who has spent his life researching the SNZ, getting his hands numb with cold and wet from snow unveiling multiple levels of the SNZ would have more weight than someone with a bunch of time spent indoors at UCLA, Duke or Penn (just three randomly picked universities)?

I could wish that arguments about mold would follow science as we have about the SNZ and animal tracks. I could wish that experts in mold cases would actually be required to have hands-on experience with treatment of hundreds of patients. Yes, I also wish they were made to tell the truth. I could wish that mold problems weren’t tainted by so much bias, conflict of interest and lousy attempts at science (or none) on both sides. I could wish that all this commotion about human health effects caused by exposure to water-damaged buildings would be based on facts as pure as the driven snow.

Just as likely that my wish that just once I could fly like a swan would be requited.

So as I sit near to the yellow dog with the pink nose on a faded bench with its lichened feet resting in the SNZ I see the leaden sky beginning to hide the low-lying sun. Tall sycamores in the distance raise their age-old branches to strike back at the onrushing nightfall. I feel Old Mother West Wind starting up as more cold air rushes in. I hear the haunting calls of a V of tundra swans, heading back along the Pocomoke River from a day grazing through the subnivean zone on a farmer’s field. Maybe one of them would take me for a quick spin around the block.

When that happens, I am sure the arguments about wet buildings, mold and money will be over.

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