MOLDY, the Movie: Rock and Roll Teaches us about Wet Buildings

MOLDY, the Movie:  Rock and Roll Teaches us about Wet Buildings

by Ritchie Shoemaker, MD

I just finished watching the pre-release for Dave Asprey’s new movie, “Moldy.”  Well done, Dave! He was smart to have Kee Kee Buckley and Eric Troyer produce the movie.  Nice job, folks. Dave has a hit on his hands! I am asked to write a few lines that could help people identify where water intrusion might occur in a building, sort of a primer that could assist people concerned about exposure to mold.

For some reason, maybe Spring is too pretty this year, maybe there are too many exciting events going on in the world in genomics (the world of mold illness identification just got taken to a new level) or maybe something else is causing me to have trouble getting started.

Still, there is something more about the movie. Got it.  The music.  All the time during the movie I am wondering what is that music? All original material composed and performed by Eric Troyer. I really liked it. Little did I know that Eric has over 100 album credits (Kee Kee told me), playing (singing too) with some of the best bands of all time.  And now he has composed original pieces for the movie. Bravo!

OK, Info. Let’s make this simple. You want to know about mold? Learn water. Water where it shouldn’t be-indoors-will guarantee microbial growth in two days.  Answer? Don’t let water in.  Roofs can’t leak; plumbing can’t leak; flashing needs to be secured and basements must not be musty.  Simple.

The baseball game is on mute and the FM radio station is playing oldies, my favorite “oldies!” How can they be oldies? I bought these records when they were newly released and still have them. Maybe they will be worth something if they (and I) get really old. Maybe some music will bring creative thoughts. I am having trouble remembering some of the titles.

Hey, I know this song, The House of the Rising Flood. Oh yeah, take me to St. Bernard Parish next to the Ninth Ward in New Orleans, just like in February, 2006 where I was testing folks living on a ship, as they were still homeless since September 2005.  The incredible density of mold illness there would surely be “the ruin of many a poor boy,” with the worst being the firefighters and Judicial Building workers. The Scotia Prince, docked at Violet quay, was the only safe place for miles around.

Floods are a big deal.  Katrina, Rita, Sandy, Hugo.  We all know that storms bring in water in the first floor, crawlspace and basement (sometimes second floors!). If there has been a water event and the building (or car!) you want to visit was under water, even just an inch or two for few days, look out! Riders on the Storm is on now. Doors are good oldies, but also good sources of surface water intrusion (Stones now, Jumpin’ Jack Flashing). Back to New Orleans with JJ Cale.

And when someone asks you if you want to dry out the wet carpet on the basement rec room floor: don’t.  Tear it out. Forget about the insurance adjuster telling you to take out just a foot or two of wet drywall: take it out.  The insulation behind the dry wall is wet too. Trash. Your work on cleaning studs and reservoirs of particulates in air, on possessions and on walls and ceiling is just getting started (You’ve Only Just Begun).

There is Bob Dylan singing with the Band, the famous Basement Types. Want to find a source of microbial growth? Start in basements and crawlspaces. In-ground, walkout, finished, unfinished: here are sources of mold problems 95% of the time. Forget inside sealers and tars to keep water out. You’ve got to keep water out from the outside.  And by the way, stop any condensation. Far more than molds in subterranean haunts, be sure to look for bacteria and actinomycetes.  And smell the “must” of the secondary products of metabolism. And then get out. 

Don’t think that basement sump pumps and interior water channels make the underground (Queen Jane is on) safe: all those do is channel water that is already inside and already creating micro-econiches for bad guys. There is ground water pressure against the in-ground sides of the basement. Proper grading and proper removal of ground water is mandatory. No, a gutter that comes out two feet from the edge of the foundation wall is not a good idea. It has to go much further.

We look at wet buildings, whether they are high rise, condominiums or one-story ranchers in the desert of Arizona; the problem created by water is the same. If water gets in through the outside of the building, called the building envelope, and stays in for more than two days, there will be microbial growth. Guaranteed. Whether the problem is a leaking pipe underneath the kitchen sink or an exhaust pipe from the bathroom that stops inside the attic without going through the roof, extra moisture means microbial growth. For homes with HVAC systems, while you may call that heating, ventilation and air conditioning, I call that system the universal distributor of bioaerosols. The fragments of spores (NB: forget spores, alive or dead.  Fragments are 99% of the load!) are rapidly moved from crawl spaces or from attics everywhere: going to the bedrooms in the far back section of the new addition and the family room too. Even if the crawl is completely sealed (NB: good luck with that), and you think you have solved that moisture problem, if the flashing isn’t right around the chimney (Doors, Blight My Fire, playing now) and the water silently drips in the wall cavities of the family room, microbes will be in the guest bedroom just as soon as the HVAC system is turned on.

As far as residential construction goes, new home construction is probably more dangerous than established homes in that we don’t know about the workmanship of rapid construction. We don’t know about the fungal content and bacterial content in building materials that are left out in a stack exposed to rain and the elements during construction. We don’t know about the rapid installation of plumbing; were all the copper joints sweated properly? Even worse, a new home has not stood the test of time to show safety with each passing spring and winter.

Another song, Run In Water by the Moody Blues. Maybe the song is about an interior source of excessive moisture with condensation. Where does the wet air from the exhaust fan by the shower go?  Outside, I hope but so often, no (“I hear you knocking but you can’t go out”). Even if the exhaust vent is installed right, tell me about the copper piping sweated (Sweatin’ to the Oldies?) in the wall cavity in the shower. A pinhole leak in the copper pipe means water will then follow gravity to go to the lowest possible point. Everywhere along the way, where there is extra moisture, there will be microbes.

Don’t forget, almost never is a wall cavity completely sealed. There will be movement of particulates from inside wall cavities to rooms over time. Fortunately, the materials that move most often are the smallest size.  Unfortunately, the smallest size particulates are some of the most dangerous by dint of their ability to initiate innate immune inflammatory responses.

I am thinking about how water (Theme from Jurassic Park is on) will find a way. If there is just one or two exposed nails in a roof and the nail head is not covered by the shingle, there will be water intrusion. On a big roof, how many thousand nails are installed? 50,000? 100,000? Why aren’t there more water leaks from roofs? Do you know just how much water will leak into a roof if just three nails are exposed away from the edges of shingles? And here comes the winds with the storm. What does that do to the integrity of the shingle unit?

And even worse, look at new home construction with multiple gables and roof leaks, especially over entrances. Every time there is a new roof valley the risk of water intrusion jumps.

Zevon! One of my favorites! Singing Desperados under the Eaves. True, the combo of soffit vents and ridge pole venting is a welcome addition to removing moisture and heat from an attic but eaves are subject to ice dams in northern climates and ridge pole vents, if they are not installed carefully, are guaranteed to leak. At gable ends of an attic, louvers are an easy way to let water in (Let the Sunshine In, too). And roof boots around vents are notoriously hard to put in right.  But with only a 10 year life span, who knows to replace roof boots? And don’t forget the flashing at the gable end around the chimney.

Institutions have their own sets of problems (Mamas and Papas are California Dreaming talking about stopping in a church). Churches usually live on the kindness of others through donations. That means maintenance is low budget.  When you find out the Sunday school classes are right next to the underground crypts, be very aware that the moldy smell in the classroom is made by microbial growth. If you can smell musty smells (“Holy Moldy”), you are in a water-damaged environment.

Urban dwellings have their own sets of problems with additional particulates (called it smog, call it exhaust; the clean air of the Pocomoke, Maryland is not the same as the air in Los Angeles) possibly adding to inflammation. In urban environments where apartments and condominiums are common, unfortunately, the roof and water events going on in floors above you become part of your living situation. Whether it is a dwelling or whether it’s a workplace with windows that don’t open and doors that don’t permit entry of much outside air, look for bioaerosols in buildings with HVAC that will share what goes on in the sub-basement with the penthouse and every floor in between. (Cream is singing White Room, with black curtains down at the station).

What is a person supposed to do? The answer really is simple. The most important part of any assessment of building is inspection. Can you smell musty smells? Can you see evidence of mold growth (“Nights in White Satin” reminds me that the filamentous white molds are just as bad for us as the filamentous black molds)? Look for evidence of water staining on ceilings, walls (if a home was freshly painted or has a new roof installed, you ask the questions, why was the paint put on and why was the roof put on?). Spend more time in the basement and in areas around windows and outside doors than interior walls but everything is subject to your inspection. Do not count on a home inspection done by a contractor hired by a lender to give you the information that you absolutely must have as part of what that person’s job could be is to assist in the sale of that property.

When it comes to plumbing leaks it is nearly impossible to know if there how been a leak in a pipe concealed in a wall cavity if you don’t measure moisture within a wall cavity. Infrared moisture meters are expensive to buy but inexpensive to rent. In our area for about $25 I can get a reliable moisture meter that lets me read moisture content at the top and the bottom of the wall cavity. It only takes seconds to measure each wall cavity. What that means is that as you walk through the house looking at every 16 inches for studs underneath drywall, you can quickly get an idea where there might be excessive amounts of moisture.

Though the housing crisis of 2008 has finally now starting to slack off as the backlog of unsold or foreclosed properties has been diminished, be very wary of homes that have stood vacant for a long time. Look out for reduced maintenance, lack of maintenance or shoddily done maintenance.

Along the same way, buying distressed properties that have been involved in an interior fire (Fire? Arthur Brown??) is worrisome. Why wouldn’t new construction materials be safe? The problem was the water that was used to put out the fire didn’t stay just on the fire. It went throughout any area below according to gravity.

If you have concerns about an apartment or building and your initial walk through inspection doesn’t show any red flags suggesting water intrusion and microbial growth, the money you spend doing DNA sampling for fungi is a good investment. Specifically, the health effects roster of type specific formers of mycotoxins and inflammagens, version two (HERTSMI-2; costs $125 and is available through is invaluable. This DNA test done on Swiffer cloth sampling dust from at least 10 (please use many more if you are thinking about buying a home) surfaces or from cassettes used for vacuum samples can tell us whether the home is safe for those with prior mold illness with a great reliability. ERMI (the environmental relative moldiness index) is not as good as HERTSMI-2; but both are incredibly more accurate to use compared to doing spore trapping. (Grateful Dead, singing It Hurts Me Too).                        

Where I don’t want you to get in trouble is summed up by two songs by the Rolling Stones. One is, “You can’t always get what you want” and the other is “You can’t get no satisfaction.” If you follow the simple suggestions above, you should be able to have safety in new purchases as part of the sales process.

Philosophically, do we want to try to make a difference in the lives of people that we don’t know by making suggestions about human health effects of water-damaged buildings? Absolutely. With DNA information showing that 24% of our population is at a significantly increased statistical risk of developing a chronic inflammatory response syndrome caused solely by exposure to the interior environment of water-damaged buildings, we as physicians and healthcare providers have the duty to provide reasonable information for the public to use regarding their homes, workplaces, schools, placed of worship and much more.

Jerry Garcia is wailing on Morning Dew right now as he tells us “I guess it doesn’t matter, anyway.” I just don’t agree. I can’t tell you how many times in college I would argue with the wonderful sounds of the Grateful Dead.  It does matter!

The Oldie Station is switching to Big Bands.  Time to find Eric Troyer on the radio!

Featured Resources

Related Resources