Navigating “Mold” in Your Work Place
By Cesar Collado
Several readers have written to me to voice their concerns that they suspect mold at their place of work, because it is making them sick. At times, their reported symptoms are terrible. Just recently, vertigo, headaches, brain fog, dizziness, and nausea have been mentioned. The symptoms sometimes coincide with their time in the office. Patients also report feeling better after a few days away from the office. Some people have described coats or sweaters worn at work that smell “moldy and musty” when they are brought home. All of these stories offer credible reasons to test for mold and possibly mycotoxins.
Unfortunately, most people may not be aware that this can be a very delicate situation to deal with, because the information available to the public on this topic, many times, differs from reality.
On one hand, if you “Google” this issue, you will learn that the EPA has regulations and guidelines to protect us. The Occupational Safety & Health Administration (OSHA) has inspectors that regulate environmental issues and may issue fines to unsafe workplaces. Employees have won multi-million-dollar settlements. When you report your concerns with mold, the management may, in following “OSHA Mold Remediation for Schools and Commercial Buildings Guidelines,” insist on assigning a “Remediation Manager” to address your health issue. The Remediation Manager’s highest priority must be to protect the health and safety of the building occupants and remediators, right?
On the other hand, my experience and real patient stories of these situations differ. Mold is a feared word amongst business owners and employers. Perceived complaints can be misunderstood. Even the EPA has been sued by employees for mold exposure. Thus, if you suspect that mold at work is making you sick and you like your job and want to stay, you need to be tactful in how you approach the issue. I suggest a constructive conversations with your management about your health and avoid filing complaints.
Company Responses to Real-Life Situations:
- Simple” dogmatic” assurances are sometimes given to the employee. Statements that the building is cleaned regularly and is not the cause of any symptoms. Discussion closed.
- One company asked the employee for their medical records to prove their illness before investigating mold. (Note: This approach is both inappropriate and unlawful.)
- Some employees are moved, some are encouraged to leave, and some have lost their jobs for “other reasons.”
- Some employers have the area cleaned (not tested for mold or remediated, just cleaned) and the HVAC serviced and documented.
- In one case, an “inspector” compared mold levels indoors and outdoors and concluded that there are no mold problems—case closed. No visual inspection for water intrusion, HVAC inspection, or mold testing was done
- In a rare case, a company dared an employee to file a complaint with OSHA. I believe they recognized that an investigation was a long way away, and, in all likelihood, would never happen.
Regardless of your workplace’s initial position, even the acknowledgement of an “alleged” presence of mold is a big deal. There is no standard for a proper response or action, mostly because the EPA currently has no position on mold testing and airborne concentrations of mold spores at this time.
Understand the Facts
Absent obvious mold infestation, there are some mold facts that must be understood by both the employee and employer.
A suffering employee can be emotional and even angry about the, but these facts remain true in all cases:
- Mold exists everywhere, both inside and outdoors.
- Any illness an employee has could be caused by any number of things, many of which have nothing to do with mold.
- The burden of determining a causal relationship between health symptoms and workplace air quality falls on the employee.
- Mold testing, regardless of testing method, offers only limited information. Even the best testing methods only show a snapshot of specific mold in specific places at a specific time. (If the air in a space has been recently disturbed, the mold counts will be higher. If a space was just cleaned and vacuumed, the mold counts may be lower.)
- Mold testing results can be influenced by desired outcome. If someone wants to find mold, they likely will, and, if they do not, they likely will not.
- If you are suffering from serious cognitive or other toxic syndrome, mycotoxin poisoning is a possibility.
I’d like to make some suggestions to people who want to resolve mold issues in their workplace diplomatically and constructively:
(These suggestions are assuming that there are readers who do not want to make trouble for their employer, and are motivated by a desire to be in a healthy environment while at work.)
- Any mold testing and actions you employ should be addressed with objectivity, facts, documentation, and communicated carefully and delicately to mitigate any risk to you, your standing, and your position in the company.
- Develop an understanding of the mold testing method selected by your employer by researching it online and elsewhere.
- Recognize that all mold testing methods have their flaws. Some methods compare mold or particle counts believed to be mold from the indoors to the outdoor air. Some methods are scientifically very accurate, but the distribution of mold indoors is often impossible to calibrate accurately. As a result, many businesses may choose to conduct a “Deep Clean” to address the issue, as that tactic is much less expensive than any kind of mold-specific cleaning or remediation. I’ve even heard of situations where a company does a deep clean prior to mold testing, securing the results.
Is a Better Outcome Possible?
I believe that there are some approaches to this problem that may make a difference in what and how the information is perceived and may pose a positive influence for more constructive outcomes. To start, framing the problem, situation, and consequences carefully leaves little room for a company or business to respond inappropriately. Here is what I mean:
- Don’t rely on circumstantial evidence: Even if it is not scientifically conclusive, it is helpful to have some evidence of mold. Utilization of EC3 Mold Testing Plates in an inexpensive way for you to determine and document the presence of mold in your office. Multiple plates, tap tests, and pictures are cost effective and provide physical evidence of mold.
- Select the appropriate places to test. Make sure to test in the areas where you spend the most time, and in areas that smell musty or have evidence of mold. Just randomly picking places in the office to set mold plates may not produce results helpful to your cause.
- Use lab testing with the Immunolytics mold plates to identify the molds that are present and provide data from an objective and credible source. Knowledge of the mold species and whether it is mycotoxin producing is valuable. This can both “scare” your employer into action and help you provide your physician with information that will aid your treatment plan. Immunolytics provides both video and written explanations to aid you.
- Include your colleagues in your plight by discretely asking them if they have had any reactions or symptoms to the workplace in line with what you are experiencing. Encourage your colleagues to put this in writing. Two voices are better than one, so the more people who express concern, the more likely it is to be taken seriously and addressed properly.
- Identify any sources of excess moisture, water leakage, humidity, and “mold” food sources where mold you know that accumulates.
This provides a causal explanation of the presence of mold in the physical space where you work. Take pictures.
- Ask your physician to document any diagnostics that point to mold in your health issues with an explanation of the symptoms as they relate to those findings.
- If mold testing is positive for mycotoxin producing mold and you have severe toxic symptoms, you can take an environmental test for mycotoxins by sending dust or filter samples to Real Time Labs (realtime labs.com).
- Most likely, the company will be reluctant to make the required changes or remediation steps. If you are severely impacted by mold, you may have to change jobs. This solution is often easiest and fastest as companies rarely react quickly and decisively when investment and legal issues may be part of the outcome.
- I would suggest avoiding making the situation a legal matter. This brings out the worst in people and organizations and rarely ends with an acceptable outcome for all parties involved
- Purchase a SANI+TIZER fogger, EC3 Mold Solution Concentrate, and distilled water to fog your office as often as you need to keep mold air counts down until some action is taken by your employer. This will show how seriously you take the situation and that you are willing to invest your own money to safeguard your health. Following fogging, mold counts usually stay close to zero for a while and take time to reproduce to levels that will be as dangerous to your health.
- I suggest doing your own testing with mold test plates. I would perform tests during the weeks following any remediation or fogging. It is always wise to assure that any actions taken by your employer worked and that mold does not increase to dangerous levels over time.
Finally, good luck. I sincerely hope that if you face this issue, your employer responds with concern, swift action, and detailed follow-up. No one wants the people they depend on to be functioning at sub-optimal health due to a toxic work environment. But, if you do meet with challenges, I hope this article has offered some tactics and actions that will help you to have a positive outcome.
Cesar Collado is a former pharmaceutical R&D executive, venture capitalist, and seasoned strategy consultant in biotechnology and technology in general. He currently works as an advisor to multiple technology start-ups and advises several companies that provide healthcare and other services for environmental illness.