Molds are a type of fungus capable of producing toxins, volatile organic compounds (VOCs), and other metabolites. They grow in colonies and are disseminated as spores by both wind and water. Exposure to mold can cause various allergic reactions, asthma, and contact dermatitis.
Molds and other fungi are pervasive in outdoor environments where they are usually found in much higher airborne concentrations than in indoor air. They typically enter the indoor environment through openings (windows, doors, cracks) and on the surfaces of objects brought indoors (including people). They require moisture and organic substrate matter to grow and propagate. Some situations, such as extensive flooding after a hurricane, create very suitable conditions for undesirable mold growth.
Given that these conditions exist in the affected areas, people performing cleanup and remediation activities need to be able to recognize the actual or potential presence of mold and take precautions to protect themselves.
Mold Cleanup: Definitions and Regulations
Depending on the scope of the problem, mold cleanup involves either do-it-yourself (DIY) cleanup, maintenance, or remediation.
According to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), DIY cleanup is feasible if the moldy area is less than 10 square feet. Maintenance involves moderate-sized areas of contamination (less than 30 square feet). Remediation efforts are assumed to be needed for large-scale mold presence. A specialized contractor should be used to complete remediation work.
OSHA has no specific standards concerning mold and fungus exposure in indoor environments. Employers, however, can still be fined under the General Duty Clause if the exposure is deemed particularly hazardous. The EPA has developed guidance to assist homeowners, schools, and commercial building owners in preventing and safely remediating mold contamination. Additionally, many states have or are developing regulations or have passed legislation applicable to fungal growth in indoor environments.
Safety Precautions for Mold Cleanup Activities
The following safety precautions should be taken by those performing mold remediation work:
- Isolate the cleanup area; prevent unprotected individuals from entering the cleanup area
- Always wear appropriate personal protective equipment (PPE); wear a mask when potential mold-contaminated material is present
- Avoid touching mold with your bare hands or skin or breathing in mold spores
- Take care not to cause mold or mold spores to be dispersed into the air where they can be inhaled by building occupants; be cautious when checking behind wallpaper and other wall coverings to avoid the potential release of spores
- Cautiously remove, bag, seal, and dispose of damaged materials, including drywall, carpeting, and furniture
- Avoid painting over mold; if cleaning surfaces, wet-wipe the mold with soap and water or bleach solution and use a high-efficiency particulate air (HEPA) vacuum (don’t dry-scrape mold contamination
- Avoid running the HVAC system if you know or suspect that it is contaminated with mold; don’t use an air mover where dry materials can be disseminated (for related reading, see Why Winterization Is Important for Health and Safety)
Protective Apparel for Mold Cleanup and Remediation Tasks
Your protective clothing requirements will depend on the size of the mold problem.
For DYI cleanups of areas less than 10 square feet, work gloves, safety glasses with side shields, protective footwear, and a simple respirator are sufficient.
Larger cleanup projects that still fall under 100 square feet will require more protection. For these, a half-face respirator is required, as well as protective clothing (Tyvek® 400, 500, or 600 garments are suitable options, unless the user will be handling bleach).
For severe contaminations (100 square feet or more), use a full-face respirator, along with protective clothing that offers full-body protection, from head to foot. Garments like Tyvek® 800 J or taped-seam Tychem® 2000 can be used for these operations.
Mold does not only put remediation and clean-up workers at risk; their families can also become exposed as well.
Take-home toxins are toxins, such as mold spores, that can cling to a worker's clothes, shoes, skin, tools, or vehicle interiors. These are then brought and spread into the worker's home, compounding the potential harm caused by the toxins.
There are a few methods for dealing with take-home toxins, including:
- Disposable protective clothing
- Shower and washing facilities
- Donning and doffing policies
When employees may be exposed to mold, take-home toxins are a concern. Employers must take appropriate precautions to protect workers and their families.
If you’d like to learn more, join Certified Industrial Hygienist Damien Hammond for a free webinar on Thursday, August 2nd from 1pm-2pm EST to learn about the sources and risks of take-home-toxins, as well as measures that can be taken to prevent their occurrence.