COVID-19 Update: Structure Tech Home Inspections is still open for business. To see what we’re doing to help keep everyone safe, please see COVID-19 and Home Inspections.

Andy Wojtowski

Podcast: Mold testing with Vickie Swenson

Moldy-Walls-Minneapolis-home-inspection-radon-test-inspections.jpg

We sit down with Vickie Swenson of Minnesota Mold Inspection, LLC to discuss mold testing in Minnesota. We discuss Vickie’s background, the lack of official standards for mold testing, the health effects of mold, contractors diagnosing mold types by sight, and the #1 location to find mold in Minnesota homes.

Also, for the record, we’re working on getting our podcasts transcribed. We’re not there just yet, but we’re close.

TRANSCRIPTION:

The following is a transcription from an audio recording. Although the transcription is largely accurate, in some cases it may be slightly incomplete or contain minor inaccuracies due to inaudible passages or transcription errors. 

The following podcast is sponsored by Structure Tech.

Vicki Swenson: After doing 5,500 inspections, I’ve learned a lot along the way. and I share that with people, kind of off the record.

Bill Oelrich: Welcome everybody to Structure Talk, a Structure Tech presentation. My name is Bill Oelrich alongside my co-host, Tessa Murry, Building Science Guru, and Ruben Saltzman, Home Inspection Extraordinaire, we call him the savant.

I am super, super excited to be in the studio with Vicki Swenson, from Minnesota Mold Inspection. Vicki is probably one of the top mold experts in our area. She’s kind of a pioneer when it comes to mold and mold inspections. So if you could just take a minute and tell us who you are and how you got into this business. I’m so excited to be here right now with you.

Vicki: I’m really excited to be here too, so thanks for having me. My company is called Minnesota Mold Inspection, LLC. And if you look me up, you have to put the LLC because if you just Google Minnesota Mold Inspection, a whole bunch of things will come up.

So I’ve been doing this for 15 years, and you’re right, I am a bit of a pioneer. I estimate the industry is about 30 years old. So there was about 15 years it maybe wasn’t as structured as it is now, but 15 years ago, all I knew was I have four sons and one is really allergic to mold. And when I realized that he was allergic to grandma’s house 300 miles away, and she had so much mold it was ridiculous. I couldn’t convince them it was a problem, it was obvious everywhere, but the third time, Jimmy ended up in ER visiting grandma. That’s when I realized… because health problems. While at the same time, I noticed that four other people in our family had enough mold that triggers asthma. In the outdoor molds in October when he was 8-9 and 10 is asthma got so bad he almost died three Octobers in a row. So that’s really what raised my awareness.

Bill: You have obviously a personal connection. Reuben, I just wanna ask you, you’ve been in this business for 25 years now, right?

Reuben Saltzman: That’s about right.

Bill: And how long have you been talking about mold and how if you rated yourself on a scale of one to 10, what would you consider your knowledge of mold?

Reuben: Like a two, okay, maybe a three, I don’t know, not very high. It’s something that I’ve always shied away from. I’ve always referred it to somebody else.

Bill: Why?

Reuben: Because I don’t feel like there’s enough published standards, there’s not enough black and white. I’ve sat through so many seminars where you have experts in the field contradicting each other. So adamant that this is not a big deal and everybody says it is in it’s not. Or people say in the opposite and saying, it is, and this is not what I do for a living, I am not a mold specialist, I don’t have a degree in any of this, this is not my thing. I’m a home inspector so I try to draw a clear cut line.

Bill: Gotcha, I like it.

Vicki: I totally agree, because I tell people I’m not a doctor, I’m not a lawyer, I’m not a microbiologist, I am a home inspector. So I’m right there with you. Everything I ever say about health or legal is totally off the record, because I’m a home inspector. And the only questions I can answer are, do you have mold, what kind, how much, how did it get there, what do you do to get rid of it? That said, after doing 5,500 inspections I’ve learned a lot along the way, and I share that with people kind of off the record.

Bill: 5,500, mold inspections. Tessa, how many more inspections have you done?

Tessa Murry: Zero.

Bill: Do you take a lot of questions about it?

Tessa: Well, it seems like mold comes up almost every inspection. When we’re working with someone who’s buying a house, we ask them, what are your concerns? And a lot of people have concerns about mold. Or, when we’re inspecting, even if they don’t bring it up as being a concern, we’ll find air quotes here, a “mold-like substance”, “dark staining”, mold, whatever you wanna call it, in the attic or in the basement or in the bathroom, wherever. And so, when we’re inspecting if we don’t talk about that with the person, they see it in the report, they freak out about it. So there’s usually a discussion on site about it, but I wish I knew more.

Bill: It feels like in the home inspection business in the real estate business, this feels like a fulcrum, that people would make a decision on. Do they want a house or do they not want this house? And it’s hard because we can’t provide that immediate information.

And so that’s where you come in, Vicky, and just so everybody if you’re just tuning in, we have Vicky Swenson, in on our podcast today, from Minnesota Mold Inspections LLC. Do search with the LLC in your Google search.

So, Okay, Vicky, let’s get back to it. You had your son who was very allergic to mold and you were going through this process and starting to connect dots.

So while you were connecting dots, what were you doing, what were you doing in your life at that moment?

Vicki: I was a computer programmer for 20 years, I was a callback coder. And these IT projects and go out to two years and so I really got kind of tired of that as I raise the four kids and I just ended up staying home for a while. And as my awareness of mold started rising, becoming aware of it, we also built a new house. I did not know 15 years ago, I actually been in business 15 or… So when we got ready for a bigger house, I didn’t know how would you know if a house had mold and what would you do. I just knew that my son couldn’t live there.

So we built a new house to make sure there was no mold and that’s how we got out to where we are now. And I was impressed with the contractors. They frame a house, going to the next one while your house go on to the next one.

So as all of this that came together, the awareness about mold the desire for shorter projects. But even then, if someone just out of the blue, hadn’t told me, my friend is a mold inspector, I wouldn’t agent be aware that there was such a thing. When someone told me that, I went right to Google and Google How to Become the mold inspector. And 15 years ago I tell people what was on the internet 15 years ago, is probably 20% of what’s out there today. The whole world of mold has literally exploded. But at that time, I found the National Association of Mold Professionals (NAMP) and the Indoor Environmental Standards Organization and I called people I knew that I wanted to get some training and certification right off the bat, so I called people in Minneapolis that were certified each way. I asked him what do you do, how do you like it? How did you get trained? The NAMP guys, that’s still an organization, they said, we know how to find and clean mold, all the other guys are just scientists. I think they were calling air quality air testing science. Along the way, I met a guy that was running a company called Mold Detective, he was doing a part-time he had a full-time job and he was gonna bring me on as the west end partner, he said, take the same training I did and I’ll bring you out on the west end and I’ll do all of the east end.

So I went to Kansas City for two-day training. I always put this out on the internet. Yes, I took the two-day class but I’ve come a long way in 15 years. So just even today there’s not a lot of good training from mold inspectors, but very good training from mold remediators, but the inspection part still a little light.

So I took the training he did and I got back and I said, “Okay, I’m ready” and he said, “Well I’m getting out of the business I’m getting too many sinus infections from mold.” So I bought his stuff and went out there.

I said always thankful to the first 200 people that hired me when I really didn’t know that much but I joined the Indoor Air Quality Association, my son’s friend’s dad is an industrial hygienist, I lined up with really good mentors and just did it.

Bill: That’s awesome. Home inspectors are a lot the same way. I mean there was a point where somebody just hung out a shingle and began to provide a service that would help somebody.

Reuben: That’s right.

Bill: And so how else do you get experience? Go do it. We’re gonna take a quick break but when we get back, we’re gonna get into some of the standards in mold. I hope you can kinda clear up what’s the difference between the various standards out there?

Welcome back everybody, you’re listening to Structure Talk. My name is Bill Oelrich with Reuben Saltzman, alongside Tessa Murry and with guest star in the studio Vicki Swenson, from Minnesota Mold Inspections LLC. So Vicky before we went to the break, you were kind of laying out how you got into the business and I’ve been very interested in standards because I hear there’s no clear standards in the mold industry, there’s people just pick one of two or maybe three different thought processes and go with it.

So can you explain what are the old standards out there right now?

Vicki: Well, there’s… And I don’t have the official name of the book, there’s an industrial hygiene book, that’s called the bible of… the go-to standard for a mold results.

Bill: We’ll actually link it up to this podcast.

Vicki: Basically there was a guy named Bob Brandys who’s worked in clean room technology and HEPA-filtration for years and he wrote a book about clearance testing.

So several years ago, I was communicating with Bob over the internet and asking, “why don’t we have standards?” because for airborne–I’ll talk about this later–I do rate, are your spores high, low, very high.

It’s just really the test is gonna be mold or not mold. But when I was discussing with Bob saying, “I just feel like there was a number for me, ’cause no one should have 17000 spores in the air.”

Bill: Is that a lot?

Vicki: That’s a lot, you can get 170,000…

Reuben: Out of what, a billion…

Vicki: Yeah, so, yeah. So airborne spores are measured per cubic centimeter of cubic meter of air. But Bob told me at the time as pretty much every other country has standards, it’s only due to special interests that we don’t. He didn’t divulge who. I’m wondering if it’s insurance companies, or large restoration companies somebody lobbying to keep us without standards.

However, last month, I was giving a speech–Legal Aid has hired me to start going into low-income homes–and so I was giving a speech to group of attorneys and someone who had been to a recent EPA-led class had made some notion that there was… Everybody at the LEAD class was talking about the mold bomb that the EPA is gonna release soon. So I actually emailed the EPA and said, “Does this mean you’re finally gonna have mold standards?” But the EPA not emailed me back yet.

Bill: And for everybody who’s listening, you can’t see the three sets of eyebrows, just raised really rapidly. A mold bomb?

I, I’m sure they’re talking about some sort of standard, but Li went right home and emailed the EPA saying, “Does this mean we’re finally gonna get some standards?” because that’s really where it starts. There are other organizations of the world, but we really rely on the EPA or the State Department of Health. It would be some government entity. I tell people If I’m testing lead radon or asbestos there is a threshold, but there’s no threshold limit value defined in America from mold.

Bill: Interesting. So then who do you follow?

Vicki: I follow the European Union standards and I’ve kind of added my own caveat. And I’ve had other industrial hygienists call me and say, “Well we are you getting the standard?” Well, since there is no standard I’ve kind of made it my own. I follow the European, the EU guidelines say that again, airborne spores are measured per cubic litre of air. Their standards say under 50 sports is very low, and that is low under 200 is low, 200-1000 is medium, 1000-10,000 is high, and if you’re above 10,000, that’s very high.

Bill: Get out of the house.

Vicki: I said that to one guy in my whole career.

Bill: Did he believe you?

Vicki: You have to be careful. Can’t accept that liability, go to a hotel. You will tell you about that one later, that landlord situation where the mold was just dripping off the walls. And he just had a tracheotomy, and he really shouldn’t have been there. So, if the European Union considers up to 1000 spores to be medium and after spending, I have spent over $400,000 testing in the air. I just, it makes sense to me that up to 1000 is normal.

But I’ve had the caveat that I don’t wanna see any toxic black mold. So all my reports say, if you’re testing after mold is gone I’ll consider the air to be normal if total spores are under 1000 and Stachybotrys is zero.

Bill: Is that the black mold?

Vicki: It is the toxic black mold. And there are all sorts of situations where I’ll go in to test and I can tell there’s no mold in the room anymore, but sometimes it’s hard to clear from the air.

I’ve been told that I’m the only one who really wants that stachy done. Other inspectors do, but it’s sort of a gray area about how hard you push to get that zero. And I tell people, everything I say about health is off the record, if your mold is gone, one Stachybotrys spore isn’t a big health threat.

The reason I try to get that to zero is when you disclose you’ve had mold and you sell your house and you show that you had it removed and you show the report. If people see that remaining in the air, they get nervous.

It’s not a health threat. I just want you to have a clean report for the next time you sell your house.

Bill: That’s awesome for your clients or for anybody involved in the transaction. I mean, you’re thinking far enough ahead for them that you’re saving a really a big pain in the butt. If somebody came up and asked these questions, right?

Vicki: Exactly, ’cause they should disclose. So I said, testing after the mold is done lets you know that they did a good job or that you did a good job because 20% of my clients’ removed their own mold, under my direction. So it lets you know that you’re back to normal. But it’s good to have that report yourself.

Reuben: I gotta ask you, when you talk about black mold, can you identify black mold by looking at it?

Vicki: Nope. So when you hear toxic black mold, generally people are referring to mold called Stachybotrys. It is a water indicator mold. It can’t grow… different molds grow from different moisture levels. So Stachybotrys is a water indicator mold. It takes a direct leak, like a water heater leak or a foundation leak.

It’s almost always found on sheet rock, sometimes what it’s the cellulose small and the thought is mold contaminates two ways: with spores which are particles which are little seeds. And volatile organic compounds, microbial VOCs, just another word for fumes. When you smell it, you’re smelling that. When mold goes dry and dormant you won’t smell it as much, but when you walk in, you can smell that mold, you’re not smelling spores, you’re smelling the VOC fumes, proteins, microtoxins, whatever you want to call them, it’s… I usually use those four words. They say proteins because it’s interesting to me that mold releases proteins into the air.

So back to that mold.

There’s some thought that when that mold is wet and growing and the microbial VOCs can cause neurological problems, and that’s what gave us that reputation. No Ruben’s right: Have they proven this? Again, I’m not a doctor, but that is the thought behind that mold is that the VOCs can cause health issues. So one spore back to one spore in the air, I can tell that basement’s got it, there’s nothing for mold to be on but it’s still in the air. I still want it gone but it’s more of the VOCs that cause the health problems.

Tessa: Wow, okay, so just because it’s black doesn’t meet it’s Stachybotrys.

Vicki: So probably the most common mold is Aspergillus Penicillium. And there are 200 sub-species that can be white or green or dark. So, yeah, just because it’s dark does not mean it’s that kind, the only way you know is test.

Reuben: I’ve seen countless contractors diagnose mold types on site.

Tessa: They’re like “That’s black mold.”

Reuben: “Yeah, that’s the worst type of mold. That’s the horrible stuff you can tell.”

Vicki: You can’t tell. Even I can’t tell.

Reuben: I get in these conversations, but I just… I’m rolling my eyes without letting anybody know, like, what are you talking about?

Vicki: Well, what does the Structure Tech motto is “Delivering the objective truth…”

Bill: “The unbiased truth.”

Vicki: That’s how I am too, I just I’ve had renters say, “Well, how dangerous is this for me! Nope, just the facts. That’s how I stay a trouble, so I don’t get sued. To be as thorough as possible. I don’t scare people. There’s a lot of fearmongering going on in this business.

Now, that said, I want it to be identified and cleaned up the right way. I don’t wanna just bleach, I want the S520 mold standard to be followed, but I don’t scare people. In fact, I usually get them to stop crying and buy that house and calm down and whatever it takes, so they don’t go overboard.

Bill: That’s awesome. You’re listening on a StructureTalk, a Structure Tech presentation. I’m Bill Oelrich alongside Tessa Murry and Ruben Saltzman. We’re here today talking with Vicky Swenson, Minnesota Mold Inspections LLC and talking mold.

So Vicky and I have had some conversations in the past we’ve actually had her out to some houses we’ve inspected to take a closer look at things, but one thing I thought was interesting, Vicki, is you told me you can actually sort of walk into a house and sorta know you’re kinda like the mold whisperer, you’ve got this sixth sense if something’s bad. So tell me about that and then I want you to get into… You had mentioned the clean-up standards.

Reuben: 20 years of that.

Bill: Yeah, and we’d like acronyms but the nerdology around here sometimes we have to kind of bring it down a minute.

Reuben: Wait a minute, Bill, you like acronyms.

Bill: I love acronyms.

Reuben: I got to cut in here. You’re the king of made up acronyms. We all joke about you ’cause he makes up his own and he uses them on all of us and we kinda look at each other…

Tessa: We need to translator…

Reuben: What’s he talking about…?

Bill: Yeah, I always translate in parentheses behind them.

Tessa: Sometimes!

Reuben: I shared with you, Elon Musk’s memorandum an acronyms. Acronyms seriously suck was the title of it…

Bill: I disagree with him.

Reuben: Oh, I gotta send it over to… He made it like company policy, at Tesla or whatever SpaceX I think it was, that you’re not allowed to use any acronyms that have not been pre-approved.

Bill: Can we drive out of the ditch and get back to the mold highway?

So, OK, Vicki, could tell me about your nose, what makes you so special?

Vicki: So, what’s happened to me is because I’m around so much mold I developed allergies. The first five years I did this, I had no allergic reaction, but because I’m around it so much I’ve developed four different allergic reactions and by golly when I’m having this reaction and the tests come back, it’s amazing how they correlate.

My tongue will swell. But it’s really hard to say, none of these are life-threatening reactions. They’re just very minor. But I noticed them the most common one is that my tongue will stand up a little bit–hard to explain what that means, it just a little feels different. When it’s in basement carpet, and in basement carpet is the number one source of mold in Minnesota, half the mold is hiding in carpet in the basement. And when it’s heavy…

Reuben: Tessa’s about to say “Amen!”

Vicki: Yeah, my nose will run from that kind. You can get a whole mold farm, because most carpet is synthetic, the mold is actually growing on the dust and it has two sources of moisture coming up through the slab, and uncontrolled humidity, so when that’s present, my nose will run. When it’s on wet sheet rock, my throat closes a little bit. And there’s one called Chaetomium, which we haven’t talked about, it’s like Stachybotrys. If I pull back a baseboard and my skin itches, it’ll come back Chaetomium. Again, everything off the record, but I know that causes like my skin itch, and I worked with a woman in an apartment that had so much Chaetomium and she had developed a major rash. And, of course, the city had inspected her place five times, but they never lifted the carpet which is a whole another subject. Like cities don’t be calling it more inspection if you’re not gonna life the carpet, or push in the wobbly wall that’s been painted 20 times in the corner, don’t say you’ve inspected that place by looking for the obvious mold because it hides.

Bill: Wow, so I just have a gazillion questions, I’ll say that, and I know we’re gonna talk about clean up standards, but that’s gonna be Part Two of this conversation. Yeah, there’s no doubt there’s just too much going on. So we’re gonna save the clean-up for later.

5,500 houses. How many, if you could throw it into a percentage, how many have mold levels that are in… and maybe it’s really high because people want me call you out to test when they think there’s a problem. So this could be an inaccurate thing. , But how many of those houses came back positive or higher than you would like to see?

Vicki: Probably 98%. But, you’re right, because most people who are in an occupied environment, call me when they think they have mold. When purchasing homes maybe, you know, I’ll see one once in a while that doesn’t have mold, but it usually is hiding somewhere.

Bill: Are people calling you out to do a mold inspection pre-purchase?

Vicki: The lucky ones. Oh gosh, yeah, a lot of people if they’re aware, sometimes I’m there with the general home inspector, I like that because we can look at the attic together, we kinda do things together. So there are a lot of people that hire me. Or sometimes there was a gentleman who tried to buy a house four times this summer he had me and the EMF guy, which I don’t know a thing about that.

Bill: Electro-magnetic fields?

Vicki: So we inspected four homes for this potential buyer in a certain city. And he walked away from every one and every one of those did have some mold but he really walked away because he was more afraid of the EMFs.

Bill: It sounds like that gentleman might have a hard time finding any place to live.

Vicki: Four houses, four beautiful houses, walked away from them.

So when it comes to mold, I tell people, mold should never be a real estate deal-breaker. It really shouldn’t, it’s all you can remove it. The time to do it is when you’re buying so the seller can pay.

I work with too many people that move in and then they find their problems and it’s really hard to go back. So that’s what I say, the lucky ones have a mold inspector with them when they’re in inspections.

Bill: Yeah, whether the seller pays or somebody at least you have the conversation ahead of time and you don’t have any surprises and I think that’s what bums people out the most. I used to take the complaint calls and people always felt the most bad when they couldn’t have that conversation. And just to clear the air, literally, upfront. I mean, it’s good to have that information.

Vicki: Well, and so when it comes to mold inspections there’s mold inspection and mold testing. So, even no matter who hires me the first hour I’m not running any tests I’m looking for it. There is no test, because that tells you where the mold is.

So we can talk about the types of testing air, testing, for spores, surface testing to confirm that a discoloration is mold. VOC testing, earlier when I was talking about the microbial VOCs, formaldehyde is a huge problem in new home. A lot of my clans are running A VOC test. And if your mold is wet enough, it’ll show up in that test. But then there’s one called Ermy–ERMI Environmental Relative Moldiness Index that was developed by the EPA.

The interesting thing, as the EPA has still considers this a research tool, they haven’t said, “Here’s the be-all, en-all mold test”, but a lot of doctors have people running this themselves. So a lot of my calls, start with, “I ran the ERMI tests, it says I have mold, but I don’t know where it is…” Because it tells you how contaminated your clean-looking surfaces are are for mold. These proteins or these… I’m not still clear, if it’s the VOC, the spores the high full fragments or the proteins or all of these that get deposited on surfaces and will show up in this ERMI test. And the interesting thing about ERMI is I still take to surface and air test. They’re evaluated by microbiologists who put this under microscope and look at the spores. ERMI is actually a DNA test, they have determined which DNA come from these various molds and it’s done by computer of some sort.

Bill: Wow, Vicki, thank you very much. I’ve got a thousand questions going, and we’re gonna get into those in another episode.

You’ve been listening to StructureTalk a Structure Tech presentation. I hope you join in for part two.