April, 2010
Inspection News and Views from the American Society of Home Inspectors

New Years Resolution for Building Inspectors – Protect Your Health


Editor’s Note: It may be a few months into the new year, but it’s always a good time to talk about how home inspectors can protect their health on the job.

In most of these bulletins, I’ve focused on general air quality issues that might negatively impact your client’s health. This time, I’m going to talk about IAQ issues that could affect your health.

Potentially irritating substances found indoors come from somewhere – pollen from the exterior; or mold, allergenic dust or volatile organic compounds (VOCs) from interior sources. Most of you are home inspectors, and many of the buildings you enter contain contaminants or irritants that could cause you to sneeze, wheeze or cough. Even if you don’t have allergies or asthma, people can develop environmental sensitivities through frequent exposure to triggers such as mold, bacteria and pesticides. So, I encourage you to take some simple steps to minimize your exposure to such substances.

Some supplies you should always carry in your vehicle:

• A box of NIOSH N95 two-strap masks. Don’t feel awkward about wearing a mask when appropriate. You can always explain to your client that you go into potentially contaminated spaces on a daily basis and, thus, need to protect yourself against possible exposures to allergens. For a dirt crawl space or a dirty crawl space, wear a half-face respirator with N95 or P100 filters.

• Overalls or a Tyvek suit.

• A half-face respirator with N95 and charcoal filters
to protect yourself from pesticides or from paint or floor-finish vapors to which you are sensitive.

When to use such supplies:

• If you remove the blower-cabinet access panel or filter on a furnace or air handler, wear a mask. It’s common for such equipment to contain allergenic dust, either collected purposefully on the filter or, if filtration is inadequate, collected inadvertently on fibrous liners or on the coil.

• There is a 100% probability that exposed fiberglass insulation in a crawl space — no matter how pristine the insulation looks — will contain mold growth flourishing on captured dust. Such fiberglass may also contain rodent litter. The floor dust is also likely to contain all sorts of microorganisms and allergens. If you enter a crawl space, wear a mask, as well as overalls or a Tyvek suit. Only disturb the fiberglass if you must. Wash cloth overalls or shake out a Tyvek suit after each use. Keep your mask on when disrobing.

• Exposed fiberglass in an unfinished basement can also be mold-contaminated if the basement was not adequately dehumidified in the humid season. If you see “tunnels” (burrowing) in the insulation or circular stains on the vapor barrier, or if the material is falling down in areas, the material probably also contains rodent litter. If you have to move such insulation, wear a mask. Don’t try to be a hero. I heard recently that a home inspector pulled back some insulation from a moldy wall and ended up with severe asthma symptoms.

• Fiberglass insulation in an eaves storage space or attic (particularly if between the rafters) can also contain mold growth, as well as century-old allergenic dust. Again, if you walk through an insulated attic or must move such fiberglass, wear a mask.

• Mold readily grows in a finished basement that has not been consistently heated in winter or dehumidified or air-conditioned in summer. If the space has wall-to-wall carpeting, mold can grow in dust captured in the carpet fibers. If the basement smells musty, wear your mask when walking on the carpet.

• New construction is not immune to mold growth. If people have been sawing wood in a basement, biodegradable sawdust collects in exposed fiberglass insulation and on foundation walls and fuels mold growth. If the foundation or slab was poured in humid weather, there may be a nearly invisible layer of mildew growth on the basement concrete, joists and subfloor. If the basement in a new home smells musty, or if you are allergic to mold, wear a mask when inspecting the space.

What to do at the end of the workday:

• Yes, it’s winter, but if possible take off your dirty clothes off outside the house — in an attached garage, for example. If you have a boot room, keep a change of clothing there. Allergenic particles can collect on clothing, so you don’t want to spread these contaminants in your own home. Remember, many wives of asbestos workers got lung disease from washing their husbands’ clothes!

• Allergenic particles also collect on human hair, so wash your hair as soon as you get home.

Make it your New Year’s resolution to think about your own health, as well as the health of your clients and the houses they are considering purchasing!

©2010 Jeffrey C. May. IAQ IQ 36, February/March 2010 newsletter reprinted with permission of Jeff May.

If you would like to receive the bimonthly bulletin by e-mail, send a request to me, jeff@mayindoor air.com, and put “IAQ IQ Bulletin” in the subject line.

May Indoor Air Investigations, LLC, Tyngsborough, MA 01879. Call 978-649-1055 and visit www.mayindoorair.com.