An electrical fire breaks out in the attic over the kitchen. Firefighters quickly respond and chop a hole through the roof to ventilate and douse the flames. Thankfully, there is little damage to the interior and the occupants are all fine.

When you arrive, the home is still filled with light smoke and the family, choking and coughing, has retreated to the living room. Part of the kitchen ceiling has fallen in from the weight of the water, and there is wet insulation all over the floor. Charred embers have burned holes in the low-nap carpeting over an old tile floor.

No problem! Let’s get the team in here and start mucking this stuff out. Not so fast. What you do next could cost you your business.

IAQ is now more than ever at the forefront of everyone’s mind when it comes to quality of life. And your client has just taken a big hit in this area. It’s important to be concerned about the indoor air and take the appropriate steps to protect the health of the client as well as your employees.

The World Health Organization states that indoor air pollution is responsible for the death of 1.6 million people every year; that’s one death every 20 seconds. In the same report, WHO also says that smoke contains a range of health-damaging pollutants, including small soot or dust particles, that can penetrate deep into the lung.

The EPA says that particles released when fuels are incompletely burned, can lodge in the lungs and irritate or damage lung tissue. A number of pollutants – including radon and benzo(a)pyrene, both of which can cause cancer – attach to small particles that are inhaled and then carried deep into the lung. Other pollutants released are carbon monoxide, nitrogen dioxide and acid aerosols.

One of the restorer’s primary objectives is to prevent continuing damage. This also means not spreading contaminants throughout the property. There are a number of services we might provide in order to restore the above fire loss, each with its own air-quality issues (Chart I).

Not even making the chart is carpet cleaning. Generally not considered a loss in itself, it sure could turn into one. Take, for example, a simple carpet cleaning job in a damp basement. Chances are there is some degree of mold growth under the carpeting from a prior flood. First we vacuum it really well. Normal vacuums spew particles as large as 20 microns (including mold spores) right through the filter and into the air. But you run a quality service company and only use HEPA-filtered vacuums, right?

If we are extraction-cleaning the carpet, we don’t have to worry about that; we’ll just suck the stuff up and blow it outside. That’s fine. What about the moisture left behind? Well, the mold is really enjoying this fresh drink of water, so place a couple of air movers to dry it more quickly. This technique also works great to distribute any mold spores missed vacuuming into previously uncontaminated areas.

Improper restoration procedures after a flood can make matters even worse. It has been my experience that nearly half the flood calls we go out on are repeat events. In other words, there has been a flood there before and it wasn’t professionally cleaned up. There is mold behind the baseboards and, obviously, blowing air on it to dry it out would be the worst thing we could do!

As you can see, how we clean carpeting and the methods we use to remediate floods today can have a substantial impact on the quality of the air in that space.

Back to the fire loss, specifically the wet insulation that fell through the ceiling. Vermiculite is a mined mineral and was widely used in attic insulation for decades. As recently as the 1980s asbestos was still used in commercial and residential building construction materials including Vermiculite insulation. Many homeowners have wisely encapsulated this outdated layer in their attics by placing either cellulose or fiberglass insulation over it to beef up the R-value. Everything was fine…until the fire.

The ceiling with asbestos-laden popcorn texture has crumbled and is now on the floor. You suspect this and carefully wrap it and the insulation up in the burned rug and drag it through the house to the back of your van. When you come back in, you notice the reason for the carpet in the kitchen. It was covering some nice, dark brown nine-by-nine inch floor tile which is either missing in spots, broken or crumbling. By now, your gut is telling you the pieces probably contain friable asbestos fibers.

At this point, you need to answer the following questions before things go from bad to worse:
  • That grayish granular insulation looks like vermiculite. Does it contain asbestos?
  • Does the blown-on popcorn texture contain asbestos?
  • Do those smaller floor tiles under the destroyed carpeting have asbestos in them?
  • Does the paint I’ll be sanding to blend the old woodwork with the new contain lead?
  • Is there pre-existing mold inside of the walls or behind the baseboards?
  • Will the airborne soot particulate be hazardous to breathe?
  • Should I take samples?


Asbestos

It is well known that a long-term risk of chest and abdominal cancers and lung diseases results from exposure to airborne asbestos. It was widely used in a variety of building materials including roofing shingles, pipe and furnace insulation materials, millboard, textured paints and other coating materials.

Early sprayed-on acoustic ceilings often contain asbestos, as do the old 12-by-12 acoustic tiles (especially the ones with sound absorbing holes in them used in many school band rooms). Older built-in dishwashers used asbestos around the outside for insulation. Other appliances including gas-fired stove flues contain the material.

Lead

The EPA says that lead has long been recognized as a harmful environmental pollutant. In late 1991, the Secretary of the Department of Health and Human Services called lead the “number one environmental threat to the health of children in the United States.”

The EPA goes on to say that there are many ways in which humans are exposed to lead: through air, drinking water, food, contaminated soil, deteriorating paint, and dust. Airborne lead enters the body when an individual breathes or swallows lead particles or dust once it has settled. Before it was known how harmful lead could be, it was used in paint, gasoline, water pipes, and many other products. Lead dust can also be found at high levels in older structures.

Lead dust is released and exposure occurs anytime you cut, scrape or sand lead containing materials such a painted wood, plaster or drywall.

Mold

The hazards of mold contamination came rushing to the news forefront at the turn of the century, and is still a hot topic today. We know that mold is perhaps one of the most problematic contaminants in the indoor environment.

All mold spores and fragments are allergens that can exacerbate allergies and asthma. Some molds can produce MVOC’s (microbiological volatile organic compounds) that off-gas and cause a musty odor at best and produce unhealthy mycotoxins at worse. Other molds are infectious or opportunistic and can actually be life-threatening to certain immune-compromised individuals.

Restorers and remediators need to be constantly on the lookout for mold when restoring flood- or fire-damaged properties. Without proper engineering controls (air scrubbers, negative air machines and containments) activities such as exposing mold to air movement, attempting to wipe it off, physical removal of the substrate, or disturbing it in any manner will heavily contaminate the air with spores and fragments.

Bacteria and Viruses

There are many other contaminants that can become airborne after a loss or during our work. For example, while new mold growth may take several days to become a potential health problem, gram-negative bacteria can multiply to hazardous levels in just a few hours. Sewage floods such as a toilet overflow or sewer backup can create very hazardous conditions for the restorer. Gram-negative bacteria as well as Hepatitis and other blood borne pathogens all have the potential to be more dangerous than mold.

Even seemingly “clean” water such as that carried in with floodwater can contain many contaminants. Natural flooding from a river can contain raw sewage, animal carcasses, manufacturing by-products and hundreds of other potentially toxic substances. In a freshwater flood from, say, a broken sink supply line, water may migrate through organic materials such as wooden framing members and contaminated textiles as it travels through a structure. This is a great breeding ground for bacteria.

When providing our services, we often encounter bat guano and mouse or bird droppings. These contaminants can be sources for such diseases as Hantavirus and Histoplasmosis.

Dust

Just plain old nuisance dust kicked up during our drying process can trigger allergies. Dust always contains at least some lint, pet and human dander, insect parts, dust mite feces and who know what else.

While most of us are fairly resistant to airborne contaminants, more and more people are developing allergies to things that have never bothered them before. Some sources report that up to a third of the population experiences some form of sensitivity to poor IAQ. Exposure to many contaminants that build up indoors can cause adverse health reactions for occupants of homes and offices. This includes infants and children with highly sensitive lungs, older people and those with allergies, asthma or weakened respiratory systems.

Don't Make Things Worse

In addition to the many aerosolized hazards we may encounter, there are those we use in our work, such as disinfectants, paints and sealers. We need to be aware of the potential for exposure of chemicals or contaminants to occupants and employees. We can limit this exposure and reduce our liability through several means.
  • Proper engineering controls, including containments that are simple to construct and provide protection of the rest of the building from potential releases or even demolition and construction dust.
  • Make sure your employees wear protective equipment when and where appropriate. Exposed to chemicals and other agents on a daily basis, the need for worker protection is paramount.
  • Use proper ventilation and negative air pressure.
  • Have the client leave the building or area during operations where chemicals are being used.
Professional remediation also means using the right methods. This includes using the proper amount of biocide. For example, the right amount can be anywhere between what’s on the label to none at all. That’s right; sometimes it’s not acceptable to the owner to use any chemicals on their property. In this case, even the proper amount can be too much. But over application can mean a lawsuit. How much is too much? You can always let the client’s lawyer tell you.

Obviously, application of a biocide or solvent-based sealers in the presence of an unprotected customer can cause real damage. But even if you don’t make a mistake, it can still be a no-win situation. If you do it right, they could get sick from what you put in there; if you don’t do it right, they could get sick from what you left in there.

Customer Service

Treat your customer right. Ask them if they are sensitive to odors before you start your work. Let them know you are aware of IAQ issues and that you are concerned about their health and safety.

When drying a structure, dry it thoroughly and leave no opportunity for mold to form. Make sure the quality of the indoor air improves both during and after your service.

Customers need to feel good about the results of our work. Since it is often difficult to see the results, we need to give them plenty of reasons to feel we’ve done our job properly and that their property is safe. Our appearance, knowledge, professionalism and the use of appropriate testing equipment will be valuable in giving such assurances.

Ensuring safe indoor air quality is not only important to the restorer or remediator, it should also be of concern to cleaners, remodeling contractors and anyone else who provides services indoors. Each of us has the responsibility to insure a safe and healthy environment for our customers through good cleaning and restoration practices.

We are not expected to be IAQ specialists. However, as generalists faced with a complex set of challenges, we must have a solid understanding of the building materials we are dealing with as well as the products we are using and their potential to create hazardous conditions.

Every technician (whether a project manager or a quickly trained new hire) working in a cleaning and restoration business must know basic safety principles such as wearing PPE. They should also understand what causes poor air quality and the principles of remediation including containments, filtration, negative air pressures and the identification of potentially hazardous materials. Take control of the project and use a responsible, professional approach by doing the following.
  • Use one or more HEPA-filtered air scrubbers on just about every job.
  • Be acutely aware of the materials you are removing and the likelihood they contain hazards.
  • Watch for mouse droppings (Hantavirus) or masses of bird or bat guano (Histoplasmosis).
  • Use containments when called for.
  • Have suspect materials tested.


While this may slow the progress of your project, it is good due diligence and just may save you a protracted lawsuit later on.

Restoring and creating healthy indoor environments is what restoration and remediation companies are all about. Knowing how important indoor air quality is in relation to our business practices is the professional and responsible thing to do. Becoming knowledgeable about IAQ can also offer you a value-added means of serving your clients while protecting your employees. Learn all you can and be safe. After all, safe IAQ is a good thing.