A frequently quoted line in sales training is, “Do not sell the steak, sell the sizzle.”1 In a pithy way, this phrase expresses the fact that a marketing plan based solely on the features of a product will not always be the best approach to reach every customer. Sometimes you have to sell the idea of the product, which often targets the emotional side of a person rather than their intellect. Choosing between these two different approaches to promote a product becomes even more critical when the relative merits of an item are not yet fully defined in relation to the competition. 

Looking at the ‘Sizzle’ Versus the ‘Steak’ for Air Sampling Equipment

When it comes to the plethora of new sampling systems springing to market for indoor air quality, distinguishing the steak from the sizzle can be a difficult process. By the very nature of it being new, advertising for innovative technology tends to emphasize features, with a secondary focus on benefits, the sizzle.

The new offerings to the indoor air quality (IAQ) industry, and the specific restoration area of mold remediation, were made possible because the growth in laboratory technology has made more precise sampling methodologies available to both IAQ professionals and the end user. In fact, many new sampling methods and systems have attempted to find a home in the mold sampling arena by targeting homeowners directly as the customer, rather than going through industrial hygienists (IHs), indoor environmental professionals (IEPs), or IAQ inspectors. 

Were ERMI Samples Supposed To Replace Spore Trap Samples Like Spore Traps Displaced Petri Dishes?

More than 15 years ago, scientists from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agencey (EPA) and other agencies were looking for a simple sampling system that would use a single sample to characterize the mold conditions in a home. The result was a new sampling process called the EPA Relative Moldiness Index (ERMI). This product did disrupt the air sampling market, but was initially limited by the licensing procedure that laboratories had to complete in order to offer the service. The licensing was for a new, analytical process that examined the sample material to isolate the DNA of 36 specific species of mold.

The “sizzle” was the idea that a single sample could determine if a home was mold-contaminated. However, the ERMI “steak” turned out to be a little tough as the data interpretation process used a logarithmic scale that does not accommodate cleaner samples very well. The sample collection process has also been problematic, with the original vacuum collection method displaced to a great degree by wipe samples being collected with microfiber cloths. Despite ERMI being promoted by many labs and doctors, the quality of the ERMI “steak” was also impacted by the EPA officially saying that the process should only be used for research, not normal inspections. 

Measuring Chemical Contaminants

Indoor air quality covers a lot of ground. Odors and chemical contamination from building products, contents, and personal care products (think hair spray) can all build up in energy-efficient buildings and lead to occupant health problems. For years, investigators were stymied in solving many of those situations because most of the chemical sampling processes were developed to evaluate workplace exposures. Such samples measured chemicals in the air to the level of milligrams per cubic meter of air (mg/m3), roughly equivalent to parts per million (ppm) in the air. In contrast, airborne chemical levels in many homes and clean buildings were below the ppm threshold but still causing health effects, especially when occupants had more than eight hours of exposure.

Nearly 20 years ago, Prism Analytical Technologies Inc. (PATI) introduced a simple-to-operate, battery-powered monitor that could capture and identify 500-plus airborne chemicals. The big difference was that these samples could detect chemicals to the level of micrograms per cubic meter of air (ug/m3). This thousand-fold reduction in the detection level means that results were in the range of parts per billion (ppb).

In addition to the extremely low detection limit, the lab even figured out a way to evaluate chemicals that would point to hidden mold growth with that single air sample. The test, which was sensitive enough to evaluate a 2,000 square foot home, not only identifies chemical pollutants that could make occupants sick, but indicates likely sources of the chemicals, whether from the home or its contents. The relatively short sampling time of two hours results in a sample that can be representative of a large area, since chemical vapors and gasses diffuse quickly and evenly in the sample environment.

Those “sizzle” elements of the PATI IAQ samples bumped up against the reality of the “steak,” sample results that measured such small quantities of chemicals that there was no definitive comparison values to help evaluate the results. Realizing this deficiency, PATI began collecting and aggregating the results of all the samples submitted to the lab. After a relatively short time, the lab was able to not only include a comparison to regulated levels of hazardous materials in their reports; they were also able to tell the customer how their results stacked up to chemical levels from thousands of other houses.

Does the Sizzle Cover a Wide Area or a Narrow Space?

In covering a very broad range of volatile2 chemicals, the PATI sampling system is equivalent to bringing the steak on a hot platter from the kitchen to the table in the dining room. Every other patron it passes gets to hear it and smell it! The other approach is to cook the steak at the table and limit the “sizzle” primarily to one customer. This narrower approach is exemplified by comparing the PATI chemical samples to the Environmental Mold and Mycotoxin3 Assay (EMMA) by Realtime Labs. This sampling system focuses on answering questions about the presence of mold and the mycotoxins produced by such contaminants. These mycotoxins are the poisonous byproducts of mold that could impact the health of occupants.

An EMMA sample functions similarly to the ERMI test in that one of the components of the laboratory work is the genetic sequencing of any fungal material recovered in the sample. The second part of the laboratory work that sets it apart from the ERMI test is that the mycotoxin byproducts of a fungal presence are also identified and quantified. The value of identifying mycotoxins can come from two primary factors, the first of which is that it can demonstrate a history of fungal contamination by more water-sensitive molds, even if no actual genetic material of that fungal type is recovered. An additional value to identifying mycotoxins in the environment is that, unlike mold spores themselves, mycotoxins can be absorbed by the human body. This is what makes the mycotoxins dangerous. For years, a number of laboratories have been able to test for mycotoxins in both blood and urine samples. Now, the EMMA sample can be used to correlate the environmental conditions with a medical test of the body for people suffering from what appears to be fungal-related ailments. In essence, the EMMA sample can provide a bridge between the medical establishment and the IAQ sampling world.

So, what is cooling the “sizzle” of this new EMMA test? Similar to the challenge PATI faced when it introduced a new sampling technique that measures a contaminant to a very low level, there currently is limited data available about “normal” levels of mycotoxins in the environment. When considering IAQ as compared to the human body, several mycotoxins comprise a background level, since mold is naturally occurring. Even the mold standard for remediation indicates that each structure has a “normal fungal ecology.”4 At this point, the EMMA test does not offer any information regarding a “normal” or “safe” mycotoxin level, or whether there is such a level. The newness of the EMMA test and the reports leave it up to the sampling professional to determine how many parts per billion of mycotoxins in an environment are normal and how many represent a threat. 

A New Sizzle Coming to the IAQ Industry

The newest sampling method to reach the IAQ space is the “Air Answers” testing system being introduced by Inspirotech. This groundbreaking system utilizes an electrostatic collection system to gather particulate from a large amount of air, which can then be run through any number of different testing parameters depending on the needs of each individual circumstance. 

These tests can range from a generalized battery to identify allergens, to testing specifically for the genetic remnants of fungal cell walls. As can be expected from such a wide range of tests, the advantages when used correctly could be immense, yet the confusion, if misunderstood, could be just as catastrophic. 

Like the Prism test (PATI) discussed at the beginning, the “Air Answers” test can be used to seek out the presence of an issue in a large volume of air. Since this large-volume sampling system can run for up to a week on a single sample cartridge, it has plenty of time for a natural distribution of particles in daily life to bring any potential hazards into the sample. Additionally, similar to the EMMA test, one of the sampling options that can be selected identifies mycotoxins. While the “Air Answers” test can have the advantages of all the other test methods discussed above, the sizzle of “Air Answers” is cooled a bit because it can suffer all the disadvantages discussed from those test methods as well. 

The Sizzle Is the Hook, But the Steak is the Beef

Another famous advertising slogan that was popular in the mid-1980s was “Where’s the beef?” 5 Regardless of the sizzle, a product or service has to perform to be enduring in the marketplace. Otherwise, the effort gets a reputation as all hype and no substance.

A common thread linking these new sampling systems is that they are all trying to find a home in the indoor air quality space. They all would like to become the industry-acknowledged replacement to the existing spore trap sampling methods. While no victor can rest on their laurels forever, spore trap sampling still seems to be the dominant force in sampling for indoor air quality contaminants. 

Nevertheless, each of the presented systems has at least one leg up on the now-common spore trap, which should signal to the savvy sampling professional that there is a growing opportunity to once again experiment with new technologies to assist their clients. These new ways of approaching sampling may well yield better health results for clients, faster problem diagnosis for the inspector, or even more precise testing parameters for the contractor – any or all of which the results could be tremendously beneficial.

In much the same manner that newer sampling techniques are facing problems in application, the astute professional will always be seeking to identify and eliminate shortcomings in their existing sampling plans with up-and-coming technologies. In this manner, the new and the old can be brought together to complement each other, rather than compete. If a variety of sampling methodologies are evaluated and used properly, an IAQ professional can offer the sizzle, the steak and the beef to their clients.


1. This sales advice was coined in the late 1930s by Elmer Wheeler, a well-known pioneer of persuasion, who wrote the the marketing book, “Tested Sentences That Sell.” Wheeler explained that selling the sizzle was a way to promote the benefits of a product instead of focusing strictly on the product’s features.

2. A substance that easily evaporates at normal temperatures.

3. Mycotoxins are poisons specifically produced by fungi (mold, mushrooms, yeast, etc.). Because of their toxic properties, mycotoxins are capable of causing disease and death in both humans and animals.

4. In the S520 document put out by the Institute for Inspection, Cleaning and Restoration Certification (IICRC), it has a definition of a “Condition 1 Environment” that is described as: An indoor environment that may have settled spores, fungal fragments or traces of actual growth whose identity, location and quantity are reflective of a normal fungal ecology for a similar environment.

5. "Where's the beef?" is a catchphrase in the United States and Canada, introduced as a slogan for the fast-food chain Wendy's in 1984. Since then, it has become an all-purpose phrase questioning the substance of an idea, event or product.