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Building materials, cleanup key to mold
Most health care providers are more at risk for mold toxicity than the Florida hospital now facing lawsuits related to pediatric deaths, says one mold suppression expert.
Charles Perry, a principal of Environmental Assurance Group, an insurance carrier in West Hartford, CT, says from what he knows of the Florida case, the hospital was more aware and taking more steps to prevent toxic mold than the average hospital in the country.
"I don't think most hospitals are really aware of this risk at all," he says.
Avoiding mold toxicity and the related liabilities often must start in the earliest stages of planning for a construction project at the hospital, Perry says. Many choices made up front, particularly the type of materials used by the contractors, can determine your risk for mold toxicity not only during the construction, but also for many years down the road.
The materials that will lower the risk of mold formation will cost more than using the cheapest, standard-grade drywall and other supplies, Perry says, but the expense can be worthwhile.
"The lowest bid sometimes doesn't turn out to be the most cost-effective if you have to spend money later on ripping out walls, replacing the material, cleaning up a mold situation, and drawing on your insurance," he says. "It's pennies and nickels in cost differential, but it's a matter of changing habits. You've got to be foolish not to be using the best materials and best building practices."
About 90% of all mold-related insurance claims involve drywall, Perry says. Mold is a living organism that requires moisture, and its favorite food is cellulose, such as the paper on the outside of drywall. That means typical drywall is an ideal environment for formation of mold. Building products that have a nonpaper exterior can go a long way to preventing mold formation, Perry says.
The benefit is so dramatic that insurers are beginning to push for the use of those products, often called "paperless drywall," Perry says.
"Insurers are finding that there is a 50% or greater differential in the exposure for mold liability and they are beginning to reflect that in the cost of the insurance," he says. "You will pay less if you use these materials that lower the chance of having a toxic mold problem."
Perry also cautions that making the right choices in the planning stages for a project is not enough. You must follow through and constantly monitor to ensure that the right steps are being taken to avoid mold toxicity, that the promises made by your contractors are actually being fulfilled.
Vigilance is important, Perry says, because you cannot trust contractors to know how to prevent and suppress mold. An independent inspector can be useful during the construction process and also as part of your response to any water intrusion that can lead to mold.
Testing for mold is vital for hospitals, says Robert Weitz, chief operating officer of RTK Environmental Group, an environmental consulting group in Stamford, CT. Not only does routine testing alert you to a potential problem at the earliest stage, but it also proves your due diligence in protecting your patients.
"The hospital in Tampa may have had a testing program, and this just slipped through for some reason, but what we typically see is that these mold problems become serious when there is no testing program," he says. "It is tempting when money is so tight to cut something like pre-emptive testing and think you can get by without it, but that's when we find problems like this."
Weitz recalls working with one hospital that had a water leak in a patient care area, an incident that often leads to mold formation because the drywall gets wet. The hospital was told to open the walls and expose the drywall so it could dry thoroughly, but administrators balked at the cost of carrying out that advice, about $75,000 in addition to the other cleanup and repair costs.
Because they hesitated and tried to go cheap, the mold continued to spread and, in the end, the hospital ended up with repair bills that were three times what they would have paid if they had done it right the first time, he recalls.
"The thinking today is that you have to treat mold like a fire. You have to address it very aggressively and very quickly. If you're hesitant to spend that extra money to do it right and to do it right now, look at your potential liability," Weitz says. "The first patient you send into that area when you know you haven't done your best to prevent mold exposure, that person is potentially a lawsuit that will cost you far more then in the long run. You could pay millions because you wanted to save $30,000."
For more information on mold prevention and suppression, contact:
Charles Perry, Principal, Environmental Assurance Group, West Hartford, CT. Telephone: (860) 521-4747.
Robert Weitz, Chief Operating Officer, RTK Environmental Group, Stamford, CT. Telephone: (800) 392-6468, ext. 102.