Clean Up IAQ Issues in the Homes You Build

Bringing in a certified industrial hygienist to document mold, radon and other contaminants can help homebuilders avoid costly lawsuits down the road.

July 01, 2008

Dehumifiers and purifiers aren't enough to control mold infiltration. 
Photo: North Carolina HealthyBuilt Homes

"Let's face it. This all has to do with lawsuits. That's just how it is," says Dr. Ernest Chiodo. Chiodo is a practicing doctor, a practicing lawyer and president-elect of the Michigan Industrial Hygiene Society while also holding a Michigan residential home builder's license.

He also adds CIH to his title; it stands for certified industrial hygienist, a term Chiodo feels custom builders and production builders alike should get to know. "Almost none of them are using CIHs. Most don't even hear about us until they get sued. We are the guys that are brought in to make sure people aren't getting sick in auto plants or nuclear facilities, or in this case, in residences," says Chiodo. As a lawyer, Chiodo has tried cases on both defendant and plaintiff sides. "You don't want to see guys like me against you," he jokes.

"As building practices have improved, we're reducing the air exchange. Old buildings allowed air infiltration to kind of dilute the pollutants," says Randy Scott, vice president of product systems management for Trane. Scott says some 45 percent of homes today have someone living in them with a respiratory ailment. And, he adds, there's no shortage of pollutants and fine particles trying to fight their way into people's homes.

Indoor air quality, according to Chiodo, can be broken down into areas of concern: radon, mold, proper site planning and proper business practices. Issue No. 1 is mold. "Forget about putting in some magic product down there, like some air cleaner that will clean up mold levels. Forget it," says Chiodo. Those products, says Chiodo, while incredibly useful in the home, only treat the symptoms, not the disease. Water intrusions because of improper flashing or some design defect that leads to water buildup is likely to bring the builder into litigation.

Radon infiltration, despite more than three decades of educational exposure, is still very much an issue. "It is so much more latent. You see it in a lot of granite, igneous type of rock. Those often contain a lot of radium, the radioactive parent of radon gas," says Chiodo. It's not just confined to basements, either. Granite countertops, now so prevalent on the market, may leak trace amounts of radium — not that Chiodo is eager to provoke any alarmist reactions to the thriving granite industry. Yet, "it's something to check for, definitely," he says.

CIHs check ambient moisture and other air quality factors. Photo: National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health

Proper inspections and a heavy amount of supervision, according to both Chiodo and OSHA, are necessary during construction and may provide the first line of defense for indoor air quality concerns.

"You just have to properly supervise your contractors and subcontractors. I've seen flashing done improperly or not done at all. This is a big deal. Stuff like this falls through the cracks because sometimes you get people that either just don't know or just don't care," says OSHA's Communications Office Director Kevin L. Ropp. But once a defect occurs, it's often not obvious, and issues such as air infiltration and mold begin to affect the air quality. "Inspectors can't see the stuff behind the walls. It comes down to having good, responsible workers. But I guess that can be easier said than done," says Ropp.

Builders should develop a relationship with a certified industrial hygienist, Chiodo says. They can cover a lot of ground in liability if a CIH is consulted before the home is put the house up for sale. These inspectors file a detailed report on the levels of radon in the basement and other things such as carbon monoxide and mold contamination. Formaldehyde off-gassing from cheap particle board used in cabinets is commonly cited.

Cost-conscious custom builders in a down market may not be sold right away on hiring a CIH. "Most of us are good home builders, and we're concerned about liability. And rightly so. If you have regular volume, you can probably get a CIH in for about $1,000. Factor that in as the part of your costs," says Chiodo. He recommends finding a local expert to test the home and document there isn't a problem from the get-go. After all, says Chiodo, "Who likes spending time in court?"

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