GAO calls for collaboration on indoor mold guidance Federal agencies, health care experts, state leaders and homeowners don’t have a consensus on handling hazards associated with indoor mold, according to the U.S. Government Accountability Office. The confusion often spills into lawsuits by homeowners claiming mold-related damages. Read on to see how the GAO wants to get everyone on the same page.
In a 65-page report, the U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO) is sounding a rallying cry for various federal agencies to come to an agreement on the health risks associated with indoor mold, and the proper ways for homeowners and property managers to mitigate mold problems.
The GAO’s report found that despite dozens of studies by various federal agencies and health experts, none have reached a definite conclusion on the effects of exposure to indoor mold, nor is there a consensus on the best methods for mitigation. The result, the GAO said, is countless lawsuits and harm to residents’ health.
To reduce unnecessary exposure, the GAO is asking the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), Health and Human Services and other groups to collaborate on guidance for indoor mold studies and reports.
For its study, the GAO reviewed a 2004 report by the Institute of Medicine as well as scientific literature from the past three years. Additionally, the GAO noted that the EPA, HHS and HUD had sponsored or conducted as many as 65 federal research activities related to indoor mold exposure and discovered several data gaps. Some of the gaps concerned measurement methods and asthma, according to the GAO.
“Further, less than half of the ongoing mold-related research activities are coordinated either within or across agencies,” the GAO report stated. “This limited coordination is important in light of, among other things, the wide range of data gaps identified by the Institute of Medicine and limited federal resources.”
Information plentiful, but consistent guidance scarce
There is plenty of information available to the general public about the dangers of indoor mold exposure, the GAO found, from agencies like the EPA, HUD, the Federal Emergency Management Agency and the Consumer Product Safety Commission.
Most of the guidance is “generally consistent” on how to minimize indoor mold growth, but there are inconsistencies on the ways to mitigate the problem. The result of these discrepancies is the possibility that the public is insufficiently advised on the potential health risks of indoor mold exposure.
The GAO’s report pointed out that despite efforts by multiple federal agencies to address the indoor mold issue, no generally-accepted standards that address safe mold levels have been accepted across the board.
“According to EPA officials, the lack of federal regulation of airborne concentrations of mold indoors is largely due to the insufficiency of data needed to establish a scientifically defensible health-based standard,” said the GAO. “Another factor is the lack of scientific consensus regarding how best to measure these concentrations.”
And real estate agents should take note, mold has been the center of many lawsuits, especially those from homebuyers who find their dwellings are contaminated. Litigation involving mold typically involves claims of property damage or personal injury, the GAO noted. Courts use varying standards to determine whether “expert witness” testimony in mold lawsuits is admissible.
Courts, states tackle mold laws and litigation differently
The GAO explained that some courts admit this testimony only when it agrees with a generally-accepted consensus of the relevant scientific community. Other state and federal court judges instead choose to independently evaluate reliability of evidence by weighing factors that include the scientific community, among other factors.
Some states have taken action to establish mold exposure limits. California enacted the Toxic Mold Protection Act in 2001, requiring the state’s Department of Health Services to set acceptable indoor mold exposure limits, the GAO noted. And in 2003, Texas passed a law that requires mold remediation contractors to certify to homeowners that a mold contamination was remediated according to protocol or under a mold management plan. Additionally, property sellers in Texas have to provide buyers with copies of mold remediation certificates that have been issued for the home in the preceding five years.
The GAO also pointed out that some states bar lawsuits against real estate agents who act on behalf of sellers or buyers who truthfully disclosed known defects, while other states have laws ordering landlords to disclose to their tenants information about health hazards associated with indoor mold exposure.
Discrepancies in the studies reviewed by the GAO were apparent in the reports on health effects associated with mold exposure. The general conclusion the GAO found in the 2004 Institute of Medicine report as well as the other scientific literature from 2005 and 2007 was that particular health effects may be more clearly associated with indoor mold exposure than others, such as asthma.
“Of the 65 (ongoing federal) research activities, nearly 60 percent address asthma, and more than half address measurement methods — that is, sampling and exposure assessments for indoor mold. Some other important data gaps are being minimally addressed. For example, 5 of the 65 research activities examine the effects of human exposure to molds that produce toxins that may cause of number of adverse health effects, and only one relates to acute pulmonary hemorrhage in infants — a rare but life-threatening condition that may be caused by exposure to mold,” the GAO report said.
GAO: Coordination crucial for indoor mold guidance
Federal agencies have worked together on indoor mold contamination issues, but they’ve yet to reach a consensus on how to address it. The EPA serves as the executive secretary of the Federal Interagency Committee on Indoor Air Quality, the GAO stated, and it addresses federal research activities related to indoor air quality on an “informal basis.” But federal groups aren’t using the committee as a forum to coordinate their efforts on indoor mold, according to the GAO. This poses a significant problem, the agency said.
“Overall, despite useful information provided in the federal guidance we reviewed, some omissions and inconsistencies could cause some individuals to be exposes to indoor mold unnecessarily,” the GAO stated. The lack of knowledge of indoor mold in general can also lead to uncertainty by homeowners or homebuyers on the proper ways to remove mold from a property.
The GAO recommended that the EPA, utilize the Federal Interagency Committee on Indoor Air Quality to achieve two goals:
- Articulate and guide research priorities on indoor mold in the relevant federal agencies, coordinate information-sharing on research and provide this information to the public;
- And assist agencies with reviewing their existing indoor mold guidance for the public to ensure it sufficient alerts the public about potential health hazards associated with exposure to indoor mold, along with education on how to minimize mold in households.
“The reviews should take into account the best available information and ensure that the guidance does not conflict among agencies,” the GAO noted.
HUD and the Consumer Product Safety Commission generally supported the GAO’s recommendations for the EPA, the agency said.