Betsy Anderson has experienced toxic mold and seen its harmful effects long after floodwater recedes.
The Kapaa resident of four years was fortunate to have been spared by recent floods, especially since she previously lost two homes and their belongings because of mold damage from similar wet-weather events.
“My family suffered permanent damage from toxic mold in our home in London,” Anderson said. “Then we were living in Boulder when it flooded from a similarly unprecedented deluge in 2013.”
She lost both of her homes and possessions due to unseen toxic mold in the crawlspace.
“When the floorboards were pulled up to investigate a small leak eight years ago, it let out a cloud of toxicity that affected my health, and I have never been the same since,” Anderson said. “Two of my kids came down with immune illness over the next few years.”
The health effects may not be immediately noticeable but can build up over time, she said.
“We were living in Boulder, Colorado when it experienced widespread flooding,” Anderson said. “Our crawlspace flooded. Enough mold grew that our compromised immune systems could not tolerate it, and we again lost home and possessions.”
Since then, she has watched people fall ill from unseen mold growing in water-damaged properties, including her doctor, Jill Carnahan, whose office developed hidden mold after the floods. The doctor worked to heal herself and is now considered a national expert.
“Mold is often referred to as a silent killer,” Carnahan said, “because it causes low-level, chronic conditions which can go unnoticed for years
Homes can harbor toxic mold in addition to bacteria, volatile organic compounds and chemical residues from floodwater. According to Carnahan, complications resulting from bacteria exposure can include diarrhea, numerous types of infections, tetanus and flesh-eating vibrio.
“Bacteria like E. coli and others commonly found in floodwaters can be deadly,” Carnahan said.
Mold starts to grow within 48 hours, so it is important to open all wet surfaces to dry and throw out things that have been wet too long, especially porous objects like drywall that provide prime habitat for mold growth.
After Erwin Pascual’s home in a Koloa neighborhood on Aloha Place flooded April 15, cleanup began as soon as possible.
“We were able to salvage some stuff, some of my tools, some personal items. We didn’t have a lot in there anyway,” Pascual said. “We removed all the cabinetry, drywall, and things like appliances, bedding and clothes.”
He opened up all the home’s walls to prevent mold from accumulating, and prepare for renovation. The family did not have flood insurance, simply because it had become so expensive over the years.
“They jacked up the thing like four times within the past 10 years,” Pascual said. “Eight years ago we were paying like $1,500 a year, then it went up to almost $6,000.”
Others neighborhood residents also lost everything, from soggy carpets and damaged furniture to ruined appliances and flooded cars.
“We’re in a flood zone, but we never had this kind of flooding before,” he added.
The Federal Emergency Management Administration advises against using bleach to clean porous surfaces. Bleach causes mold to send out more microscopic toxins in defense, so it can come back even worse. Carnahan says it’s better to use borax mixed with water, or products like Benefect or CitraSafe.
According to FEMA, bleach has drawbacks when cleaning flood-impacted buildings, with many types not EPA-registered as a disinfectant. Bleach’s effectiveness in killing bacteria and mold is significantly reduced when it comes in contact with residual dirt often present in flooded homes. Also bleach water can cause corrosion with electrical components and other metal parts of mechanical systems.
“Following the recent catastrophic flooding here on Kauai, we’ve been fielding lots of questions about requirements for proper floodwater damage restoration,” said Benjamin Owen, a Kauai resident and the president of Owen Environmental, who has restored numerous buildings impacted by water damage on the island.
Any porous building materials impacted by floodwater, including drywall, should be removed and replaced, according to Owen. Porous structural materials should be cleaned, dried and treated to prevent mold growth. Heating and drying of a wet building is not adequate to prevent microbial contamination. Drywall materials that remain wet for more than 48 hours may be susceptible to subsequent mold growth, even if they are cleaned and dried.
“Under no circumstances should non-structural porous building materials impacted by floodwaters be dried and retained,” Owen said.
Water damage restoration and mold remediation are not governed by a regulatory framework. According to Owen, the flood restoration industry is governed by well-defined and widely accepted industry standards.
Anyone hiring a contractor to perform professional water damage restoration and/or mold remediation should be certain that their contractor is a competent, experienced professional with training and experience in performing the tasks in accordance with the most recent Institute of Inspection, Cleaning and Restoration Certification Standards, Owen said.
“People need to be warned of the hazards beyond the immediate floods of not only mold, but bacteria,” Anderson said. “There are people, sadly, who will be worse off from buildings that survived the floods.”
People should be are aware of the hazards after the flood, being aware of what might develop over time where they can’t see and monitoring their family’s health for new symptoms over time.
“There are far too many families, like mine, experiencing longterm health problems from water-damaged buildings,” Anderson added.