What are the Causes and Health Effects of Mold in Commercial Offices?

What are the Causes and Health Effects of Mold in Commercial Offices?

Nowadays, with the latest technological advances, most jobs and commercial activities are carried out in closed buildings. These commercial offices have become the space where we spend most of our days and have a significant effect on our health. The direct exposure to indoor air of these offices reflect on our respiratory system, neurological reactions and might implicate our physical and mental health on the long-term. Among the greatest risk factors present in commercial offices, molds have gained special attention due to their high incidence and direct health impairments caused by their presence. Being detected in almost every closed environment possible, understanding the behavior, extension and conditions that lead to mold infestations are crucial to ensure healthy indoor air and to guarantee that all the individuals exposed to this air will not develop any medical conditions. In this sense, to better understand the problem of a mold infestation in commercial offices, here are some general information that might be elucidating.

What is Mold?

Mold is a naturally occurring multi-cellular fungus that is present in almost any environment. Occurring in different forms and intensities, molds rely on a lightweight tiny spore to spread out through different environments. These spores can be transported through air currents, attached to animals or even clothes and skin of individuals circulating within different rooms inside a building or transferring the spore from outdoor to indoor.

Being highly dependent on moisture, mold’s spores tend to fixate on surfaces that present some sort of moisture, oxygen and an organic compound to feed. These can be found in almost any room in any building and represent a constant risk factor to be monitored. Initially, when in low concentrations, mold is extremely hard to detect as they tend to flourish in dark hidden areas. However, in time, mold can be visually detected as multi-colored spots that spread out in dampened areas and can emit a musty odor. The most common types of mold found in commercial buildings are Alternalia, Aspergillus and Aureobasidium.

Mold found in air conditioner of a commercial office

What causes mold in commercial offices?

Molds are natural organisms that are commonly found in the environment both indoors and outdoors. The presence of mold spores in indoor environments, such as commercial offices, is due to transmission of these spores through air vents, from air ducts, and by cross-contamination as they travel in clothes, suitcases, animal furs, hair and other materials that are inserted in the environment. The presence of a small amount of mold in the environment is natural and should not be addressed a serious concern.

However, given proper conditions, mold spores settle on surfaces and grow into large spread colonies that can represent a considerable health risk to human’s exposure to them. In order for the spore to properly attach to surfaces and propagate into a large mold colony, certain conditions need to be met, such as high humidity of the area (in some cases presenting an accumulation of water), presence of oxygen and presence of organic matter. Therefore, mold propagation is typically seen in building that present either leaks or condensation points, which allow for an uncontrolled increase in humidity.

Mold infested wallpaper in a commercial office in Singapore

Where can it be found?

For buildings that present a higher level of humidity than considered ideal, mold will grow in areas that are naturally dampened and provide organic matter for their feeding. In this case, areas around pipe inside walls, under dampened carpets, inside the wallpapers or drywall, behind appliances that present leakages, above ceiling drops, underneath floors, in crawlspaces, on top of ceiling tiles or even inside HVAC ductwork.

What are the health effects mold could have?

In low concentrations, the presence of mold in the environment will cause itchiness, irritation in the eyes, throat, and skin. For people who are more sensitive to mold, this might escalate to nasal stuffiness, coughing, dizziness, nausea, and headache. Overall, long-term exposure can cause disorientation, slowed reflexes, anxiety, depression, numbness and trembling and other memory problems.

For commercial buildings in particular, considering the amount of time spent inside the building and the general activities carried out in the closed environment, mold can lead to a series of other problems that should be taken into account when managing the indoor air quality. The presence of mold has been directly associated with a high incidence of absent days and a severe decrease in productivity within the staff exposed. As mold creates several minor health effects, the long-term exposure and repetitive incidence of headaches, nausea, itchiness and other minor side-effects represent a significant burden to the work-team and lead to compromises in productivity of the overall staff.

Moreover, all these symptoms associated with other possible compounds found in the indoor air can lead to the development of a pathology known as the sick building syndrome (SBS). When commercial offices are seen as main cause of illness and sick leaves for their employees, they are classified as buildings presenting SBS which compromise the commercial profit obtained in the building and can lead to lawsuits on the basis of neglect. Employees who feel that their health has been put in risk due to the company’s neglect to provide a safe work environment can file lawsuits considering the degradation of their overall health.

Mold Found in Drywall of a Commercial Office in Singapore

How to test for the presence of mold?

Mold can be assessed through several methods according to their size, location and spread out through the building. However, because they tend to hide in dark spots and inside walls, floors, and ceiling, visual detection is not always viable. On the other hand, if molds are visually detected, it is most likely that they are causing health problems to the individuals exposed to them, as they only become visible after reaching considerable dimensions and spread out. Typically, molds will be visibly detected by identifying multi-colored spots with the musty smell that are concentrated in wet and dampened areas along roofs, walls, and floors. These spots might be found also in the surface of furniture and behind wallpaper, carpets and other structure that might facilitate the accumulation of moist.

In cases where mold cannot be visually spotted, the use of detection techniques is recommended. Air, surface and dust sampling are among the most common techniques used to determine the presence of mold in the indoor environment. Air sampling is carried out by sampling a portion of indoor air and of outdoor air, sending it for further analysis in specialized laboratories to determine incidence and species found. Surface sampling is carried out using swabs that are scrubbed on surfaces and analyzed through culture-based cultivated on agar plates. Dust sampling is carried out by vacuuming the area and analyzing the sample obtained through culture-based and culture-independent method.

In order to ensure adequate estimations of the levels and species of mold identified the analytical methods suggested by the American Industrial Hygiene Association (AIHA) should be followed. Unfortunately, there is no established regulation or threshold level for the exposure to mold in commercial buildings but, by following the indicated norms, proper estimations and basic guidelines and procedures can be carried out.

How to reduce exposure to mold?

Mold is highly dependent on the presence of moist and high humidity in the area to survive, therefore the first way to avoid exposure to mold is to change the environmental conditions to less favorable conditions for the propagation of mold. The most direct procedure in commercial buildings is to reduce the humidity of the room. This can be carried out by keeping the relative humidity below 50%, which is easily achieved by using fans or adjusting air conditioner systems to dehumidify the room periodically. In this specific case, avoid reducing relative humidity to below 20% since this can cause drying up of bronchial mucous leading to severe discomfort.

Moreover, the proper maintenance of the office building is also an effective way of avoiding the propagation of mold. Checking the building for leaks, infiltration spots in walls and roof, cleaning the pipes and air ducts, regulating air conditioner systems to avoid the formation of moist areas, systematically assessing the infrastructure for water accumulation and other measures will avoid the formation and propagation of mold.

Mold sample in a petri dish for testing in a laboratory

How can IAQ help?

As a highly qualified team, IAQ has been able to effectively identify and address mold problem in several commercial buildings of varied dimensions. Mold can be sometimes challenging to detect and if not dealt with correctly, it has the tendency to reappear in neighboring rooms and persist in the environment throughout months before detection. Taking this into account, IAQ relies on a large team of professionals that have been specifically qualified to thoroughly address your commercial building finding all possible and problematic areas that might present mold at the present moment or in the future.

Therefore, IAQ provides with professional insight on adaptations and adequations that need to be carried out to avoid the presence of mold on the long-run certifying that the quality of your indoor air is guaranteed and the health of your employees is ensured. Moreover, presenting staff capable of doing mold speciation test in Singapore, IAQ provides additional valuable information on your mold infestation that could prove to be essential when addressing possible health issues presented by the occupants of the contaminated building.

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