Water Damaged Indoor Environments

It seems as though, as with the subject of mold, that water damages have become controversial and complicated. Maybe one person heard this and another that; this company is saying do this, while another says do that; or some people feel they’ve gotten sick during a water damage, while others don’t. Either way, most people have either experienced a water damage or known someone who has, but few understand its affects on the Indoor Environmental Quality (IEQ) and their health. I hope that this page might help you understand a little more about the indoor environment of a water damage.

Wikipedia Encyclopedia defines water damage as, “a large number of possible losses caused by water intruding where it will enable attack of a material or system by destructive processes such as rotting of wood, growth, rusting of steel, de-laminating of materials such as plywood , and many, many others.

“The damage may be imperceptibly slow and minor such as water spots that could eventually mar a surface, or it may be instantaneous and catastrophic such as flooding. However fast it occurs, water damage is a very major contributor to loss of property.”

Water damage can be caused by a number of sources, such as leaking plumbing, sewage back-ups, vandalism, hail damage, clogged guttering, natural disasters, hydrostatic pressure, leaking or congested crawl spaces and attics, and many others. Whatever the cause, prompt, thorough attention should be given to the situation in order to protect everyone’s health, the Indoor Air Quality (IAQ), and the building components from compromising degradation. The Institute of Inspection, Cleaning, and Restoration Certification (IICRC) in its Standard & Reference Guide for Professional Water Damage Restoration (hereafter referred to as the S500), states several times how “it is important to begin mitigation procedures as soon as safely possible following the initial loss, as the quality of the water is likely to deteriorate over time.As the quality of water deteriorates, the greater damage to the structure and contents, along with increased environmental hazards, are likely to develop.”

The IICRC S500 goes on to say, “If increased water activity and/or ERH (Equilibrium Relative Humidity) (from high relative humidity, leaks or floods) is allowed to exist for more than 24 hours, the high moisture condition changes the normal stable ecology of either a part of the indoor environment (a micro-environment such as carpet or wallboard) or of the entire building.”

So, “What are some of the changes taking place in a water damaged environment?”

1. chemical and microbiological off-gasing
2. mold and bacteria amplification
3. in some cases, virus transmission
4. parasitic infestations
5. and much more

“Where do these things come from?” Indoor and outdoor environments naturally harbor, in varying degrees, microscopic life forms, termed “microbes”. Microbes is a term used in short for microorganisms. Microbes are tiny, one-celled organisms, bacteria, fungi (such as mold), and viruses. Being found in all living things, they are ubiquitous, that is to say they are existing or being able to be found anywhere, especially at the same time. When exposed to excessive moisture for a prolonged period of time microbes will begin to flourish into a population, or ecology, that is not natural and may cause harm.

The off-gasing that takes place comes from the microbes, cleaning agents and the building components, such as pesticides and other biocides used on water damages, plastic, paints, synthetic fibers, and many more. This off-gasing and chemical distribution has been contributed to a number of health effects in sensitized people. Some examples of these health effects include, but are not necessarily limited to migraine headaches, excessive fatigue, neuro-cognitive symptoms (“brain fog” or memory loss), muscle pain (fibromyalgia), joint paint (rheumatoid arthritis), burning, tingling or numbness in peripheral nerves (parasthesias), and even gastrointestinal symptoms.

Because of the seriousness associated with health effects and water damage, the IICRC felt it necessary to categorize water damages based on the cleanliness of the water, to help remediators, restorers, home owners, and all other materially interested parties make decisions on what action would be appropriate to first provide for the health and safety of everyone involved, and, secondly, how to restore the home to its pre-loss condition. The three categories of a water damage are:

1. Category 1, refers to “water originating from a source that does not pose substantial harm to humans. Also referred to as ‘clean water’.”;
2. Category 2, refers to “water containing a significant degree of chemical, biological and/or physical contamination and having the potential to cause discomfort or sickness if consumed by or exposed to humans. Also referred to as ‘gray water’.”; and,
3. Category 3, refers to “grossly unsanitary water, containing pathogenic agents, arising from sewage or other contaminated water sources and having the likelihood of causing discomfort or sickness if consumed by or exposed to humans. This category includes all forms of seawater, ground surface water and rising water from rivers or streams. Also referred to as ‘black water’.”

I had someone ask me once, “I had a water damage company come to my home and tell me that I had a Category 3 water damage. Does that mean they found hidden mold?” Remember that the Category of water is referring to the cleanliness of the water not the presence or absence of mold. The S500 states that when “suspect or visible mold growth is present” whomever is inspecting the home to determine the scope of work, or protocol, should refer to the IICRC S520, Standard & Reference Guide for Professional Mold Remediation. This is termed a “Specialty Situation” rather than a Category.

“Well, then how do I know what the Category of water is, and whether or not I really need to get all of this demolition and reconstruction done that my contractor is telling me I need?” An inspection, testing and consultation from a Council-certified Indoor Environmental Consultant (CIEC) can provide you some laboratory work and description of the conditions in your home or office. SOLUTIONS Indoor Environmental Consulting can perform tests such as the PCR – Environmental EPA Relative Moldiness Index (ERMI), as well as Endotoxin testing, sewage contamination in buildings testing, and microbial Volatile Organic Compound (mVOC) screening, along with thermography and moisture content measurements of building materials (such as drywall, plaster, wood, etc.), and psychrometric measurements (such as temperature, relative and specific humidities, dew point, and thirst) all to help diagnose the condition of your water damaged environment and provide you with a recommendation of care, or protocol.

The good news is that you can do things to help avoid water damage in your home or office with routine maintenance. Here area few suggestions:

1. Routinely check and secure water supply lines, such as those under sinks, around toilets, tubs and showers, the dishwasher, washing machine, water heater, and refrigerator.
2. Make sure to test your sump pump before the start of each wet season to make sure that it is functioning properly.
3. Battery-operated back-up sump pumps and/or a generator can also be used to protect against power failure or failure of the primary pump.
4. Check your water heater for signs of rust or moisture.
5. Have your HVAC system serviced by a qualified contractor, making sure they include in their inspection and cleaning the condensation pan drain line (keep it free of obstruction).
6. Make sure that your Heating, Ventilation, and Air-Conditioning (HVAC) system’s filter stays clean and use a filter with a MERV 6 rating or greater. This helps to cut down on the particulates flowing through your HVAC system; thereby reducing the likelihood that this system will be a source of poor indoor air quality.
7. Consider installing a water alarm. These systems can be set up as individual appliance systems or whole house systems. Some systems can be set up to sound an alarm when moisture is sensed, others can shut off the water to the building when leak is detected.

But if you have the unfortunate experience of having a water damage in your home or office, make sure to process the damage quickly and completely. Water damaged environments can be impacted by mold and other microbes (like bacteria), in some cases, as quickly as 24 – 72 hours. That doesn’t necessarily mean you will see mold growth that soon, but the IAQ could be compromised by mold or bacterial activity, so can the cleanliness of the water.

The S500 says of Category 1 and 2 water damages that “water contact with structural surfaces and content materials may deteriorate in cleanliness as it dissolves or mixes with soils and other contaminants, and as time elapses.”

“How do you find a qualified Water-damage Restoration Technician (WRT)?” I am familiar with two organizations that can help you find WRT as they certify them. The first is the Restoration Industry Association (RIA). You can search by certificant or member on their website. The second is the Institution of Inspection, Cleaning, and Restoration Certification (IICRC). They list firms that are certified through their training and certification programs. You will also find references to other professionals that they certify such as fire restoration technicians and carpet cleaners.

There are times and places where you may find yourself in a position where there isn’t a WRT available to help you remedy, or re-mediate, the water damage problem in your home or office. SOLUTIONS Indoor Environmental Consulting offers moisture mapping, monitoring, and project management services to help those in need of a WRT on remediation/restoration projects. We do not re-mediate or restore the building, but we can work with your contractor on-site and manage the remediation/restoration process with you. If you feel like there is no one close enough to your area to manage the re-mediators on your water damage contact us and we’ll be happy to assist you.

The founder of SOLUTIONS Indoor Environmental Consulting, Jason Yost, has been in the cleaning, restoration, remediation, and indoor air quality industries for over sixteen years, doing everything from carpet cleaning, installation and repairs; water and fire damage inspection, consultation, and restoration; microbial inspection, consultation, and remediation; crime scene remediation and restoration; as well as been an educator to private and public groups through various business network groups, classrooms, seminars, and news programs.

Jason currently holds four of the most prestigious board-awards in the industry, awarded by the American Indoor Air Quality Council:

Council-certified Indoor Environmental Consultant

Council-certified Indoor Environmentalist

Council-certified Microbial Remediation Supervisor

Council-certified Microbial Re-mediator

Additionally, Jason holds a certification as a Water-damage Restoration Technician from the Institute of Inspection, Cleaning and Restoration Certification (IICRC).