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Breathing Easier: A customer's journey to better health

Source: Habitat Quarterly - Issue 2


Jason Earle had done hundreds of mold inspections with his Mold DogTM, Oreo. But this one overwhelmed him, not so much because of the rampant mold growth, but because of how sick his customer, Gordon Mast, was.

"When I first started to look around, one of the first things I noticed in the plumbing chase between the washing machine and the first-floor bathroom was a whole wall of black mold, six to ten square feet of it," Jason recalls.

"I said, ‘Nobody spends any time down here do they?' But I could see Gordon's chair, his coffee cup, his TV, six feet away.

"And Gordon couldn't stop coughing. He couldn't even finish a sentence. Cough, cough, cough, and go spit in the sink. He looked horrible. It was difficult to watch. He was pale, thin, he looked like he was dying."

Gordon Mast had been ill for a long time. He had leukemia, chronic lymphocytic leukemia, to be exact. In 2004, things got worse. Gordon's wife, Susan, said her husband suddenly spiked a fever of 105. She knew he had to get to a hospital.

Things got worse again. Gordon's body released three blood clots into his lungs, cutting his lung capacity in half and requiring full-time oxygen. He ended up in intensive care, where he "coded" once, and spent three months there and some more time in a rehab center. All he wanted to do was get well enough to get to his daughter's wedding.

"He did it," says Susan. "How he did it, I don't know.

Gordon and Susan Mast are that way: quietly tough, resilient and cynically humorous. Their humor is so dry that it doesn't come across very well in print. During the interview that built this story, this quiet couple had us falling on the floor with laughter as they told tales that should have been frightening, heart-wrenching. And they did it totally deadpan. The only time they laughed was when I said, "It's a shame there's no humor in this house."

After the wedding, Gordon was finally home again, in their neatly kept 1959 split-level in West Long Branch, NJ. Susan's father by then had come to live with them and, because Gordon didn't share his father-in-law's taste in entertainment, he made a TV lounge for himself in the basement, a finished room half a story below grade, which he shared with the laundry center. Dad's space was on the next level up.

That's when the washing machine died, and Susan bought a new one.

"I bought a top-of-the line Maytag that would handle heavy-duty wash," Susan recalls. "With Dad living here, I needed it. I was working full time. I would throw wash in and go to work.

"The washer flooded the basement three times. Maytag wasn't sorry. They didn't care. It caught fire once. The fire department was here with axes. Maytag didn't care."

Susan said Maytag sent a repairman once, after the first flood, caused by a hose coming loose from the pump inside. The same hose popped again, twice. She says Maytag insisted it wasn't their fault, that maybe she overloaded her high-capacity washer. She sneers at the idea.

"In the meantime, he (Gordon) is watching TV downstairs because the guys don't want to watch the same shows. And we were going back and forth to Dr. (Douglas) Hutt, his pulmonologist, and Gordon had developed this cough, this ongoing cough that just seemed to rattle on and on and on."

"And Dr. Hutt kept saying, ‘There's something in your house. There's something in your house.' And I kept saying, ‘There can't be. The house is clean. What could be in my house?'"

"I didn't think... And finally one of my daughters came home and said, ‘Mom, did you ever think of mold? Remember, the washer flooded, and you've got paneling up. Maybe you have mold.'

"So, we made the call."

The call was to a company they found in the Yellow Pages, Lab Results LLC, and they made an appointment for Jason and Oreo to come and inspect their home. Lab Results was the template for 1-800-GOT-MOLD?, which is now expanding nationwide through franchising.

"The entire core of the house was full of mold. You have a master bedroom on the third level, with a bathroom next to it. Oreo alerted on the bedroom wall separating it from the bathroom. Then it was the bathroom, and the powder room below that," Jason said.

"I knew I didn't need Oreo to tell me what was going on in the basement. The entire wall behind the washer and dryer was black with mold."

That black wall of mold was only a few feet from Gordon's TV chair.

Typical of this type of home construction, all the plumbing followed a vertical column, with the laundry center at the bottom, the kitchen and bathrooms above it. The entire column, or chase, was teeming with mold.

Susan remembers, "We had every kind of mold known to God, as the dog will tell you."

Actually, a mold-detection dog doesn't know or care what kind of mold you have, but she will find it no matter how well hidden it is. And find it Oreo did.

"Not only was it in the basement, but it was also in both bathrooms. So we ripped out both bathrooms. And we remediated."

Gordon remembers watching Oreo go through his house, doing her thing, sitting and pointing with her nose when she found what only a mold-detection dog can find.

"I wasn't really concerned until she started hitting all the spots I thought were safe," he said. "To find it all the way up on the third level, I wasn't expecting that. I don't know how else you could have found it, other than start ripping and tearing until you come to a non-infected area."

Indeed, says Jason, a mold inspector without a dog would have missed much of it. Remediators would have found some more when they began demolition, but it's unlikely they would have found all of it.

Mold remediation is a form of controlled demolition. Workers wear hazmat suits and respirators, and surround the work area with sheets of plastic. HEPA-filtered fans blow air out the windows to create negative air pressure inside the containment field, to prevent contamination of the rest of the house. All removed materials have to be bagged before they're carried out. It's a process similar to asbestos removal.

When remediation is done right, it begins with an independent mold assessment professional - in this case Jason - writing a "scope of work." Once the demolition is done, clearance testing is done by the consultant to confirm it was done properly, that no signs of mold remain in the work area and that no signs of mold are found in the rest of the house. Any failure in clearance testing is corrected at the remediator's expense. Then another contractor is hired to replace the materials that were torn out.

The Masts moved out of their house for a week, and when they moved back in they brought with them two HEPA air purifiers from IQ Air, recommended by Jason. Gordon didn't know if all the trouble and expense had been worthwhile, because his sense of smell had been gone for some time.

"I had no olfactory abilities anyway, so I couldn't tell anything," he said. But his chronic cough didn't come back. That was something.

And several months later, Dr. Hutt noticed a "slight improvement" in his lung function, Gordon said. Susan's version is a bit more dramatic. Dr. Hutt declared Gordon's breathing was 90 percent better.

"I told you there was something in your house," Susan recalls Dr. Hutt said to them.

Almost five years later, Gordon's lungs still have not gotten any worse. "They're not going to improve. I have reduced capacity. But I'm holding the line."

"Holding the line?" says Jason. "He looked like he was dying. Today, he looks great. He's got color in his face, he's put on some weight, he can talk without coughing. There's a huge difference."

Gordon and Susan were shocked, at first, at the bill for the initial inspection: about $1,500. By the time they were finished with the whole job, that bill was dwarfed. Remediation and restoration ended up costing Gordon and Susan about $20,000 and, due to the washing machine's contribution to the problem, their homeowner's insurance paid about 75 percent of it.

Are they glad they did what they did?

"I don't think we had much choice," says Gordon. "We couldn't live here, and we couldn't sell the house the way it was, so it had to be done. And I am breathing a little better," said Gordon in his typical understated way.

He also has two grandchildren who didn't exist five years ago. Susan will tell you, even if Gordon won't, that Gordon never would have seen his grandchildren if they hadn't solved their mold problem.

"Thank God for my daughter and Jason, or we wouldn't be here today," she said.

For the record, Gordon did not cough once during the two hours we were there.

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Breathing Easier: A customer's journey to better health
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