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By Rob Lankau, Mold Inspector at RTK Environmental Group

Last week, I was dispatched to an apartment building in New Jersey, just across the river from lower Manhattan. The property manager needed mold and bacteria sampling, fast. I soon understood why.

For days, tenants had been complaining of a foul odor in the building. When management sent someone to check it out, the employee discovered the building’s main sewer line had ruptured. Thousands of gallons of raw sewage was spewing into the basement, completely unnoticed.  It was later determined that, in fact, the broken sewer line had gone undetected for upwards of three or four weeks.  It was a disgusting mess.

You may ask yourself how a mold inspector like me prepares himself for such an inspection; the smell was quite pungent.  I could have run. I could have quit. I could have faked an old football injury. I thought about all these scenarios. But rather than run, I forged ahead. I laced up my work boots and grabbed my flashlight from its case. I look a deep breath, then proceeded down a cement stairway to the basement.

The darkness coupled with the strong odor of raw sewage made for a movie horror scene. About 4 inches of liquid sludge coated the basement floor.  I rolled up the cuffs of my pants and prepared to step into the sludge.  It was then that I saw, in all its glory, a series of wooden planks atop the sewage, left by the management company.

Whew! I wasn’t going to have to wade through all this muck, after all!

When I got to the center of the basement, I looked around.  Mold was growing everywhere.  It was thick, furry, and thirsty. Mold is an organism that loves dark, damp places. Mold spores occur naturally in the environment and are common both indoors and out. To activate the spores, all that’s needed are food and moisture sources.

The mold spores covered just about every object in the basement and were multiplying by the minute. Everything was caked in a brownish-greenish stew.  A bicycle, a set of tires, boxes, machinery, wallboard, wood—all covered.  The moisture from the sewage combined with the dark basement provided the perfect environment in which the mold could grow.

I set up my instruments to take samples. which included swabs for bacteria and tape lifts to determine the type of mold—toxic or allergen—and multiple air samples to detect spore counts.  I must confess, between taking each sample, I ran upstairs to get some fresh air. It was beyond gross down there. And I mean, really gross.

When the basement samples were complete, I took more air samples outside the building (for a baseline) and on other floors of the building to be sure there had been no cross-contamination.  There wasn’t.


The mold and bacteria levels were very high on this particular job. I detected E-Coli and streptococcus… clearly health hazards. Bottom line, the entire basement needed to be gutted and cleaned. Its contents—the boxes, floorboard, lower-level wallboard, debris, everything—had to be removed, thoroughly cleaned, or discarded.

Sadly, this was not the first inspection I had conducted of this nature. After the New York area was slammed by Hurricane Sandy, we inspected many basements in major buildings, full of sewage and other pollutants resulting from backed up sewer lines and flooding.  In fact, in many Brooklyn, Queens, and Lower Manhattan neighborhoods, toxic cocktails of raw sewage, diesel fuel, debris, chemicals, storm water, and various other pollutants pooled in basements. Interestingly, none were as bad as the sewage nightmare in New Jersey (it was an even worse experience for those who lived there).

I packed up my equipment, wrote my report, and immediately proceeded home for a shower and a change of clothing. My wife was not thrilled when she heard of my adventure.

Believe it or not, there are reputable remediation companies who specialize in removing disgusting pollutants such as sewage and mold. These companies are great at what they do. The remediation companies use our reports to understand the levels of toxicity in the environment they’ll be working in, including the type of mold and how high spore counts are, and whether or not the mold is toxic or just an allergen. The remediation companies, also use our reports as guidelines to accurately estimate their costs and to determine what can be salvaged and what’s got to go.

We like to point out to clients that they should avoid remediation companies that claim they both test for mold (usually discounted or “free”) and remediate. That’s a clear conflict-of-interest and one that usually proves very costly to consumers.

So, what can you do to avoid a messy situation like the one in New Jersey?

First, maintain your property. For this particular job, it appeared the sewer pipe had worn out; property management had deferred maintenance on the structure (the old “if it ain’t broken, nobody fix it,” thinking). They learned the hard way that pipes get old and can rupture without warning.  Second – and this applies to property management and homeowners alike—is to routinely inspect all plumbing and HVAC components. In other words, don’t let three or four weeks go by without checking the basement.  If your tenants start complaining about odors, perform a check right away; don’t let a problem get worse.

As water systems age, 63% of Americans are now concerned a “great deal” about drinking water pollution, according to a Gallup poll.

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