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By Robert Weitz, CMI, Principal and Senior Mold Inspector at RTK Environmental Group

I was dispatched to a high-end clothing store among a row of businesses in beautiful Greenwich, Connecticut. What appeared to be just an ordinary mold inspection was about to turn into a far more complex environmental investigation. Under ordinary circumstances, I’d enter the business, conduct a visual mold investigation, take multiple air samples to analyze mold spore counts, a few other samples of suspect mold growth, spend time educating the client, then send out the samples to our independent laboratory to analyze the results. That didn’t happen on this day.

Before I can dive into the story, I must tell you a little about the tony town of Greenwich. It’s located about 30 miles north of New York City and is one of the most prestigious communities in America. Its residents include heads of industry, countless celebrities, Wall Street tycoons, and all-around “fabulous” people. Essentially, people either live in Greenwich or aspire to do so. The Greenwich business community caters to the ultra-rich with discerning taste; there are a multitude of shops that closely resemble Rodeo Drive in Beverly Hills or Fifth Avenue in Manhattan. Shops are brimming with high-end fashions and home goods. Inventories are plentiful and expensive. So when an expensive inventory is ruined by carelessness, hundreds of thousands of dollars are on the line.

The retailer who hired RTK Environmental Group is a nationally-known, high-end brand (our policy is not to reveal the names of our clients—even our “A-List” celebrity clients—yes, we are mold inspectors to the stars), that had a very serious mold problem. After briefly interviewing the store’s management, we quickly realized that the mold problem stemmed from a neighboring restaurant that had hired a shoddy contractor.

The Trouble Begins

In Connecticut, restaurants are required to construct their kitchens according to a very specific set of building codes. The rules are in place to prevent the spread of fire, but also aid in helping to prevent the transfer of moisture and odors as well. The contractor in this case did not follow several of these precautionary measures. Adding to this error , the restaurant’s dishwasher was improperly installed from day one, allowing a slow leak to occur that penetrated the wall surface.

Our client, the high-end clothing retailer, began to smell a strange odor emanating from the rear of the store. When visible mold on the baseboard was discovered, the landlord was called to solve the problem. The landlord quickly discovered the restaurant’s leaky hose and a kitchen that was not quite up to snuff with building codes. Wisely, the landlord immediately made the restaurant take action. Here is where the drama really begins.

A Series of Costly Errors

The restaurant couldn’t have handled the situation worse. The first mistake the restaurant made was they did not get an independent assessment of the mold damage first by bringing in a mold expert like my company, RTK Environmental Group. The restaurant was essentially flying blindly, not aware of the costly damage they were about to create.

The second mistake the restaurant made was hiring a contractor with no experience in handling mold remediation. The most reputable mold remediators insist on independent, third-party mold testing from companies like RTK to pinpoint the mold source and identify where hidden mold could be hiding. Companies like RTK also identify the type of mold—whether it is toxic or an allergen—to ensure worker and occupant safety during and after remediation. The inexperienced contractor skipped the independent mold testing step and created a mold health hazard to workers, destroyed an inventory in the retail space worth six figures, sparked costly legal action, and put countless customers in both establishments at risk of respiratory and other health risks.

The contractor came in, cut out lower wallboard between the restaurant and the retailer, and carted out the damaged sheetrock through the building. All of this was done without setting up proper containment. When the contractor cut the wall open, millions of mold spores (which later were identified to be toxic), were released into the air in both the restaurant and the retailer. The inside of the wall cavity was rotted with an unfathomable amount of mold growth. The spores silently spread like wildfire throughout the restaurant and the store. The contractor patched up the wall and left.

Patrons continued to eat at the restaurant and shoppers and employees were frequenting the retailer. But a few weeks later, employees at the retailer began complaining about headaches, were coughing, and exhibiting flu-like symptoms. A disgusting, musty odor began permeating the store. With high-end retailers, image is everything—especially in discerning Greenwich—and RTK was called in to investigate.

I set up and took samples. Even I was shocked to find that spore counts were exceptionally elevated. Lab results confirmed the spore samples obtained on site contained Stachybotrys, Aspergillus, and Penicillium, all highly toxic molds. It was a clear health hazard.

Now, we had the potential for a Jerry Springer episode. We had a tenant-tenant dispute, a tenant-landlord dispute, and a tenant-contractor dispute as all the parties involved sought to assign blame and financial responsibility for the remediation. For our part, RTK provided a detailed report that included remediation recommendations for a properly-trained contractor to come in and fix the problem. The inventories in both businesses had to be thrown away. The restaurant and the store had to be thoroughly cleaned, and the wall separating both establishments had to be properly removed using the proper containment procedures (including negative air pressure) and rebuilt.

The restaurant, understanding it was facing a six-figure cleanup bill, refused to lose revenue by closing for repairs. Instead, a complex and precise remediation was planned.

At 11:00 p.m. on a Sunday night, the restaurant closed. A team of properly trained remediation workers arrived, stripped the restaurant and the retailer, removed the affected components from the kitchen, cleaned and restored appliances, tables, chairs, and anything that could be salvaged. The expensive inventory was carted off. The wall was removed—properly—according to our specifications, and was put back together by 9:00 a.m. the following morning. I took air samples and gave the OK that mold spore counts were at “acceptable” levels. The health and building inspectors arrived on scene shortly thereafter and signed off on the repairs.

There were many mistakes made by the restaurant’s owners and contractors. If they had meticulously followed building and health codes—and had the dishwasher been installed properly could have saved the restaurant hundreds of thousands of dollars in damage to the structure, and the store’s ultra-expensive inventory. Lawsuits, tenant disputes, landlord disputes, court proceedings, and a whopper of an insurance claim, could have all been avoided, if a $1 rubber hose had been properly installed .

And, most importantly, if they had contacted RTK Environmental Group first, our recommendations would have protected the restaurant from a series of mistakes that would ultimately cost nearly $250,000.

Condo and Co-Op Owners Take Note

You don’t need to have a restaurant next door to you to experience severe damage. We’re called out on countless inspections of co-ops and condos where a reckless neighbor improperly installs an appliance or has an unresolved plumbing issue and creates a huge problem among neighbors. Since 80% of homes have environmental problems like mold, a word to the wise would be to investigate carefully whom you hire. If you have an environmental problem—like mold or indoor air problems—bring in an expert like my company, RTK Environmental Group first. Your wallet will thank you for it.

70% of homes are estimated to have mold behind walls. (Harvard EDU)

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