Small Gutters Lead to Health Problems

By Stephen Andrews

I will never forget the look on the face of a young mother I met one bright September morning in September 2003. Her two story brick home appeared to be solidly built and was situated at the end of a narrow, winding street facing a golf course. The terrain appeared to slope away from the house – a good indication that the drainage was working properly. She had done her homework, too, and had spent many hours researching the web looking for a solution to her problem. The only problem was…she didn’t really know what was wrong. And that confusion, frustration, and helplessness was written all over her face.

Friends and family thought she was depressed. Doctors thought she was histrionic (a kinder way of saying that she was making it all up). She had even been to a counselor or two to find out if she was crazy. With no two parties in agreement as to her mental, emotional or physical health, she proceeded to seek alternative healthcare.

Along the way, it was suggested to her that she might be experiencing the effects of environmental illness. Did she have water in the basement? Yes, as a matter of fact, at times there was almost a river running through the crawl space. But what, she asked, did that have to do with her health? And how could she find the source of the water and make it stop?

As soon as I opened the front door, it was clear that something was wrong. The foyer had a damp, musty smell and particles of dust were visible wafting through the air. The client interview provided me with more important clues: a history of recent respiratory problems, fatigue, fogginess, mysterious abdominal pain and a host of other symptoms which the doctors had told her were not indicative of any known illness, but are often common mold health effects.

I performed the standard IAQ tests and the results pointed to problems with moisture and potential mold growth. My experience told me just from the smell that there was mold in the house. Years of working in the field have made me both more aware of mold in the home and also more sensitive to it. I put on my mask and proceeded to the basement.

In the basement, the pieces started to fit together. The exhaust duct for the dryer hung loose, suspended from the ceiling above, venting hot moist air into the crawl space. Further inspection of the crawl space showed visible mold colonies growing along the floor joists. The muddy trail left by recent water intrusion began under the front door and proceeded through the crawl space and out into the basement level garage.

The water intrusion issue was not new, however. A French drain system had previously been installed into the crawl space – a solution that would not be helpful in this situation, as the water was coming in from the other direction.

I took air samples in the home – one in the kitchen above the affected floor joists, and one in the basement where the floor joists had been growing mold due to the continuous presence of water and moisture from the dryer. Not surprisingly, the levels were extremely high. In fact, the levels of aspergillus penicillium were almost forty times higher than is reasonable to allow inside a home. After four more years of inspections this home remains one of the worst cases I have ever seen of rampant mold growth.

But what was the cause of the water intrusion? I had already seen that both yards sloped away from the house, providing good drainage away from the basement. The answer to this problem lies in water’s natural surface tension. Rainwater running down the roof was flowing into inadequate gutters, which then overflowed. The same surface tension that allows popular gutter covering systems to work was causing the overflow to run straight down the face of the brick home, straight down the foundation, and straight into the crawl space. No one knew this because homeowners don’t typically stand out in the rain to observe their gutters.

So how did the water in the basement cause these mold health effects? An interesting and highly debated subject is the affect of mycotoxins on people’s health. In this case, the booming mold growth in the floor joists produced large amounts of mycotoxins (gases), which migrated up through the plumbing cuts made in the kitchen floor. It was confirmed by the homeowner that she experienced almost all of the symptoms of mold exposure while cooking dinner, particularly when she opened the doors to the lower cabinets under the sink.

The solution for this homeowner was simple and straightforward. I recommended that they increase the size of their gutters, adding two more drops, reinstall the dryer vent duct and add a permanent dehumidification, ventilation and air filtration system. By keeping the water intrusion and extra moisture out of the crawlspace, they put a stop to uncontrolled mold growth in the basement. Maintaining 40-50% relative humidity inside the home dried out the home and the mold in it. The addition of dry, fresh, filtered air helped dilute any remaining mycotoxins while filtering out inactive mold spores and other allergens.

In addition, I recommended that the basement floor joists be throughly cleaned and fogged with a serum fungicide.

Taking these steps benefited this young mother tremendously. Her health began to improve almost immediately, although she reported to me that it took nearly two years of diligent effort to recover completely from these mold health effects. Even so, she was one of the lucky ones – she found the root cause of the imbalance in her environment and was able to correct it.

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