Skip to Content

Case of the Shaggy Dog

Article written by Jack Carr, P.E., R.S., LEED AP, Criterium Engineers
 
CSI Portland:  It was a dark and stormy afternoon when she walked into my office. She had that drawn and weathered look that only a condo property manager can have after a tough day. I said, “Can I help?” She dropped into a chair and the story flowed out. Mold.
 
She managed a large Maine condo village of townhouses. Recently an outbreak of mold was discovered in one of the units. Then another and then another. Until now it was a virtual plague spreading throughout the complex. She was at her wits end. She had plumbers and roofers looking for leaks, industrial hygienists sniffing the air, and abatement contractors circling the complex like sharks. I grabbed my flashlight and said, “Let’s go.”
 
She showed me the crime scene. It was the unit where the first outbreak was uncovered. The family was milling about looking guilty. No one would meet my eye. Not even the shaggy dog who brushed up against my leg. With flashlight at shoulder level I looked under sinks, up into the attic, down into the cellar. No luck. And then I had a break.
 
I was in the son’s bedroom and my beam of light revealed a pile of towels in the corner. The pieces of the puzzle were beginning to fall in place. I looked at the property manager and said “case solved”. I asked that all of the family members join us in the dining room for my announcement of the name of the perp.
 
When all were gathered I looked around the room and said, “The source of the spreading mold is in this room.” They were aghast and looked suspiciously about. I asked the mother if her son was on the swimming team and when she asked how I deduced that I said, “The wet towels on the rug in the corner of his room gave me my first clue but the dripping Speedo swim suit sealed the matter.”
 
I then pointed an accusing finger at the son and said, “Tell us about your smelly feet.” He broke down and confessed he had contracted athlete’s foot from the pool’s shower but he was medicating himself with talcum powder. “A likely story” I scoffed and told him to bring me the powder can.
 
He skulked into the bathroom and in a moment he was handing over the incriminating evidence. I held the can up high for all to see. The case was solved. The guilty had been found. I was not surprised when I looked around at the disbelieving faces. I said, “Let me explain.”
 
“This may look like innocent talcum powder but in reality it is not. A careful reading of the can’s ingredients would reveal that it is in actuality, corn starch powder”. Still looks of incomprehension. I continued. “Talcum powder is a mineral. Mold spores hate minerals. They can’t eat it. It clogs up their digestive systems. But corn starch! That’s something totally different. They love it. It’s a comfort food. The son’s liberal use of corn starch powder flying around the room and landing on the wet rug where the towels and swim suit are thrown everyday created the breeding ground.”
 
I paused for dramatic effect until someone asked, “How did it spread”? With a flourish I turned on my heel and point an accusing finger at, the shaggy dog. “It was the dog”, I said. The dog sleeps on the wet rug. The mold attaches itself to the dog’s hanging fur. And then the dog visits the neighbors on his routine route spreading mold and muddy footprints.
 
Back in my office I was reflecting on another solved case. My journal is full of these true accounts in the life of a condo detective. Names can not be revealed to protect the innocent but the moldy story always has the same modus operandi. Mold needs three things: moisture, food, and air.
 
We all have to breathe so the elimination of air is not practical. Improved building materials, such as paperless drywall, are minimizing the food element. That leaves water. Water is the primary source of all molds. Eliminate the water and mold can not survive. Water can come from leaks, moisture vapor, and many other forms found around the house. Associations must be vigilant for plumbing problems that can affect multiple units, poorly vented attics with open dryer vents, or roof ice dams that can damage both exteriors and interiors. Be vigilant and take a bite out of mold. 
 

© CRITERIUM ENGINEERS 2007