Bacteria and mould in buildings that have suffered flood or fire damage have led to an increasing number of lawsuits. Bob Spencer puts the new research that could help put an end to litigation under the microscope
In recent years, insurers have faced an increasing risk from litigation following infections, allergic reactions and poisoning by microbial toxins caused by the growth of bacteria and moulds in buildings that have suffered flood or fire damage.
Lawsuits have been prevalent in the US, where scores of claims have been filed in respect of health problems allegedly caused by moulds, with settlements running into millions of dollars.
One of the difficulties for insurers in defending claims has been the ability to provide scientific proof that areas cleaned, following flood or fire incidents, were free of potential microbiological hazards. Extensive research and development has been carried out to enable the disaster restoration industry to reduce microbiological hazards and demonstrate provable levels of cleanliness, providing greater protection for policyholders' health and assisting insurers in combating litigation.
Revolutionary new technologies have now been developed for identifying moulds. This includes sterilizing air in areas affected by mould growth and other biological hazards.
Dr David Webber, one of the UK's leading environmental microbiologists, has played a key role in leading this research. He has extensive expertise in the microbiology of industrial water, particularly the control of Legionnaire's disease in building services, cooling and process waters. He has specialised in methods for rapid microbiological testing.
A key area of his work has been in developing a fast and accurate test for moulds and other potentially hazardous microbiological organisms.
Identification of moulds and organisms using traditional methods has previously been time-consuming - often running into several weeks. However, Dr Webber has established links with a new laboratory based at Leicester University - in the facility that pioneered the development of genetic fingerprinting.
The latest techniques enable scientists to quickly identify more than 550 types of moulds associated with water damage in the built environment.
This testing can now be completed within hours, rather than days, and a programme for effective eradication of potentially infectious microbes and allergens can begin much earlier than had previously been possible.
The rapid identification of important bacterial pathogens, for example, Legionella pneumophila - the causative agent of legionnaire's disease - is also available.
Dr Webber is also evaluating other technologies from the same laboratory, including new dry-rot and moisture sensor kits, improved boroscopes and inspection robots. These will provide further investigative advances that will speed up the identification procedure and, consequently, the complete restoration process.
The ability to detect and identify moulds is a major step forward for the restoration sector, as the rapid confirmation of potential health hazards means less risk of exposure to the insured and to remediation specialists.
After an extensive research and development programme, carried out with Dr Webber, my company adopted a UK-developed technology for sterilizing air.
The process combines advanced technology, including high-efficiency filters, rapid air movement, and a contained ozone force chamber that together achieve a 99.99% kill of bacteria, moulds and viruses and 99% removal of all particulates per passage. The units are simple to install, require minimal maintenance, and have low running costs.
This technology effectively removes air-borne microbes and allergens, and is extremely efficient when used for odour and smoke removal - as it will completely eradicate the smell rather than just mask it.
Many other industries are now beginning to see the advantages of this technology. The aviation sector, for example, sees it as an efficient way to control potential health hazards in passenger aircraft, as well as a more economic way of controlling onboard air circulation. Other important sectors, such as the medical and laboratory fields, are also evaluating this technology.
This is seen as a major breakthrough for the disaster restoration industry, one that will reap benefits for both policyholder and insurer.
Other technical advances are well developed, as the insurance industry's demand for a more scientific approach to the restoration process gathers pace. Remote monitoring of treated areas is now available that not only provides 24-hour surveillance but reduces disruption to householders in certain circumstances by alleviating the need for regular visits to flood and fire damaged homes and businesses.
This system will monitor, measure and record set parameters - such as temperature and humidity - and send an alarm via a mobile, landline or e-mail if the unit stops working or the parameters move out of specification.
Such technological advances mean that restoration companies can provide insurers and their policyholders with a level of confidence that has previously been impractical, or cost-prohibitive.
These developments are not only suitable to our traditional domestic and commercial markets but open doors for a variety of new opportunities.
The professional standards we can deliver today are quite incredible compared to only a few years ago and make this a truly exciting time to be in this industry.
Bob Spencer is technical manager for disaster restoration specialist Rainbow International and chairman of the British Damage Management Association.
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