I was asked to assist a home owner who had had his house trashed by a spectular burst water main by the owners work mate. The work mate was an ex-insurance investigator that I have a lot of respect for and so was only too willing to assist.
I was inter-state when the incident occurred but did hear about it on the news. When the homeowner showed me the photos I thought that the images had been photo shopped to make the water spout look much bigger. But no, this was all real. The water went up an estimated 80 metres due to the high pressure and huge volume.
While the home had been a water tight sanctuary during the fiercest of storms for the family of four, the roof and gutters could not cope with this huge amount of water. Luckily a passer-by from a rival water supply company stopped and was able to turn off the water when he did otherwise the damage would have been much greater. The home owners are naturally very appreciative of the work of this good Samaritan.
As it is part of a carport collapsed, all the contents were saturated including carpets while the ceilings in most rooms collapsed.
The home appears to be very well built and there is no signs of any movement in the foundations although paving on the far side of the home has buckled and will require redoing.
The biggest concern is whether the cavity in the internal plaster board walls will dry out properly and or if mould will grow. This can result in the occupants and visitors of the home becoming ill as well as long term expensive to repair damage occurring to the home.
I do not claim to be an expert in this field, but I have a very healthy curiosity and have looked at this issue quite closely so that neither I nor any of the LMI team would be caught out on the issue of mould claims, in view of the number of burst pipe, storm or flood claims that we handle.
What I have learnt is that the relationship between airborne toxic mould spores and adverse health effects is so far unclear and unproven. While it has been reported that Stachybotrys atra and certain other toxic moulds produce micro-toxins that can cause unique or rare health conditions such as pulmonary haemorrhage or memory loss, the Centers for Disease Control & Prevention (“CDC”) report that there is a lack of significant data that scientifically links toxic mould to these conditions.
According to the CDC, common health concerns from moulds include hay fever-type allergy symptoms, and certain individuals with chronic respiratory disease (chronic obstructive pulmonary disorder, asthma) may experience difficulty breathing in the presence of moulds. CDC information suggests that moulds are very common in buildings and homes, and will grow anywhere indoors where there is moisture. The most common indoor moulds are Cladosporium, Penicillium, Aspergillus, and Alternaria. Accurate information about how often Stachybotrys chartarum (or Stachybotrys atra) is found in buildings and homes is not available. According to the CDC, although Stachybotrys atra is less common than other mould species, it is not rare.
If you do a search on the internet, you find literally thousands of sites warning of the dangers and offering advice on remedies.
I carried out the bulk of my research on this subject in late 1997, which was timely, for I was soon after managing a loss adjusting disaster response team following the extensive flooding in Katherine in the Northern Territory in January 1998. At one time, we had 38 staff on the ground and were handling hundreds of claims for homes and other property. This situation allowed me to put my research into practice. I had learnt that the main cause of mould growth was when plasterboard sheeting becomes wet. In warm, damp conditions, the dangerous fungi, moulds, spores or mycotoxins grow. My understanding was, and still is, that the spores are in the air all the time, but not in dangerous quantities. In Katherine, which is in the Northern Territory, we were faced with flooded buildings in the middle of the wet season – the ideal breeding ground for such mould. The problem was made worse by the fact that the town’s sewerage plant was one of the first places to be flooded, and effluent was washed through all the homes and buildings of the town.
To overcome both issues, we arranged for the bottom sheets of plasterboard to be removed, along with any built-in cupboards that created a hidden area for mould growth. I would explain that the plasterboard sheeting, which is 1,200 millimetres wide and of varying lengths, is laid horizontally. As the homes were typically flooded to a depth of less than 1.2 metres, we only removed the bottom sheets to save the cost of replacing the top sheets and cornice. The homes were then dried out using fans and dehumidifiers. Finally, a chemical spray was applied to kill any residual mould or bacteria. The cost per home to dry it out thoroughly (which is only good building practice anyway to stop shrinkage in the plaster joins) and then apply the treatment, was only a few hundred dollars per building. By adopting this approach, no incidence of mould or other health problems arose.
Later, following the Sydney, Melbourne and Perth hailstorms, signs of the mould were present in homes and other buildings, where repairs to the roofs were not completed expeditiously and the building had remained in a damp state for an abnormally long period. The irony is that the cause of nearly all these claims is that not enough has been done to dry the buildings out properly. Obviously, taking care in dealing with mould or preventing mould is now an important issue for Insurers and all involved in restoration work following insured losses. It highlights the need for this work to be carried out subject to best industry practice. Failure to do so could see those involved facing future claims for which insurance cover may not be available.
Back on this new matter, I am having tests carried out to ensure that this does not become an issue for this client. Fergal O’Connell, an LMI inhouse engineer and I will also assist the Insured in documenting all their losses including the temporary accommodation costs that are claimable under the home policy.
One other interesting observation is that the pressure of the water stripped the colour out of the concrete roof tiles on the side of the home nearest the burst pipe.
I know most of us think of the risk of fire when we insure our home, but other risks particularly weather and water related risks are just as damaging and occur with greater frequency. Luckily these people seem to have adequate insurance on both their home and contents which is a great comfort to them.