COLUMBIA — South Carolina's lack of rules or protections against potentially toxic mold allows landlords to ignore complaints, swindlers to prey on flood victims and well-meaning handymen who don't know what they're doing to make problems worse, according to testimony before legislators looking to change that.

While mold is certainly nothing new in this often muggy, sweltering state, the floodwaters that have inundated communities in recent seasons — starting with the "thousand-year" flood of 2015 — have brought attention to the state's inability to help residents or even give advice to government agencies when homes and buildings could make people sick. 

"There’s absolutely nothing in the state of South Carolina to protect the public," said Rep. Roger Kirby, who represents tiny Pee Dee towns nearly wiped out by hurricane-caused flooding in recent years.

"Anybody who wants to say, 'I’m a mold abater,' all they have to do is go out and hang a shingle," he added.

The Lake City Democrat sits on a joint House-Senate mold-abatement study committee that began meeting this fall to find solutions to a problem that can cause respiratory issues, fatigue and skin conditions in some people.

A report to the Legislature is due by year's end.

No SC-licensed mold contractors

Like most states, South Carolina does not regulate unhealthy mold levels and doesn't license or certify contractors for getting rid of the fungi.

Contractors who deal with mold might have a South Carolina license or certification for something else.

For example, people who work on heating, venting and air conditioning systems must be licensed, and leaky HVAC units can cause mold. Licensed construction workers may encounter mold during building or repair jobs.

But there is no state credential for identifying or removing mold. And, while home inspectors must pass an exam to be licensed, there's nothing on the test about mold, said Katie Phillips with the state Department of Labor, Licensing and Regulation.   

"Part of the problem is that our public has seen people coming in, not with hammers and saws, but people with backpack sprayers and brushes charging exorbitant amounts of money to hose down a wall with Clorox," Kirby said.

Ultimately, the only thing they've done is leave people with smaller wallets, he said. 

Just 10 states have licensing programs for mold assessment and remediation.

The most comprehensive program is in Texas — where multimillion dollar lawsuits over mold in homes prompted insurance companies to demand one — followed by Florida. Virginia and Arkansas had licensing laws but later repealed them. California lawmakers directed state health officials to come up with indoor mold exposure limits, but they couldn't, so regulations were never enacted, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.

No federal standards, either 

Part of the issue is there are no federal regulations or health standards on mold for states to borrow.

The Environmental Protection Agency, Occupational Safety and Health Administration, and Centers for Disease Control and Prevention have all passed on acting, saying there's not enough scientific evidence. Instead, the agencies caution that indoor mold can cause health problems and offer tips for prevention and removal.  

In 2002, Stephen Redd, the CDC's then-chief of air pollution and respiratory health, told Congress "molds are ubiquitous in the environment" and setting standards for indoor mold exposure may be impossible, since people react differently to it. 

"With mold, it’s a moving target. One person can roll around in it and not have a problem. Another person can walk into a room and immediately have to go outside because they can’t breathe," said Ted Shultz with Apex Environmental Management in Mauldin.

His company tests for mold, lead and asbestos and makes recommendations but doesn't actually do any of the remedy work. 

One way to guard against shysters is to bar companies from doing both the testing and the work, he said, noting such conflict of interest is a "no-no" for asbestos and lead abatement, which are highly regulated.

With no guidance from the state, his company largely adopted for mold testing the same protocols it follows for asbestos and lead, he said.

"The shady, fly-by-night stuff, they’re out there," Shultz said. "There should be some licensing. There are a lot of people out there just robbing people. Are they licensed? Some are; some aren’t. Handyman Bob who works on the weekend might be a really honest guy but might not know what he’s doing, how to clean up afterward and encapsulate it. 

"If it's done poorly, it could be a terrible mess."

He recalled doing follow-up tests for clients that actually found higher levels of mold than before it was supposedly cleaned up, as the faulty work just "stirred things up."    

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Complaints on the rise

Since January 2014, the S.C. Department of Consumer Affairs has received 155 written complaints about mold, with 75 percent of those coming from people in apartments.

Another 20 came from tourists complaining about mold at their hotels, mainly in North Myrtle Beach, administrator Carri Grube Lybarker said.

The number of complaints has more than tripled since 2014, she said. 

But there's not much the agency can do other than tell property owners of a potential problem, and callers are told that upfront, so many don't bother filing an official grievance, she said. 

Of those who did, nearly 70 percent of the cases were closed as "satisfied," but that just means the agency got some response, which could mean the business or landlord cleaned up the mold or simply reported it wasn't an issue.

State Rep. Chandra Dillard, the study committee's chairwoman, said she first realized South Carolina has no protections several years ago, when elderly constituents in a high-rise apartment complained to her about mold due to water leaks worsening their breathing problems. The Greenville Democrat started calling around to state agencies for help and was told, "We don't do anything with mold."  

But it was frustrations over repeated mold issues in the Spartanburg County courthouse, which has brought lawsuits from employees, that caused Dillard to file legislation creating the study committee. 

"There's nothing in place to make people do anything," said the Greenville Democrat, who suffers from mold allergies herself. "You have nowhere to turn to, and you know it's mold. We're not even helping our public buildings. ... There needs to be something where people get more than a flier." 

In her lawsuit, former Spartanburg County Clerk of Court Hope Blackley says "she has suffered with painful inability to breathe, chest tightness, rhinitis, severe headaches, and other physical symptoms associated with toxic mold exposure."

The county paid for mold clean up — several times — only to have it come back, partly due to leaky pipes, old windows and insufficient ventilation in the 61-year-old building. It will be demolished after a new, $150 million courthouse, funded by a voter-approved penny sales tax, opens. But that's not until 2022. 

Even former GOP Rep. Bob Walker, a Spartanburg County councilman who's no fan of government regulation, said it would be helpful for the state to set guidelines for mold in public buildings and to establish "this is a danger point here because it exceeds such and such."

Follow Seanna Adcox on Twitter at @seannaadcox_pc.

Assistant Columbia bureau chief

Adcox returned to The Post and Courier in October 2017 after 12 years covering the Statehouse for The Associated Press. She previously covered education for The P&C. She has also worked for The AP in Albany, N.Y., and for The Herald in Rock Hill.