The use of mold-sniffing dogs such as Buster, shown above leading Mold Hawaii owner Bill Birmingham to a source, leads to quick results.

Mold Buster

A highly trained Jack Russell
terrier can sniff out more than
22 kinds of toxic mold

If you wake up congested most mornings, don't blame it on the weather or a mild cold. The culprit might be mold, and you'll only know for sure if you call in an expert. Enter Buster, the mold-sniffing dog.

Buster, a Jack Russell terrier, joined the Mold Hawaii team in October, and he comes with an excellent pedigree. Trained at the Florida Canine Academy, Buster proved to be a star pupil, earning double the required number of training hours for mold dogs. He's trained to sniff out more than 22 kinds of toxic molds.

Before Buster's arrival, Mold Hawaii technicians had to inspect homes the old-fashioned way, by getting on their own hands and knees to explore and collect air samples. Meters are used to gauge moisture, and then they start tearing things out, according to Bill Birmingham, who founded Mold Hawaii last November.

"Mold dogs generate quicker and more results and are the only inspection tool that can detect and pinpoint sources of mold, which leads to lower remediation costs," he explained.

Birmingham knows firsthand the health problems associated with mold. Two years ago he found himself unable to shake flu- and coldlike symptoms. In searching for a cure, a homeopathic doctor suggested the cause could be mold, rather than a bacteria or virus. Sure enough, Birmingham found toxic mold in his own home. "Now I'm finding other people with problems who feel powerless," he said.

Although many believe mold can be identified on sight, Birmingham said there is a lot of invisible household mold out there. "The EPA has concluded that mold is the cause of nearly all chronic sinus infections."

Other symptoms can include fatigue, headaches and dizziness. Other common occurrences related to mold exposure are allergic reactions, asthma and other respiratory ailments.

In homes the main source of mold is from washing machine or toilet overflow that is not cleaned properly, or a leaking roof. Mold requires water and cellulose to grow, and almost all home-building materials are cellulose-based, Birmingham said. "Mold thrives in dark and warm areas. If mold is disturbed, it goes into a defense mechanism mode. It is a plant and has roots. ... It is just trying to live."

Buster, right, excelled at the Florida Training Acedemy, which led him to become Mold Hawaii's No. 1 mold detective. Buster is shown with company owner Bill Birmingham.

If you catch problems early enough, they can be inexpensive to fix, and this is where Buster puts his nose to work. He is able to survey a 2,000-square-foot area in about an hour. A person handling the same task could take days to cover the same ground, Birmingham said.

While a human might need to cut a hole in a wall to explore the roots of a mold problem, Buster is accurate within 3 1/2 feet of the problem area, without causing any unnecessary damage, Birmingham said. Once mold samples are collected, they are sent to a lab for identification before starting any kind of treatment. Just knowing the type of mold that is causing the problem "can reduce costs by 75 percent," Birmingham said.

There is a money-back guarantee if Buster is wrong. "He has only been wrong once," said Birmingham. Mold Hawaii does not offer remediation services due to a conflict of interest.

THE RECOGNITION of household and building mold as a health hazard led researchers to investigate the possibility that dogs could be trained to detect mold, according to Bill Whitsine, the owner of Florida Canine Academy, which trains bomb, drug, money, weapons and accelerant detection canine teams.

The academy bases its training on dogs' natural sensory abilities. From a single drop of urine, a dog can identify the marking animal's sex, diet, health, emotional state and even whether it's dominant or submissive, friend or foe, said Whitsine, who has worked with dogs for more than 20 years and was a forensic arson investigator heading up the canine unit before starting the academy. "A dog can find a baby's teardrop on a football field," he added.

Whitsine also trained a termite-sniffing dog that is now located on the Big Island.

Some feel they can't entrust their homes to a dog, but Birmingham disagrees. "Police use dogs to find drugs. Canines are also used for a variety of important positions, so why not to sniff out mold problems?

"Since the field is not regulated, there can be shadiness out there," he said, but with Buster passing his "probation" with flying colors, and an overwhelming demand for his services, Birmingham's newest recruit will be a beagle named Bo, who will join Mold Hawaii's team in March.

"Dogs are not biased -- there is no monetary gain. They have no reason for not telling the truth," he said. "He (Buster) is smarter than we are. ... Dogs by nature follow their nose. Humans follow their eyes," added Whitsine.

At home, Buster continues to practice his skills and, in spite of putting in a full day's work every day, still remains one of "man's best friends." He and Birmingham travel everywhere as a team.

"I can't leave him locked in a kennel," Birmingham said. "He even goes on trips to Blockbuster with me to pick up movies."

Visit or call 531-MOLD (6653) for more information.

Mold grows all around us

Molds can be found in virtually every environment, both inside and outdoors, year-round. Growth is encouraged by warm and humid conditions.

In outdoor areas, mold can be found in shady, damp areas or places where leaves or other vegetation is decomposing.

Showers are another place where humidity levels are high.

Mold growth can be removed with commercial products or a weak bleach solution (one cup of bleach in one gallon of water).

In situations where mold exposure is unavoidable, sensitive people should wear a tight-fitting mask.

More recommendations:

>> Keep humidity in the house below 50 percent.

>> Use an air conditioner or a dehumidifier during humid months.

>> Be sure that the home has adequate ventilation, including exhaust fans in kitchens and bathrooms.

>> Add mold inhibitors to paints before application.

>> Clean bathrooms with mold-killing products.

>> Do not carpet bathrooms.

>> Remove or replace previously soaked carpets and upholstery.

-- From the Center for Disease Control

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