Research Communications

Finding fungus: Tim Ryan tests new method of detecting mold in buildings 

Mold detection illustration by Christina UllmanBy Philip Barnes

Mold isn't responsible for that nose-scrunching stench we experience when stepping down into a dark basement or finding rotten food at the back of the fridge. Microbial volatile organic compounds, or MVOCs, are what really stink.

Tim Ryan, an Ohio University occupational health and safety professor, smells potential in predicting hidden mold by testing for MVOCs, the molecular metabolites released from mold as it grows. The only complication, he notes, is that not all molds emanate the same MVOCs or release them at a consistent rate.

In a study funded by the Ohio University Research Committee, Ryan tested the basements and upstairs living rooms of 23 different homes for mold and MVOCs. Air samples were collected and analyzed in the lab. Out of the 14 MVOCs tested, only one, 3-octenone, proved to be statistically significant when comparing levels between the basement and living rooms of the homes. The findings were published in theinternational journal Chemosphere.

"We already know certain MVOCs such as geosmin are present when mold grows, but adding this new compound to the list is helpful," Ryan says. "Now, under wet conditions where someone might expect mold, we can measure the 3-octenone levels and verify that."

The National Institutes of Health reports that inhaling mold spores can exacerbate asthma and cause health problems such as chronic coughing, eye irritation, and blurred vision.

Rooting out and fixing mold problems can be costly, however, especially for commercial businesses, Ryan says. His findings suggest that property owners could bypass expensive traditional tests triggered by water damage or moldy odors.

"Right now if people smell something musty in a 40-story office building, you have to go around drilling holes in the wall every three feet searching for spores. That, or you can take an air sample back to a lab for analysis, which takes seven to 10 days to complete," Ryan says. "You're putting everyone working in the space at an inconvenience."

MVOC sampling and analysis can be accomplished in a day, however, which results in less down time, fewer occupant complaints, and potentially more definitive results, he says.

Illustration: Christina Ullman.

This story will appear in the Autumn/Winter 2013 issue of Ohio University's Perspectives magazine.