Impenetrable rainforests, palm-studded beaches--Hawaii has many stirring sights. But for Jason Earle, the putrid, mold-ridden Hilton Hawaiian Village's Kalia Tower in Waikiki was most inspiring. In 2002, during a sojourn to the Aloha State after he ditched a nine-year career as a stockbroker, he watched as the $95 million hotel was closed down one year after opening because of ventilation problems. "They thought it was a $500,000 mold problem, then it grew to $5 million," he says. "In the end, it cost $55 million to fix."
The closure got personal after Earle talked to one of the cleanup workers and read about health problems associated with mold. As a child living on a small farm in West Windsor, N.J., Earle had had serious respiratory problems that were eventually diagnosed as asthma compounded by chronic pneumonia as well as allergies to grass, wheat, corn, eggs, milk, cotton, animals, pollen and just about everything else. He had lived like the Bubble Boy, but after moving to a new house nearby, Earle's health problems had miraculously evaporated. Everyone assumed he had outgrown his illnesses, but in retrospect, Earle became convinced mold had debilitated him.
"After reading about the Kalia Tower, I asked my dad if we had mold in that house," Earle says. "He laughed and said we had actual mushrooms growing the basement."
Earle became passionate about detecting dangerous fungi and after traveling, settled in New Jersey to work for a mold-remediation firm. When he heard about a dog that had been trained to sniff out hidden moisture, he flew to Florida and bought the dog, a black Lab named Oreo, and set off on his own, combining traditional detection techniques with Oreo's sniffer.
1-800-GOT-MOLD? was a hit. (An inspection runs an average of $1,200.) And Earle began franchising the concept this year, training a small battalion of mold-sniffing labs in Florida and opening 23 locations in New Jersey and the Carolinas. He expects to open 30 more in the next 12 months and more than 300 in the next three years.
How big is the mold problem?
The mold-detection industry is growing fast, and we're the only national brand. About a third of Americans suffer from asthma, allergies, sinusitis, bronchitis and other respiratory problems. That's100 million people sensitive to mold issues. According to one website,
80 percent of homes will eventually have problems with flooding or leaks. We also try to market ourselves through doctors and medical services, not real estate companies, and emphasize mold's health effects. That's a huge separator for us.
Why use dogs?
With the dogs, we can offer superior service, and they create a tremendous amount of confidence. The dogs almost validate the human inspector because people naturally trust dogs so much. It's a huge marketing advantage. Plus, scheduling a mold inspection is up there with scheduling a root canal--it's not fun. The dog changes the dynamic. We don't use dogs as a replacement for anything, but they give us an even greater amount of data. They pinpoint problem areas that would be missed, and they reduce the size of remediation to the smallest dimensions, so there's no need for wholesale demolition of a wall.
How do clients react to the dogs?
It can be an emotional experience when homeowners see a dog alert in a room they know is a problem or makes them feel sick. It validates their concerns. They don't feel crazy anymore.
Do you breed moldhounds?
No, we use rescued female black Labs and Lab mixes. We use Labs because they are the friendliest and America's favorite dog. For some reason, black dogs are usually the last to be rescued, so we get them from kill shelters. Females are easier to train, and have a better sense of smell.
Are you still allergic to mold?
I tend to limit my time in moldy houses, and I haven't experienced the symptoms I had as a kid. I think that going in and out of so many houses with mold has reduced my sensitivity, kind of like getting allergy shots. But that's just my theory.
Jason Daley lives and writes in Madison, Wisconsin. His work regularly appears in Popular Science, Outside and other magazines.