The Instascope: Mold Testing with Real-Time Results

Oct 26, 2021

Our indoor air quality instruments can measure dozens of different contaminants and provide us immediate results. However, up until now, no instrument could measure airborne mold spores leaving us to rely on collecting samples and laboratory analysis.  The whole process can take a few days to get the results. Earlier this year, Indoor Science purchased a ground-breaking instrument called the Instascope to allow us to get immediate results from our mold air samples. 

Traditional Mold Testing vs Instascope

Most traditional air samples for mold use spore trap cassettes to collect airborne spores.  A pump pulls air over a glass slide with an adhesive to trap spores and other particles on the surface. These cassettes then get shipped off to a laboratory where they will be viewed under a microscope.  The lab analyst will use different magnifications and zoom into different areas of the glass slide to identify and quantify the spores.  This method allows you can identify the type of mold present down to a genus (rather than species) classification. The results are not available for a few days based on the proximity of the laboratory, their turnaround time, and sample backlog.

Alternatively, the Instascope quantifies airborne mold real-time, providing an instantaneous result. It is similar to a traditional laser particle counter with the difference that the instrument evaluates fluorescence.  Unique types of particles such as mold spores, grains of pollen, and bacteria each reflect light at unique wavelengths.  These wavelengths act like signatures that allow the Instascope to quantify particles and identify to which large grouping it belongs (mold vs pollen vs bacteria).

Pros and Cons to Using the Instascope

By providing immediate results, the Instascope has the advantage of helping the property owner take action sooner. If a space is unhealthy for occupants, that is important to know right now rather than a few days later. The speed of results is also helpful on the back-end to know when a space is safe for re-occupancy. For example, if there is a school classroom displaced by remediation, the Instascope can help get kids back into their normal learning environment faster. 

By having immediate results, the Instascope can better identify the source of a problem.  If there is an elevated reading in a room, the Instascope can be used in all the adjacent rooms and areas which might lead to a hidden source of the airborne spores. With traditional spore traps, this could take over a week to diagnose due to multiple trips out to the property and waiting for lab results.

The Instascope in its current form only provides a total airborne mold count, rather than having the ability to identify different types of mold. There are certain genera of mold that are water damage indicators, such as StachybotrysChaetomium, and Ulocladium.  These are uncommon both outdoors and in normal buildings, but commonly found in water damaged buildings, often at low concentrations. There could be a situation where low levels of these water damage indicators measured by the Instascope do not push the total concentration high enough to raise a red flag. In the future, the Instascope may be able to identify some mold types that have unique fluorescent signatures. 

Another disadvantage of the Instascope is its size and weight.  It weighs about 60 pounds and is more difficult to transport than traditional methods. Rolling the Instascope up and down stairs takes time. Its size may prevent it from fitting in small cars. 

Can you Compare the Results?

Because traditional spore traps and the Instascope measure airborne spores differently, the results of the two cannot be compared. The mold counts on an Instascope are generally much higher as they count even small fragments of spores. One study found that mold colonies release fragments in higher numbers than spores (up to 320 times higher).  These small fragments counted by the Instascope may be clinically significant. 

Mold samples indoors are often compared to outdoor samples and to other areas within the building. So to determine if a room is unusually high, it is recommended to make comparisons to other areas. That is true whether using the Instascope or other traditional methods. 

Final Thoughts

Not every mold inspection requires air sampling. The primary focus should be on finding any underlying moisture problems in the building.  Nevertheless, air sampling can be a useful tool for many projects to help identify more hidden problems and to characterize the air quality. If getting immediate results and being able to hunt down problems is important, then you should request an inspection using the Instascope. We anticipate this technology will become the dominant method for air sampling within this decade, especially if it gains the ability to identify mold types.