- The Washington Times - Friday, May 24, 2002

What is orange or white or pink or blue or green or black or brown and lives all over? Mold. It is no joking matter to people who believe they have been made sick by it. Recent dramatic lawsuits yielded large awards to families because of their experiences with mold. In one of the most publicized cases, a family in Texas won $32 million from their insurance company in June 2001 because of mold damage to their 22-room mansion. Facets of the building industry, from builders to home inspectors, have scrambled together workshops, studies, seminars and Web site "how-to" lists in reaction to the risk of lawsuits.

But while mold is a problem that should be addressed and allergies can be exacerbated by exposure to mold, the presence of mold in itself should not cause panic.

According to a report from Building Science Corp., an architecture and building consulting firm in Westford, Mass., mold is a type of fungus. The spores and hairlike bodies of individual mold plants are too small to be seen without a microscope, but when mold colonies grow on a surface, they often appear black or green. The color is influenced by the nutrient source and age of the colony, experts say.

"Consumers should be aware that any moisture problem in a home has the potential of becoming a mold problem and should be resolved as soon as possible," says Donna Reichle, assistant staff vice president for media relations for the National Association of Home Builders. "The key thing that people need to understand about mold is that mold requires certain conditions to grow, which include water from a leak or condensation, a warm temperature which approximates room temperature, and a food source, which can mean almost anything including carpeting, wallpaper, wallboard or air ducts."

The most important fact about mold is that it can begin to grow in as little as 48 hours, so consumers need to be alert and clean up water problems as soon as possible.

"The magnitude of a mold problem grows if a water problem is left unresolved," Ms. Reichle says. "If moisture is left untouched and mold begins to grow, it could develop mold colonies, which can cause bigger problems."

Although mold damages homes and building materials, people are more concerned about the potential health problems associated with mold.

"The biggest health problem due to mold is allergy, because it affects so many people," says Dr. Nathan Yost of Building Science Corp. "There are some molds which may contain mycotoxins, but there is no way of measuring people's exposure to toxins to determine if their health problems are directly related to mold. Basically, all claims of health problems caused by mold are inferential, because while the mold is present and the symptoms are present, the link between them isn't definite."

Even if mold is in a building, a person has not necessarily been exposed to the mold, Dr. Yost says.

"First, the mold has to get into the building, and then into the air and then into a person," he says.

Dr. Yost wrote an article for Building Sciences Corp. this year "What You Need to Know About Mold."

In it, he details the problem with identifying reactions to mold.

"Exposure to mold can cause allergy in susceptible people, but we don't know how much exposure is necessary to start the development of allergy," he wrote. "If you have asthma, exposure to mold can cause an asthma attack or make your chronic asthma get worse."

"At this point we do not know if exposure to mold, especially early in life, can lead to the development of asthma," Dr. Yost says. "Only a few molds seem to be able to sometimes cause an infection in healthy people. Fortunately. these molds do not usually grow in buildings.

"However, people with a suppressed immune system are much more susceptible to fungal (mold) infections, and many of these fungi do grow in wet buildings. Individuals with AIDS, certain types of cancer and those with organ (heart, kidney) transplants on certain drugs are much more susceptible to fungal infections."

The National Center for Environmental Health, a division of the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), also has weighed in on mold.

"The hazards presented by molds that may contain mycotoxins should be considered the same as other common molds which can grow in your house. There is always a little mold everywhere in the air and on many surfaces," the agency reported. "There are very few case reports that toxic molds (those containing certain mycotoxins) inside homes can cause unique or rare health conditions such as pulmonary hemorrhage or memory loss. These case reports are rare, and a causal link between the presence of the toxic mold and these conditions has not been proven. A common-sense approach should be used for any mold contamination existing inside buildings and homes."

Dr. Yost says, "People shouldn't be living in grossly moldy homes, as it could cause health problems, especially respiratory problems associated with living in a damp home.

"But it's equally ridiculous for people to think they can or should sanitize their homes so there is no mold," he says. "Only a frozen home or an extremely sanitized home in a hospital could be completely free of mold, and if someone tried to do this in their home it would be ruined the minute someone opened the front door because mold spores would float in on the air. People need to understand that we're living with mold all the time, and that's fine."

People usually discover a mold problem because it is visible or they detect a musty, moldy odor. Mold is opportunistic and naturally occurs in damp, humid places such as a bathroom. Homeowners should be vigilant about cleaning in those places so mold does not spread.

In addition, if a homeowner experiences a burst pipe or a leaky roof or window, the water must be cleaned up within 48 hours and the problem solved. Any mold accumulation must also be cleaned as quickly as possible.

"Many surfaces can be cleaned, but some are porous and must be removed if they have mold," Ms. Reichle says. "Things like ceiling tiles, clothing, carpet, leather, wood, paper, cardboard, books, and wallpaper may need to be removed and replaced because they will have absorbed the mold spores. You don't necessarily need a professional to clean up mold depending on the extent of the problem. Consumers can visit www.toolbase.org for tips on cleaning mold."

Dr. Yost says, "Generally we recommend if mold is found in a small confined area of 10 square feet or less and homeowners want to do it themselves, they can. They can find guidelines from the [Environmental Protection Agency] at www.epa.gov or from the New York City Department of Health or the American Conference of Government Industrial Hygienists [ACGIH] www.acgih.org.

"People should use masks and gloves for protection when they do this," he says. "Basically, the decision on who should do the cleaning depends on the circumstances, such as whether it is surface mold or a wall leak which requires the removal of wallboard. It takes thought about the underlying problem and a consideration of who is living in the home. If there's an infant or someone with a depressed immune system, they should be removed from the home while it's cleaned unless the mold is in an area that's easy to isolate from the rest of the house."

Homeowners and potential buyers are sometimes choosing a testing service to test their homes for mold or to test mold once it is found.

"If you're thinking about buying a home, a home inspector should check out evidence of a water problem and find out if it's a one-time leak or if there's more to the problem than that," Dr. Yost says.

"But we don't recommend having a mold test done because there's no real basis for what's normal, or healthy or unhealthy 99.9 percent of the time mold testing is an absolute waste on money," he says. "The results are difficult to analyze and don't necessarily tell you anything. Once someone has found mold in his or her home, there's no reason to test it to find out what kind it is. People just need to clean up the problem. Money spent on testing is money not available for cleaning up the mold."

Hometest Inc., a Waldorf, Md.-based national environmental testing organization, provides 3,000 inspectors nationwide to look at water problems and environmental problems.

"Hometest provides a testing lab which issues reports to inspectors and directly to consumers," says Jim Bland, chairman of Hometest Inc. "We can tell people what conditions have been found in their home or the home they want to buy, what it means and what needs to be done. Traditionally, our testing is done during a home inspection for a real estate transaction, when someone identifies a moisture problem. If there's visible mold we take a swab of it, and we also do an air sample to give us some guidance as to what may be hidden behind a wall. Then we compare the mold samples to indoor air and outdoor air."

"If the spore counts are elevated or a different type of mold is found than is outside the house, then we know there may be a problem," Mr. Bland says. "Generally, there's no reason to have mold testing done unless one of these red flags turns up: moisture, visible mold or the smell of mold."

A mold screening after a home inspection has found a moisture problem will cost a few hundred dollars, Mr. Bland says. If a potential problem is found, a mold survey, which analyzes potential problems, and a remediation plan to correct the problems costs just under $1,000. Remediation plans from Hometest include recommended cleaning procedures, which vary according to the amount of mold, the building material, the type of mold and whether there is someone with health risks in the home.

People can do the cleanup on their own if the mold is a small area, Mr. Bland says.

"While finding mold should not stop someone from buying a home, people need to be sure to find a water problem, correct that problem and remove the mold before they move in," he says. "A qualified professional should be hired and a clearance test involving air samples should be done after the remediation to make sure all the mold is gone."

Cleaning up mold is a priority, but preventive measures can be taken that reduce the possibility of mold growth, the experts say.

"The number one preventive measure against mold is to clean up water problems as soon as possible," Ms. Reichle says. "Consumers can also keep their home adequately ventilated, make sure they change the filters and maintain their HVAC systems [heating, ventilating, air conditioning], keep dust to a minimum, clean the refrigerator drip pans, keep cardboard boxes and papers out of humid areas of the house, use kitchen and bathroom vents, make sure the clothes dryer is ventilated to the outside, and consider buying a dehumidifier."

"To prevent water leaking into the home, homeowners should make sure the sprinkler system isn't aimed at the house, plant gardens far enough from the foundation to keep water from leaking inside, and make sure to keep the gutters and downspouts free of debris," she says.

Concern about mold has grown because of current media attention, but mold may also be increasing as a problem because of changes in building techniques in the past 50 years or so, observers say.

"Since World War II, builders began using paper-faced drywall and processed wood to build homes, which are more susceptible to mold," Dr. Yost says.

"Insulating the walls and ceilings as much as we do today also decreases the ability for walls to dry out. My analogy is that insulation within the wall is like a sponge. It gets wet like a sponge but it cannot be squeezed out; the only way to dry it out is to warm it up. Another big change is the introduction of air conditioning, which provides cold surfaces where warm moist air can condense and lowers the moisture inside the home. The moisture then increases inside the walls."

Even older homes provided a place for mold to grow, Mr. Bland says, so there is no escaping mold.

"Older homes have more long, slow leaks which can cause mold problems, and newer homes are usually built tighter with less fresh air coming in, which can cause problems, too," he says.

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