By John Gura Home Safe Environmental

For years mold has been accepted by  most of us as Mother Nature's way of warning us away from spoiled food. Then, a  few years ago, mold must have gotten a press agent.

Headlines about toxic mold and TV news reports on sensational  lawsuits became common. On one national broadcast a homeowner was quoted as  saying her house was so contaminated by toxic stachybotrys that it, "cannot  be cleaned" so she was going to let her local fire department burn it for  practice! Programs like 48 Hours, Primetime and even Oprah have jumped on the  "toxic mold" story.

All of the hype has a lot of  people who can't even pronounce stachybotrys; positive it's lurking under their  kitchen sink. Mold is fast becoming public health enemy number one.

How did this happen?

A complex combination of good intentions and  natural phenomena - each relatively harmless by themselves - have collided to  create today's situation.

Over the past 30 years and in  response to energy concerns, the building industry developed new techniques and  materials that resulted in more energy efficient buildings. These  "tighter" buildings may save fossil fuel, but they can also create  havoc with the human respiratory system. Buildings that can't  "breathe" can't dilute indoor pollutants. So, guess who ends up  breathing all that invisible stuff?

In fact, there is a direct  correlation between tighter buildings and reports of health problems due to  indoor air pollution. Medical researchers have found that mold exposure can  have of a variety of health effects, including allergic reactions.

That is a very basic explanation  of what happened. The main thing to know is that mold should be respected, not  feared.

What is Mold?

The words mold and fungi are often used  interchangeably, but fungi is actually the correct term to use for mold,  mildew, mushrooms, rusts, smuts and yeast.

Molds - or fungi - can be found  almost everywhere; they can grow on virtually any organic substance, as long as  moisture and oxygen are present. There are estimated to be thousands of  different mold types. They all reproduce by making nearly invisible spores that  can become airborne. There are molds that can grow on wood, paper, carpet,  foods, and insulation.

Health Concerns?

Molds produce allergens, irritants, and in some  cases, toxins. People can experience a variety of health problems, such as  headaches, breathing difficulties, skin irritation, allergic reactions, and  aggravation of asthma symptoms.   The type and severity of symptoms depend, in part, on the types of mold  present, the extent of an individual's exposure, the age of the individual, and  they’re existing sensitivities or allergies. Some of us don't seem to be  bothered. While others can have an allergic reaction from just inhaling or  touching mold or mold spores.

Infants and children are among  those most susceptible, as are the elderly and immune-compromised patients,  such as undergoing chemotherapy. If you suspect you are being  exposed to high mold levels and you are concerned about your health, get way  from the contaminated environment and consult a qualified physician who is a  respiratory specialist.

The health effects mentioned  above are well documented. There may be others yet to confirmed. For now, while  many molds have the potential to be hazardous, only a physician can decide if  mold is the cause of your particular symptom or if mold exposure might have any  long term effects on your health.

The key to mold control is moisture control.

I've Got Mold, What Should I Do?  The prudent thing to do is call in a professional, especially if you or someone  in your family is sensitive to mold, has respiratory problems or if you are  concerned about how much or what type(s) of mold growth you have.

The next decision is whether or  not to have a mold inspection. Depending on the situation, it may require  multiple visits and the taking of both air and bulk samples from a number of  locations. With lab and labor charges, a professional mold  inspection/assessment can cost hundreds of dollars.

The good news is you'll know  exactly what you are up against. A report prepared by a trained mold assessment  professional will tell you the types of mold you have, where it is, what you  need to do to prevent future infestations and, most important, the steps you  must take to safely clean it up. Another benefit is that a test taken before  remediation provides a "baseline" to compare with subsequent tests.  This is especially important if there are legal issues involved. On the other hand, if you have  visible mold and all you want to do is get rid of it, you could simply hire a  professional mold remediation contractor. There are no Federal or state  certifications for mold workers, so anyone can claim they are an expert. A few  professional organizations - like the Environmental Assessment Association  (EAA) - have developed certification programs for their members. Be sure to ask  each potential contractor for references and find out what kind of training and  experience they have.

It's also a good idea to ask for  a detailed explanation of how they intend to "attack" the problem. If  you don't hear words like "containment" and "sealed HVAC  system" and "negative air" and "HEPA" coupled with  plans for workers to wear respirators and protective clothing, find another  contractor. Once you are satisfied, get a detailed written estimate and be sure  you completely understand the statement of work.

Abatement costs depend on how  extensive the contamination is. It might cost a few hundred dollars to treat a  section of the concrete slab and replace a rug. Or it could cost thousands to  take a room "down to the studs" to replace Sheetrock on walls and  ceiling, plus carpeting and clean personal belongings.

But, unless there are a lot of  "other" issues, you'll never have to let your local fire department  burn your house for practice. Not because of mold.

Can I do it myself?

If you are determined to take care of your mold  problem without professional help, it's imperative that you understand the  potential pitfalls.

Your battle plan should feature a  two-pronged attack. First, figure out why there is a problem and fix it, and  then clean up the mess. Since mold requires water to grow,  if you eliminate the moisture source you've won the first skirmish. Finding  that moisture source can take a little detective work. Sources can include roof  leaks, landscaping or gutters (or sprinklers) that direct water into or under a  building, hidden plumbing leaks, and excessive vapor emissions from a concrete  slab. As we said earlier, some moisture  problems have been linked to changes in construction practices during the  1970s, 80s, and 90s. Some of these changes resulted in tightly sealed buildings  that may lack adequate ventilation. That can lead to moisture buildup. To be  fair, it's often not the builder's fault. Delayed or insufficient maintenance  on the part of building owners is probably the major cause of moisture  problems.

The second part of the battle -  cleaning up - is a little trickier. Which means it's time for a word of  caution.

If you see mold growing on walls  or carpets or floors or baseboards, etc., DO NOT leap in and start tearing away  at it. A haphazard or ill-advised attempt to remediate mold can create a bigger  problem than you started with!

The rule of thumb is that if you  have a one square foot section of visible mold on a wall, there's likely to be  10 square feet of mold on the other side! So, if you tear into that wall  without sealing up the doors and HVAC vents, without venting room air to the  outside through a HEPA filter, without covering the floor, walls and even the  ceiling with plastic, and without wearing a powered respirator, you might ...   ... release millions of invisible spores into your ventilation system   ... be exposed to a huge dose of potentially toxic fungi   ... contaminate unprotected furniture and personal belongings   ... put your family at risk.

The  point is, be careful. If you want to do it yourself, take a class, do research  on the Internet, talk to professionals, and learn the right and wrong way  before you start.

Bad mold remediation is worse than no remediation at all.

  I don't have a mold problem ... how  do I keep it that way? Mold will begin to grow in wet organic material within  24 to 48 hours. So, any kind of leak or water intrusion should be stopped as  soon as it is spotted. If you find an area that has been wet for longer than 48  hours, it's best to assume mold is present. If it's been wet for over a week,  you can almost count on it and you should proceed accordingly.

I hope this gives you a better  understanding of why mold can be a "big deal." And why, seemingly all  of a sudden, some people think it is public health enemy number one.

For more information, visit these  websites:

Environmental Protection Agency: Information on a wide variety of indoor air contaminants, including biological  (such as molds and dust mites) and chemical (such as environmental tobacco  smoke, carbon monoxide, formaldehyde and others) Centers for Disease Control: provides concise information on mold types, possible human health effects,  where molds are found and recommendations for decreasing indoor mold exposure  at California Indoor Air Quality Program: This site contains fact sheets on several indoor air quality problems including  molds, asbestos, radon, ozone-generating air cleaners, and guidance for hiring  an indoor air quality consultant.

Top  10 Ways to Prevent Mold

  1. Fix leaks as soon as possible.
  2. Perform regular building/HVAC inspections and maintenance.
  3. Watch for condensation and wet spots.
  4. Dry damp spots within 48 hours.
  5. Keep HVAC drip pans clean and unobstructed.
  6. Vent moisture-generating appliances, such as dryers, to the outside.
  7. Maintain low indoor humidity, below 60% and ideally 30-50%.
  8. Provide drainage and slope the ground away from foundations.
  9. Prevent condensation with insulation or increased air circulation.
  10. To reduce moisture, increase ventilation (if outside air is cold and dry),  or dehumidify (if outdoor air is warm and humid)
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