Scientists have found more than 1,000 different varieties
of mold inside North American homes and public buildings. Even though only a few
types of mold, such as stachybotrys and aspergillus, release toxins into the air
along with the spores, they could be making you and your family sick.
Nosebleeds, memory loss, disorientation and other
neurological problems, fatigue, headaches, asthma attacks and other respiratory
problems are some of the health issues blamed on molds. In a study published in
1999, Mayo Clinic researchers concluded that mold causes most chronic sinus
infections. And doctors at the Mount Sinai School of Medicine in New York City believe
there is a relationship between exposure to stachybotrys and problems with
memory, learning and concentration.
The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention states
that molds can cause nasal stuffiness, throat irritation, coughing or wheezing,
eye irritation, or, in some cases, skin irritation. People with mold allergies
may have more severe reactions. Immune-compromised people and people with
chronic lung illnesses, such as obstructive lung disease, may get serious
infections in their lungs when they are exposed to mold.
In 2004, the Institute of Medicine (IOM) found there was
sufficient evidence to link indoor exposure to mold with upper respiratory tract
symptoms, cough, and wheeze in otherwise healthy people; with asthma symptoms in
people with asthma; and with hypersensitivity pneumonitis in individuals
susceptible to that immune-mediated condition.
The IOM also found some evidence linking exposure to damp
indoor environments in general to shortness of breath, to respiratory illness in
otherwise healthy children, and to potential development of asthma in
susceptible individuals. In 2009, the World Health Organization issued
a comprehensive guide to the health effects of mold and what to do about it, (see below for a link to the full report), stressing the
prevalence and importance of respiratory symptoms, allergies and asthma, as well
as immune system problems, as a result of mold exposure. The document notes that
the most important means for avoiding adverse health effects is the prevention
(or minimization) of persistent dampness and microbial growth on interior
surfaces and in building structures.
Mold can be making your family sick. Some people have
sued their builders, ripped down or even burnt their homes in order to get rid
of what lurks in their walls.
That sort of evidence of the health effects of exposure to
mold is causing a lot of problems for builders, municipalities and health care
officials...and creating quite a bit of business for lawyers. One group of
lawyers working together to represent mold victims has received 1,000 calls from
prospective clients in the past year alone.
mold received significant coverage after environmentalist Erin Brockovich
testified to a state Senate committee that her newly built Los Angeles-area home
was infested with mold and that she had sued the builder. Television personality
Ed McMahon sued his insurance company for $20 million, claiming that mold in his
Beverly Hills home made him sick and killed his dog. A host of other lawsuits
and legislative options are under way in other places, and the concern is
In North Carolina,
mold in the walls between new $300,000 townhouses forced the builder to rip out
and replace the walls, at an estimated cost of over $100,000. Owners have been
reluctant to talk publicly about what may lurk in their walls, for fear their
homes will lose value.
In 2001, a Texas
family was awarded $32 million by a jury that ruled that the homeowner’s
insurance company had failed to cover repairs properly after a leaky pipe caused
the growth of the mold stachybotrys.
The owner testified before Congress and founded a group
called Policyholders of America, which identified tens of thousands of
mold-related insurance claims nationwide since 1999. As a result, companies that
sell homeowners insurance have begun to limit or eliminate mold coverage in some
There seem to be many reasons for both the incidences of
ill-health from and the increase in awareness of the dangers of mold. Some newer
building materials – like paper-coated drywall – retain moisture, unlike
traditional materials like plaster. We’re sealing our houses tighter to save
energy but not always ventilating properly. And during new housing booms, the
push to reduce construction times has resulted in less drying time for concrete.
In addition, we have become more aware of the quality of our indoor air and are
starting to make connections between mold and previously undiagnosed illnesses.
Some families have even resorted to burning their homes
down to get rid of mold infestations. If you suspect your problem is that big,
consult an expert. (See the organizations and government departments listed at
the end of this article for referrals.)
Mold thrives on moisture and “food,” such as wood, paper or
stale bread. It can hide in walls, under carpets, and in crawl spaces – anywhere
a leaky pipe or other source of moisture gets it started. Winter is the best
time of the year to check for indoor mold. If you can smell a musty or earthy
odor, mold may be present. You may also be able to see the dark discoloration
produced by mold growth. Look especially closely at areas that have been damaged
by water. While not all stains are mold-related, those that are fuzzy or
expanding and green to black in color are likely due to mold, especially if the
area has been damp.
To identify a spot of mold, dab it with a drop of chlorine
bleach. If the color changes or disappears, the stain is likely organic and
probably a mold. And don’t forget that once you have found a spot of mold on the
floor, wall, or ceiling, there may well be mold growth that you can't see.
Cleaning up mold can be almost as
dangerous as having it in your home.
While moisture is the cause of your mold problem, you need
to carefully add more moisture during the cleanup process so the spores don’t
spread through the air. It is best not to vacuum, since it may increase your
exposure to mold spores, which can pass through ordinary vacuum filters and
remain suspended in the air for hours or days. Central vacuums that vent outside
or vacuums fitted with HEPA filters will help minimize this exposure.
Scrub mold off hard surfaces with bleach and water then dry
completely. Do not use an ammonia detergent at the same time you’re using
bleach, since the mixture will release dangerous chlorine gas. Mold can be
cleaned from wood and gyproc with a 10 percent to 30 percent solution of
hydrogen peroxide applied with a spray bottle.
While you’re working, wear gloves and a respirator to avoid
breathing in mold or mold spores. Remove people and pets from the area.
Moldy porous materials such as books, carpet, furniture
ceiling tiles and wallboard may need to be discarded. Washable drapes that can
be safely bleached may be salvageable. Dry-cleaning should be done by a
professional who knows how to remove molds.
Finally, eliminate the moisture that caused the mold to
grow in the first place. Check your home’s humidity levels by buying or
borrowing a hygrometer and watching the changes that occur throughout a typical
day in different rooms of the house and over the heating season. One of the most
common sources of mold growth is poorly maintained humidifiers, dehumidifiers,
air- conditioning units and filtration systems.
If you are renovating, here are some tips that should help.
Ensure that lumber or drywall is dry when installing it. Add insulation around
cold surfaces to reduce the possibility of condensation. Ensure that rainwater
drains away from the building through downspouts and proper landscaping. Provide
ample and properly sized venting fans in kitchens, bathrooms and laundry rooms;
make sure these vents are going directly outside. Don’t use vinyl wallpapers in
high-moisture areas, as they can create a vapor barrier that traps moisture in
the wall, where mold will grow.
US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention Mold Information
WHO Guidelines for Indoor Air Quality: Dampness and Mould
Environmental Protection Agency Mold Guide
Canada Mortgage and Housing Corporation
National Association of Home Builders Mold Tips
The Doctor’s Book of Home Remedies for Airborne Allergies: 100 New Cures for Symptoms from
Pollen, Pets, Dust, and Mold by Mary S. Kittel (Editor), (Rodale Press, 2000)
MOLD: The War Within by Kurt and Lee Ann Billings (Partners Publishing, 2010)
Mold Warriors: Fighting America's Hidden Health Threat by Ritchie C. Shoemaker (Gateway Press, 2005)
What Every Home Owner Needs to Know About Mold and What to Do About It by Vicki Lankarge
(McGraw-Hill, April 2003)
Toxic Mold! Toxic Enemy! By Douglas R. Haney (Haney Communication Services, 2000)
Wendy Priesnitz is the Editor of
Natural Life Magazine and a journalist with over 35 years of experience.
She has also authored twelve books and experienced illness as a
result of mold exposure.