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Renovations & maintenance

Mold is everywhere, but it’s only a problem if an outbreak is ignored

Mold exists throughout the environment and our homes, and is generally harmless. 

But make no mistake: when it latches on to a chronically moist area inside a house, such as a shower, windowsill, or behind the wallpaper, it can wreak havoc and cost tens of thousands of dollars to mitigate in the most severe cases. That’s why it’s vital to detect mold early and act quickly to remove it: not just to avoid property damage, but to avoid costly attorney fees thanks to possibly dubious legal claims. 

Here’s how to find mold, how to get rid of it, and how to prevent it from developing in the first place.

What is mold and where do we find it?

Molds are naturally occurring organisms in the environment that are neither plant nor animal, but are a member of the genus Fungi, which also includes mushrooms, yeasts and toadstools.

With more than 144,000 species, they are among the most widely distributed species on earth and are a necessary player in the life cycle, breaking down organic materials, such as leaves and dead trees. They also live, mostly harmlessly, in the air of your home. 

And many of the foods we eat — cheeses, cured meats, fermented soybeans — rely on mold in their production. They play important roles in biotechnology and food science, and are used in the processes to make beverages, pharmaceuticals and enzymes.

The life-saving antibiotic penicillin, first discovered in 1923, was accidentally found through a mold called Penicillium rubrum.

What should I do if I see mold?

One approach that is not an option when you see mold growing is to do nothing. Since mold is ubiquitous in our environment, once it starts developing on a surface it will continue unless steps are taken to eliminate it.

Experts recommend bringing in a remediation specialist if the area affected is larger than 10 square feet — about the size of a bath towel. No matter the method used to remediate the mold outbreak, the most important thing is to deal with the water causing the growth of the mold at its source. 

Property owners need to be especially wary of mold, according to Billy Wardlaw, senior operations manager at Mynd Management, because of the litigious nature of our society.

“People take advantage,” Wardlaw said. Residents often complain of health effects from mold infestations in an effort to win damages from owners. 

“Property owners need to take it very seriously because at the end of the day it’s going to cost a lot more money if you have to fight a case in court,” he said.

Wardlaw recommends that owners encourage residents to report problems with mold, just as they would any other repair that is needed at a property. In the end, he said, it’s the responsibility of residents to report mold before it becomes a problem, and he and his team will often push back if they fail to do that if the threat of litigation is raised.

Mold and mildew are common in bathroom areas and Wardlaw said there is a simple fix to cutting down on that: leave the door open after a shower, and turn on the vent if there is one for about 20 minutes. Any spots that do appear should be treated with a solution of bleach mixed with water, a chemical cleaner, or vinegar mixed with water.

Is mold a health risk?

There are also concerns about the health impact of molds in the home, but most studies show that most of the more extreme claims of illnesses caused by it are unfounded. (There is still some debate about this.) Since molds fill the air of our homes constantly, most people do not have any reaction to mold unless there is very high exposure rates.

Wardlaw said every state has different regulations when it comes to mold, with California’s being among the strictest.

The phrase, “black mold,” does have an ominous connotation, but in reality there is no single type — many molds are black. The term usually refers to a type called Stachybotrys chartarum (S. chartarum), also known as Stachybotrys atra. There is no scientific evidence that links exposure to S. chartarum as more dangerous than exposure to any other type of mold.

There are about a dozen types of mold that are routinely found in the home, and they become problematic only when allowed to grow unchecked.

According to a report in the Clinical Reviews in Allergy & Immunology in 2017, “toxic mold syndrome” or “toxic black mold” are exaggerated by the media and have no basis in science. The report says there is no evidence that exposure to black mold in apartments, homes, buildings causes memory loss, inability to focus, fatigue, and headaches that were reported by people who believed that they were suffering from “mycotoxicosis.”

Research from 2019 found no evidence that mycotoxins in the air cause disease. However, the guide from the E.P.A. warns that mycotoxins are “potentially toxic” and can cause allergic reactions in sensitive individuals.

Still, those who are immunocompromised or are allergic do suffer from some health effects if they are exposed to very high levels of mold. Those symptoms include

  • coughing
  • wheezing
  • nose stuffiness
  • red or itchy eyes
  • skin rash
  • sore throat
  • difficulty breathing

There is also evidence that children exposed to high levels of mold in the home and from mattresses were at higher risk of asthma. There is no shortage of lawyers willing to take on a case from residents complaining about the health effects of exposure to mold. This is a costly process owners should take aggressive steps to avoid.

When mold enters the walls

Moisture meters can be inserted into walls to see if there is water present when mold appears on a surface. If it is caught soon enough, Wardlaw said, the affected area can be removed and the rest of the wall can be salvaged.

But with the recent floods in Texas, he has seen houses where the wall boards all need to be removed because they got wet and could not be salvaged. (Repairs on this level can run from $25,000-$45,000, depending on the size of the home.) In some cases, fans and dehumidifiers can be deployed to dry a house out, but that has to be done shortly after a flood or water damage occurs. If there has been a leak behind a wall that goes undiscovered, extensive damage from mold is not uncommon.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency recommends that porous materials such as carpets, ceiling tiles or drywall be thrown away if they harbor mold. Mold can infiltrate porous material so it may be impossible to remove completely through cleaning. It can sometimes colonize moist areas behind wallpaper, another costly fix.

A serious mold outbreak can leave a lasting stigma on a house and depress the resale value. A history of mold will discourage a lot of buyers. There are five conditions that call for a mold specialist:

  1. Your home has sustained water damage: Mold spores thrive when there is water damage, such as flooding, snowmelt coming in through the basement, or a broken water pipe broke that went unnoticed. A mold assessment team can inspect any water-damaged areas.

  2. You can smell mold: Mold and mildew have a distinct odor, similar to the smell of a musty basement. Often, the odor is faint. If the smell is off in areas of a home, and there is moldy/mildew scent, there might be a problem that is not visible.

  3. The mold is visible: If you see mold growing, it’s evidence of a problem. Mold often has a green or yellowish tint, but it can also appear black, brown, red, pink, white, and even purple or blue. Any curious stains or growths in the home should be monitored. If it looks strange and it’s expanding, there’s a good chance it’s mold.

  4. Your humidity is too high: If your home is typically on the humid side, it’s not surprising to see mold growth after a while. Mold thrives in humid places.

  5. You’ve been in this situation before: Mold is resilient. People often think that by cleaning up visible mold, the problem will be solved. However, mold colonies often spread to areas of the house you cannot reach, such as between walls or into the ductwork. A mold removal specialist is your only option. 

Controlling moisture is the key to keeping mold under control

Here are the steps for moisture control from a guide published by the E.P.A.

  • When water leaks or spills occur indoors, dry them within 24-48 hours after a leak and in most cases mold will not grow.
  • Make sure the ground slopes away from the building foundation, so that water does not enter or collect around the foundation.
  • Keep drip pans clean and the drain lines unobstructed and flowing properly.
  • Keep indoor humidity low. If possible, keep indoor humidity below 60 percent (ideally between 30 and 50 percent) relative humidity. An inexpensive ($10-$50) humidity meter is available at many hardware stores.
  • If you see condensation or moisture collecting on windows, walls or pipes act quickly to dry the wet surface and reduce the moisture/water source. 
Getting rid of mold with natural cleaners

Though bleach and other chemical cleaners are effective in eliminating mold, some homeowners may prefer to avoid using them in favor of more environmentally friendly methods.

Here is a guide to a three step method for attacking mold with natural substances, using four ingredients and two glass spray bottles:

  • Vinegar and tea tree oil
  • Baking soda
  • Hydrogen peroxide

For really resistant mold, mix two parts baking soda, one part white vinegar and one part water and make a paste. Spread the mixture on the moldy surface and let it dry, scrubbing away the mold with a toothbrush before wiping it down with water.

Cities where mold problems tend to arise

Seattle is a city with a major risk for mold. (Credit: Getty Images)

Several cities where Mynd operates, including Seattle and Portland, are particularly susceptible to mold because of their wet climates. Property owners there need to factor into their maintenance costs a program to keep mold at bay.

Water management is a big issue in the Pacific Northwest, particularly a city like Portland that gets up to 36 inches of rain during the wet season. If there are problems with water in a home, mold is often not far behind. 

Wardlaw reports seeing cases of mold outbreaks in homes where the heat is kept on high during the winter and a house stays closed up. The warmth inside a home will cause a window to sweat, and as that moisture drips into a window sill, rot and mold have a chance to develop.

He has a bit of simple advice to avoid this: open the windows on occasion to air out a house, even in winter.

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