Is Mold Growing In Your Home, School Or Office?

Do you struggle with coughs, fatigue, headaches, hoarseness, eye irritation, diarrhea, difficulty focusing, muscle cramps, nausea, skin problems, sinus problems, shortness of breath, or joint pain? If so, you may have mold living in your home, school or workplace. According to the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, more than a quarter of the buildings in the U.S. are water-damaged. Identifying those areas in your home that may be vulnerable to mold is an important first step in protecting yourself and your family from mold-related illnesses.

The Threat

Mold is the collective term for a type of fungus that grows on moist surfaces, especially wherever it's warm, dark, and damp. Mold spreads via spores which, when airborne, can attach themselves to any surface - wood, tile, glass, paper, paint, insulation, upholstery, clothing, dust, and dirt. If the surface is damp, mold will start to grow. According to the EPA, indoor mold growth can be controlled by controlling moisture. Without moisture, the mold spores will not grow. An additional threat to your health occurs as the actively growing mold eats away the surface where it lives, potentially releasing harmful chemicals and bioaerosols into the air.

Mold can cause numerous health problems. That's because mold produces allergens, irritants, and certain molds can even produce toxic substances. Since most contact with mold occurs by inhalation or by touch, your airway passages and skin are the areas mostly commonly affected by mold and mold spores. If you have an atopic illnesses like eczema or asthma, you're even more at risk for developing mold-related health problems. Here are a few of the illnesses known to be caused by mold:

  • Allergic Rhinitis (runny nose)

  • Allergic Sinusitis

  • Allergic Bronchopulmonary Aspergillosis

  • Asthma

  • Interstitial lung disease

  • Allergic skin rashes

  • Fungal infections

The symptoms of mold exposure are similar to other illnesses, making it essential that your healthcare practitioner takes a thorough history of your symptoms, including when and where they occur or are most pronounced. Symptoms related to chronic inflammation from mold exposure can occur and are called CIRS. As defined by Dr. Shoemakers's organization devoted to effectively identifying and treating mold-related illnesses, Chronic Inflammatory Response Syndrome is "an acute and chronic, systemic inflammatory response syndrome acquired following exposure to the internal environemnt of a water-damaged building with toxigenic organisms." This syndrome can also be caused by exposure to the bacteria which causes Lyme Disease.

Where to Look

Mold can grow indoors and outdoors. Mold can also grow in any season. Outdoor mold is a part of the natural cycle of decay, especially with regard to fallen leaves. The peak season for mold allergies is generally mid-summer through fall, but certain molds occur throughout the entire year.

Moisture and warmth are the key ingredients necessary for mold to occur, be it outdoors or indoors. Add to that poor ventilation and you have the perfect conditions for mold to develop. Indoors, mold is most often found in bathrooms and basements. That includes on the surface of shower curtains, shower walls, and any area where air circulation is poor or in rooms that are not aired out regularly. Kitchens and locker rooms are also susceptible to mold contamination.

Mold can also occur in heating and air-conditioning vents. Although air-conditioning generally removes moisture from the air, moisture can accumulate in filters and coils, leading to mold. Drip pans which are not frequently emptied can also become moldy. The same is true of dehumidifiers. If the collection pan is not regularly emptied, it, too, will become a site where mold can grow.

Anytime there has been water damage, mold can develop. Whether it's a small leak coming from your bathroom sink or major water damage, the scene is set for mold to flourish. You can usually recognize mold by smell (a musty or foul or earthy odor) as well as by sight (discoloration on walls, floors, carpets, clothing and other objects found in the area affected by mold).

As soon as you identify a mold problem, take precautions to protect yourself. At a minimum, that means wearing gloves, an N95 respirator mask with HEPA (high-efficiency particulate air) filters as well as a disposable suit and shoe covering, and goggles whenever your enter the affected area. Be sure to use HEPA filters in your vacuum. If you have asthma or other respiratory illnesses or a compromised immune system, do not remove the mold yourself. Instead contact a certified mold remediation company. For more extensive mold contamination, cleanup should be done by a professional mold remediation service (see the list of certifying organizations below for information on contractors in your area).

Mold should be cleaned up within 24-48 hours or as quickly as possible. According to EPA guidelines, cleaning up mold involves:

  • Removing any porous materials from the area and disposing of them properly by placing them in sealed plastic bags.

  • Wet vacuuming contaminated areas. Steam cleaning may be necessary for upholstered furniture and carpets. Consult a specialist if you have questions about how best to clean a carpet, piece of furniture, painting or other contaminated objects. It's possible that mold spores will remain, but if the affected area is thoroughly dried and kept clean and dry, mold will not grow.

  • Cleaning hard surfaces with detergent and water and then allowing them to dry thoroughly. Wood should be cleaned with a wood floor cleaner.

  • Airing and thoroughly drying out the affected area. Open windows and use a fan to ensure good air circulation.

  • Vacuuming with a HEPA vacuum after the contaminated material has been removed and the area thoroughly dried. Place the used HEPA filter in a plastic bag for disposal. You don't want the mold spores to be dispersed through the air as you dispose of the filter.

If the mold is growing in an HVAC duct system, do not run your AC or heat until the source is cleaned or you risk spreading the mold throughout your home, school or office. After the initial cleanup, the cause of the mold must be fixed before the final cleaning can take place.

The decision to seek professional help should be based on the condition of your health as well as the size of the area involved. If you do suffer from any respiratory illness or allergies or are in poor health, you should consult your healthcare professional before attempting any mold cleanup. According to the EPA, moldy areas greater than 10 square feet in size should be cleaned by an experienced, professional mold remediation contractor. See the EPA's website for more detailed information on mold remediation,

Steps You Can Take To Reduce Your Exposure To Mold

As mentioned before, controlling moisture is the key to controlling mold.

Here are steps you can take to reduce your risk of developing mold:

  • Keep humidity below 50%

  • Ventilating rooms by opening windows is important, but remember that if the humidity is greater than 50% outside, the outside air will actually contribute to mold growth.

  • Make sure that appliances like stoves and clothes dryers are well-vented to the outside and that the vents are unobstructed.

  • Use a dehumidifier or an air conditioner, but be sure to empty the collection pan frequently or, in the case of a drainage pipe, keep the pipe patent.

  • When taking a shower, use the fan or open a window.

  • When running the dishwasher or cooking, use the exhaust fan to remove moisture from the air.

  • Keep rooms well-ventilated. Open windows regularly to air out rooms for at least 10 minutes/day and use a fan as needed.

  • Cover pipes prone to condensation with insulation.

  • Wipe dry all areas where condensation occurs immediately.

  • Clean up and dry all wet areas within 24-48 hours.

  • Avoid installing carpeting in areas prone to moisture problems.

  • Regularly look for areas of mold in your bathrooms, kitchen, and basement.