The Good, Bad, and Ugly
Images of mold may include week old bread, a nasty shower stall, or tasty blue cheese atop a salad. Sometimes mold is beneficial, as with trash decomposition or when ‘penicillium’ converts to a health-restorative drug. But, anyone who has dealt with mold inside of their home knows it is an unwelcome irritant that brings a cloud of concern to property and health.
In a dry climate like Colorado, one might assume that mold is not an issue. With over 100,000 types and species, the ubiquitous microorganisms grow everywhere, in all climates. Molds are a common part of nature that thrive on organic matter; however, problems occur when hidden reservoirs proliferate mold growth inside of a home or workplace.
Mold Causing Conditions
There is a big difference between mold existing in an outdoor environment versus it mushrooming in your home. According to Laura Schumpart from the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment (CDPHE), “When humidity, dampness, and a ‘food source’ is available, mold reproduces rapidly, inside walls and foundations, with millions of invisible spores infiltrating the enclosed environment.”
Catastrophic incidents such as flood and hail that breach a roof, attic or foundation, create avenues for mold. Construction defects can cause ineffective ventilation, plumbing leaks, or inadequate caulking. Crawl spaces exposed to ground water can be another harbinger for mold.
In dry climates, seepage from sprinklers can pool against foundations, without rain being a factor. In colder seasons, if insulation is lacking, condensation can run down walls and around wood windows. Also, mold can thrive on dust build-up in an HVAC system’s lining, fiberglass, and crevices.
If unattended, molds eventually damage buildings and furnishings, warns Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), leading to structural damage that weakens floors and walls, as it feeds on moist wooden structures.
Not all molds are equal; most species are benign, but OSHA estimates 100 typical indoor molds that potentially create health problems.
Allergists and immunologists frequently hear claims of mold-related illnesses. “There are a lot of anecdotal symptoms, but it is difficult to pin it on mold,” says Dr. Daniel F. Soteres of Asthma and Allergy Associates. “The threshold of irritant response depends on a variety of factors, the level plus length of exposure, combined with individual sensitivities.”
Molds produce allergens that cause hay fever-type symptoms such as sneezing, runny nose, and red eyes. Most susceptible are individuals with respiratory conditions and weakened immunity.
Some species of molds, such as Stachybotrys Chartarum (aka black mold), produce mycotoxins that are a subject of ongoing debate. In an effort to determine scientific facts about indoor mold, a committee at the Institute of Medicine examined health effects of exposure. They found allergic responses, but no evidence linking mold to any long-term disease. (However, they could not rule out the possibility because of some compelling data.)
If you Google “mold toxicity” it leads to pages of symptoms; chronic fatigue, inflammation, gastrointestinal disorders, even cancer and brain damage. But, most Physicians cannot make the causal connection between mold and major illness.
“This is because there is currently methodological uncertainty, lack of quantitative samplings, and no conclusive evidence,” Dr. Soteres explains. “The effects could just as easily be overlaid with anything from fibromyalgia to depression.”
Many who have experienced living in high concentrations of mold, however, find correlations to health impacts very real.
Julie Thomas, of Nashville, Tennessee, suffered unexplainable muscle aches, fatigue, and shortness of breath. After visiting medical specialists, who diagnosed a variety of conditions, her symptoms persisted. After years of suffering, she was diagnosed with breast cancer.
Thomas noted when she left the house for extended periods, her conditions improved. Skeptical, but desperate, she researched a company to test her home for $400 and discovered Aspergillus/Penicillium mold (to which she is allergic) propagating in the HVAC system.
Thomas opted to tear down the house, destroy contaminated furniture and clothing, and completely rebuild. She also credits doctors who she describes as “having an investigative spirit” in helping her recovery.
“My immune system was low, and inflammation high from fighting mold, so I do wonder if it made me susceptible to cancer.” Thomas suggests, “if you have unexplained health issues, advocate for yourself and consider mold testing. It’s worth knowing.”
Moisture Control is Key
Preventing mold is better than dealing with it, says Schumpart. Catching and drying moisture promptly is essential, along with these steps:
• Dry leaks and condensation immediately (mold grows within 48 hours).
• Ventilate kitchen and bath.
• Slope yard so drainage is away from home.
• Keep relative humidity between 40-50%. Use a hygrometer (at hardware stores) to check levels. Run AC or Dehumidifier.
• Clean air-ducts and change filters frequently.
If mold remediation is necessary, evaluate the extent of the problem. If you choose to hire outside contractors, ensure they have experience and references.
“There are no best practices or regulations specific to mold, or known ways to eradicate it 100%,” cautions Schumpart. “Testing is also problematic because it is a snapshot of variables, and conditions do fluctuate. So, it is important to research companies because many attempt to capitalize on ‘toxic-mold hype’.”