Mold, Moisture and Tropical Living
For folks living in Florida, few words invoke as much fear as ‘black mold’(‘Nuclear Attack’or‘Category 5’being two exceptions). But the reality is black mold is not as common as many people think, and just because mold is present in the home does not guarantee those living there will get sick. However, some people do feel effects from mold –effects that can range from mildly irritating to much worse if mycotoxin-producing black mold is actually present. And since the symptoms are similar to those caused by a cold, many people attribute their symptoms to the flu when it is actually being caused by mold. So what to do if you discover something warm and fuzzy growing under the sink? For the answer to that question, we went to the experts.
According to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), "Molds produce allergens (substances that can cause allergic reactions), irritants, and in some cases, potentially toxic substances (mycotoxins). Inhaling or touching mold or mold spores may cause allergic reactions in sensitive individuals. Allergic responses include hay fever-type symptoms, such as sneezing, runny nose, red eyes, and skin rash (dermatitis). Allergic reactions to mold are common. Molds can also cause asthma attacks in people with asthma who are allergic to mold. In addition, mold exposure can irritate the eyes, skin, nose, throat, and lungs of both mold-allergic and non-allergic people.”
Mold is so common here in our high-humidity tropical climes because it needs moisture in order to grow, and if there’s one thing air in Florida has in abundance, it’s moisture. It can be found anywhere there’s water, especially around leaky sinks and toilets and often grows out of sight inside walls if water is leaking there.
"There are actually 200,000 species of mold, so when people tell me they’re ‘allergic to mold’, I say, ‘what type?’”said Russell Hensel, a Mold Assessor whose company –Comprehensive Building Consultants –has been testing for the stuff for over 30 years. "Black mold, or Stachybotrys chartarum –produces mycotoxins that can be dangerous to humans, but is really not all that common –it takes significant amount of water and time for it to grow. If your house floods and you clean it up, it won’t be there unless you let the water sit there for forever and a day. And even when black mold is present, it only adversely affects one third of the population. You can literally have a house full of the it, but only one family member gets sick.”
That is exactly what happened to one of our readers, who did not want his name used. He told us he was actually having seizures –something he initially attributed to other health issues because his roommates were fine - until a leak was discovered in the ceiling that had caused a monster crop of black mold.
"This is the type of thing that most people are terrified of, and it makes the mold remediation companies a lot of money,”Hensel said. "The best thing to do if you think you have symptoms is to leave your house for 8-10 hours. If you feel better, than you may have a mold problem –though it is impossible to tell what kind of mold is present without calling a professional, and by that I mean a licensed mold assessor –not someone who works for a mold removal company as there are many scam artists out there. A true mold assessor is an unbiased entity who will evaluate the situation and write up a protocol for how to get rid of it, then follow up to see if it’s gone.”
According to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), Black mold is usually greenish black in appearance and somewhat slimy, but can also be grayish with a powdery texture if the colony’s water source runs out.
To tell if black –or any other kind of mold –may be growing, just sniff. Mold produces a musty, earthy smell - like dirt and rotting leaves –and black mold smells especially strong. All molds need food, water and a dark, stagnant environment with temperatures that neither freeze nor boil to grow. Excessive moisture on or around building materials - possibly even dark rings on drywall indicating moisture damage –means the conditions are ripe for mold.
Karen Swanbeck of Keller Williams Realty, Fort Myers and the Islands, is quite familiar with all types of mold.
"In Florida, it’s something you see all the time, and people should be aware of steps they can take to keep it under control,”she said. "For instance, for awhile we were seeing people set their air conditioners on warmer settings or even turning them off when they weren’t home. That’s not good, because you want to keep the air flowing to prevent mold from growing –it likes hot, humid conditions. Also, be aware of any kind of water leaks and check your water bill –if it’s gone up for no reason, there’s probably leakage in the walls and that will cause mold.”
So what is the first thing to do once mold is spotted?
"Determine what the cause is and fix it,”Hensel said. "Then, if the area is less than 10 square feet, put on a long sleeved shirt and gloves and wipe it off with mild detergent and water. Be careful to rinse the sponge after each wipe to not release spores into the air.”
If the mold returns, or if someone is getting sick, then Hensel says it’s time to get it assessed.
"For tenants, I’d recommend calmly approaching their landlord to tell them you suspect a problem,”he said. "Do it in an email or letter so there’s a record, and tell them right away –I’ve seen a lot of situations where the landlord sued the tenant to clean up the mold because they didn’t report it immediately and allowed it to get worse. For property owners, call a reputable mold assessor and have them evaluate the problem.”
Hensel told us that the EPA’s website, www.epa.gov/mold, is a great resource for those who’d like to learn more.
"I’d be happy to help, too, I do it all the time because there’s a lot of misinformation out there and I don’t like to see people get taken advantage of,”he said. "Just shoot me an email and I’ll answer any questions I can –Russell@bestinspector.com.”Keri Hendry Weeg