The quality of the air inside our homes and offices is just as important as the quality of the air outside. According to the US EPA, Americans spend 90 percent of their time indoors breathing in pollutants that may be 2 to 5 times higher in concentration than the outdoors. Exposure to tobacco smoke, pet allergens, carbon monoxide from faulty furnaces and hot water heaters, radon, mold and poor sanitation can all cause health problems.
One of the most concerning and asked about indoor air pollutants is mold. Mold is a common type of fungus that thrives in moist, warm conditions both outdoors and indoors. It is a necessary part of the world we live in. Anything that comes from a plant or an animal is broken down by mold. Usually mold appears as fuzzy or slimy shaped dots in several possible colors – blue, green, yellow, brown, gray, black or white. Each colony of mold growths produce tiny, microscopic “seeds” called spores. These spores can travel through the air until landing on a moist surface where they begin to grow and multiply. When humans come in contact with the mold spores several different reactions can occur, some more severe than others. You may develop allergic reactions such as wheezing, asthma attacks, sinus congestion, dry, hacking cough, burning or watery eyes, sneezing fits, bloody noses, skin rashes or hives, headaches, memory loss, mood changes, and even body aches. Some people are unaffected by mold but others who have a mold allergy can have severe reactions from even a small amount of mold spores. Those at higher risks for severe health effects from mold are infants, children, immune compromised patients, pregnant women, individuals with existing respiratory conditions, and the elderly.
If you can see mold growth and/or smell a musty odor, you likely have a mold problem and there is a potential health risk to you and your family. Mold testing or air sampling is typically not necessary if mold growths are visible. It is more important to find the cause of the mold and to clean it up than to spend money on expensive mold tests.
You cannot eliminate all molds from your home but, you can control the growth of mold by taking these preventive measures inside and outside your home.
Improve air flow inside your home. When warm, moist air quickly cools, it releases the moisture that was in the air. In our homes these cooler areas are in the closets, window and door frames, or behind furniture. To improve air flow and equal out the temperature differences, open closest doors and move furniture slightly away from the walls. In the summer season use an air conditioner, and consider installing central air conditioning with a high-efficiency particulate air (HEPA) filter attachment. Change filters on your furnace and air conditioners regularly. Have forced air heating ducts inspected and, if necessary, cleaned. Eliminate sources of dampness in basements, such as leaking plumbing or groundwater seepage. Seal or fix any basement wall cracks. It is also recommended to use a basement sealer on the interior walls. Prevent moisture with proper ventilation. Cooking dinner, taking a shower, or drying a load of laundry will cause a high moisture level inside your home if there is no ventilation. Remember that mold must have warm, moist conditions to grow. Install or repair exhaust fans in bathrooms and kitchens. Use a dehumidifier in any areas of your home that smells musty or damp. Keep the humidity (moisture) levels between 40-60 percent. Remember to clean the collection bucket and condensation coils regularly. Promote good drainage away from your house by removing leaves and vegetation from around the foundation and cleaning out rain gutters. Toss or recycle old books and newspapers. If left in damp places, such as basements, they can quickly become moldy.
If you find mold in your home you can safely clean it up on your own. The following are tips for cleaning or removing visible mold. Stop the moisture. Fix plumbing leaks and other water intrusion problems before cleaning. Remember, mold has to have moisture to grow. Scrub mold off hard surfaces with detergent and water. DO NOT MIX BLEACH AND AMMONIA CONTAINING PRODUCTS. The mixture creates a toxic vapor. Disinfect areas with a solution of water and bleach (½ cup of bleach per gallon of water) to prevent mold from reoccurring. Straight bleach will not be more effective and will likely damage the surfaces. Let these areas dry naturally. This extended drying time is important to prevent future mold growth. Surfaces should be completely dry within one to two days. Absorbent or porous materials, such as ceiling tiles, carpet and drywall, may have to be thrown away if they become moldy. Mold can grow on or fill in any porous materials, so the mold may be difficult or impossible to remove completely. During the cleaning process, avoid exposing yourself or others to mold. Wear old clothes and shoes that you can launder or throw away after the cleanup work. Wear a mask or respirator, in addition to goggles and gloves. Turn off your furnace and air conditioner and cover ducts and doors to contain mold spores.
Steve Swatzel, RS, is director of Environmental HealthReach at the Meigs County Health Department.