While most people are aware of the health risks that asbestos-containing materials and lead painted surfaces present to home owners and occupants, overwhelmingly the health risks of mold exposure go largely unnoticed. Now this isn’t to say that mold is ignored out-of-hand by the environmental remediation industry, but rather to point out that mold is generally not actively sought in the same proactive manner that asbestos or lead paint is. It is because of this “sleeper” status that mold has maintained through the decades that mold awareness month was founded.
The Environmental Protection Agency recognizes September as Mold Awareness Month to better inform homeowners and occupants of the potential risks that mold presents to their well-being and that of their families.
So, what exactly is it that we are talking about when it comes to “mold?” Mold and mildew are colloquial terms for fungi; naturally occurring organisms that are essential to the decay of organic matter. Fungi, or molds, are a part of the natural environment and ambient levels of mold exists at all times outdoors. However, their presence indoors should be avoided as mold can grow on almost any surface, organic or not, as long as there is organic matter on the surface; think soap scum on ceramic tile. Mold doesn’t photosynthesize; therefore, it doesn’t need sunlight to grow, but rather only a spore and the right temperature; think dark, damp spaces. If water or excessive moisture is introduced, it will speed up mold growth to the point where it will mangle building materials and furnishings, and eventually lead to serious structural damage if left uninhibited. As if the destruction of buildings is not bad enough, exposure to certain types of fungi can lead to serious health effects. While it needs to be said that most typical indoor air exposures to mold do not present a risk of adverse health effects, it certainly exists as a probability as molds cause adverse effects by producing allergens (substances that can cause allergic reactions). The onset of allergic reactions to mold can be either immediate or delayed. Allergic responses include hay fever-type symptoms such as runny nose and red eyes. Additionally, exposure may cause localized skin or mucosal infections but generally do not cause these types of systemic infections in humans, except for persons with impaired immunities such as AIDS, uncontrolled diabetes, or those taking immune suppressive drugs. Molds can also cause asthma attacks in some individuals who are allergic to mold, as well as irritate the eyes, skin, nose and throat in certain individuals. These health concerns are why it is paramount to prevent mold growth and to remediate existing problem areas as soon as they are discovered.
So, with all of this being said, how can your average homeowner or occupant keep themselves safe? How does one prevent mold from afflicting their home and their health? The first steps in prevention begin with moisture control. When water leaks or spills occur indoors act promptly as any water infiltration should be stopped and cleaned within 24-48 hours, and thorough clean-up, drying, and/or removal of water-damaged materials should commence immediately in order to prevent or limit mold growth. Some tips to consider include;
- Repairing plumbing leaks and leaks in the building structure as soon as possible.
- Looking for condensation and wet spots. Fix source(s) of moisture incursion problem(s) as soon as possible.
- Preventing moisture from condensing by increasing surface temperature or reducing the moisture level in the air (humidity). To increase surface temperature, insulate or increase air circulation. To reduce the moisture level in the air, repair leaks, increase ventilation (if outside air is cold and dry), or dehumidify (if outdoor air is warm and humid).
- Keeping HVAC drip pans clean, flowing properly, and unobstructed.
- Performing regularly scheduled building/ HVAC inspections and maintenance, including filter changes.
- Maintaining indoor relative humidity below 70% (25 – 60%, if possible). Venting moisture-generating appliances, such as dryers, to the outside where possible.
- Venting kitchens (cooking areas) and bathrooms according to local code requirements.
- Providing adequate drainage around buildings and sloping the ground away from building foundations.
- Pinpointing areas where leaks have occurred, identifying the causes, and taking preventive action to ensure that they do not reoccur.
By implementing these preventative measures, homeowners and occupants will take a decisive step forward in ensuring that mold will not become a source of financial distress or physical discomfort. However, it is important to remember that if a major mold problem is discovered, be sure that a professional remediation contractor becomes involved at an early stage. This will aid in controlling and confining the mold growth to where it is and prevent the cross contamination of other areas in the building.