In 1982, my husband and I bought a vacation home in the foothills of
the Catskills. The inspector who checked out the property failed to note
three critical facts: The house had three flat roofs (in snow country),
no drainage from the muddy crawl space and no insulation under the
In a few years, ours had become a “sick” house, with mini-lakes on
sagging roofs, wet insulation underneath and a small pond in the crawl
space. All of it contributed to rampant mold inside the house.
My husband was especially sensitive to mold, and he reacted with
extreme fatigue whenever we visited. My sister-in-law, who lived in the
house year round, complained of chronic headaches and sinus problems. I
could smell the mustiness, and found mold growing on the wood cabinets
and a leather love seat.
The moisture problem had to be fixed. Slanted roofs were constructed;
wet insulation was replaced; downspouts were directed away from the
house. We fitted the crawl space with a drain and a heavy plastic vapor
barrier, and the floors above it were insulated.
Mold had to be removed from furniture and cupboards and their
contents. Clothing was dry cleaned, or washed and heat-dried, to get rid
of the odor.
Natural disasters like Hurricanes Katrina and Sandy left hundreds of
thousands of people with flooded homes that quickly became infested with
mold, unlivable and sometimes unfixable. Given moisture, mold will grow
and reproduce behind wallboard, paneling, wallpaper and furniture, in
ceiling tiles and insulation, on wood floors, around appliances like
refrigerators and dishwashers, and under carpets and pads if not quickly
But as my experience demonstrated, you don’t need a flood to develop a
mold problem. It can happen anywhere moisture is present — a hidden
leak, for example, or condensation around windows or pipes. You may not
even be aware of the problem, only the distress it causes.
Typical symptoms resemble those of an allergy like hay fever: a runny nose, sneezing, red or itchy eyes, throat irritation and coughing. Some people develop a skin rash; those with asthma may have an attack. According to research by the Mayo Clinic, an immunological response to mold may cause most cases of chronic sinusitis.
Mold can even infect the central nervous system, often fatally, as occurred in a 2012 outbreak of meningitis from epidural injections contaminated by Exserohilum rostratum. Of the 751 people infected across the country, 64 died.
The types of mold usually found in homes do not produce dangerous
toxins. But they can bring misery and are best controlled by preventing
Molds are a type of fungus, and they grow by releasing spores into
the air. The spores are not visible to the naked eye, but when they land
on a moist surface (or when the surface they are on becomes moist),
they begin to grow. Outdoors, molds play an important role in the
decomposition of organic matter, like leaves and fallen trees.
Even the driest buildings contain mold spores, and those with indoor
moisture may have thousands in every cubic foot of air. The spores are
ubiquitous and can survive extreme dryness and cold, remaining dormant
until moisture and oxygen provide a chance to grow.
These measures can reduce the buildup of indoor mold:
■ Fix leaks immediately, and thoroughly dry the affected area.
■ Regularly clear debris from roof gutters.
■ Keep air conditioner and refrigerator drip pans clean.
■ Insulate cold-water pipes.
■ Use an air conditioner or a dehumidifier, or both, and change the
filters regularly to maintain a relative humidity below 60 percent. (The
lower, the better.)
■ Vent appliances like clothes dryers that generate moisture to the outside.
■ Use an exhaust fan or open a window when washing dishes, cooking or showering.
■ Keep crawl space vents clear.
Do not use carpets in potentially moist areas like a laundry room,
bathroom and basement. Replace sponges and dishcloths often, or wash and
dry them with the regular laundry.
Roof leaks can be especially challenging, leaving wet insulation and
moisture behind walls. Roofing is best restored or replaced on a
schedule before a leak occurs.
Keeping a house warm suppresses mold growth. Alas, my house still
gets musty in winter; to save oil and money, I set the thermostat at 55
degrees when I’m not there.
Some people, especially those with severe allergies,
chronic lung disease or suppressed immunity, are affected by outdoor
mold in compost piles, cut grass and wooded areas. When cleaning the
yard and raking or sweeping dead leaves, they should consider wearing a
face mask or an N-95 respirator (a fancy dust mask that costs $12 to
Cleaning up mold requires care. Limit your exposure by wearing
goggles, a face mask and long rubber, neoprene or PVC gloves. You need
not use chlorine bleach;
soap and water, or a nontoxic commercial cleaner and a scrubbing sponge
or brush, will work well on hard surfaces. Dry the area thoroughly
If you do use a bleach solution (no stronger than one cup of bleach
to one gallon of water), never mix it with ammonia or a product that
Do not paint over or caulk moldy surfaces. Clean away the mold first, and then use paint with a mold inhibitor.
Porous materials like ceiling tiles and carpets that have become
moldy can be difficult to clean adequately and usually must be replaced.
You may need a professional contractor skilled in mold cleanup if the
affected area is larger than 10 square feet. The Environmental
Protection Agency recommends checking references and making sure the
contractor consults its guide, Mold Remediation in Schools and Commercial Buildings, available at www.epa.gov/mold. The agency also provides a guide to cleaning contaminated heating and air conditioning systems.
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