Do you need to worry about the effects of household mold?

By Tara Drach

Household mold has become a leading topic in recent weeks, regularly featured in newspaper headlines and as a regular subject of local and prime-time news shows.

So should Kyrene Corridor residents be concerned about the possibility of mold in their homes and its affect on the health and safety of their families?

It depends on whom you ask.

While some recent East Valley mold cases have been blamed for a variety of health problems, including deaths, mold experts say most cases are blown out of proportion.

“Some people are legitimately sick due to mold exposure,” says Russell Nassof of the Valley-based Environomics.

“But most cases aren’t that bad. Most people only have allergic reactions. Most mold-related health issues are blown out of proportion.”

Laura Davis of Environmental Response agrees.

“Serious mold-related illnesses are very rare. While toxigenic molds, such as stachybotrys, aspergillus and penicillium subspecies, are commonly found in homes with water damage, they rarely cause severe or life-threatening illness.”   

According to the Arizona Department of Health Services, most people are exposed to mold spores daily without evident harm.

However, exposure to extremely high levels of mold can cause increased allergic reactions, asthma and other respiratory problems, especially in infants, children, the elderly, individuals with compromised immune systems, pregnant women and those with existing respiratory conditions.

According to the National Center for Disease Control, mold spores grow naturally in an indoor environment.

So, if there is mold all around us, what exactly causes common, everyday mold spores to grow into a huge problem?

Simply put, it’s undiscovered and unaddressed dampness and excess moisture in a home that allows mold to grow beyond normal levels, according to the experts.

“Mold is found everywhere in our environment,” says Davis. “Every time we breathe we are inhaling some mold, but it will not grow if there is no water source.”

The excess moisture needed to grow mold might seem unlikely in Arizona’s dry climate.

Not so, says Davis.

Unfortunately, experts cite Arizona’s climate as the perfect environment for mold-- never hot or cold enough to destroy growth. It’s a perfect breeding ground for molds.” 

If this is the case, why haven’t Kyrene Corridor residents been combating mold growth for years?

Although mold has been around for thousands of years, it is being labeled as the environmental problem of the new decade.

“You can find mold references in the Book of Leviticus,” said Davis. “Ancient Roman text documents the dangers of eating moldy grain; the great potato famine was a result of a fungus called ‘late blight’ and led to an estimated 750,000 deaths,” she says.

“As to why it is now such a hot topic, aside from the fact that there is more of it and we are able to better understand the problems it causes, the media has taken the high profile cases and put them on prime time.

“Additionally, people are seeing mold as a way to get something. Small mold problems are being blown out of proportion and people are making money,” said Davis.

Environmental Response, the company Davis works for, has been dealing with mold projects since 1996, and has participated in more than 200 residential mold cleanups.

“In the past few years we have seen a significant increase in the number of mold projects. This is due in large part to the increase in media coverage. Additionally, we are able to better assess situations and determine problems through sampling and investigations, which 10 years ago were not available or understood,” she says.

While cleanup-and-testing companies are increasing their revenue, several home- insurance companies doing business in Arizona are increasing their premiums by as much as 15 percent, 2½ times the national average.

“They say a high number of homeowner claims, particularly those related to mold and water damage, are causing the increase,” said Davis.

“Their reaction is not only the increase in premiums. Several companies have written exceptions into their policies and won’t cover such losses, which include mold or water damage.”

Kyrene Corridor resident Deedee Hessler knows this first hand. Her unoccupied, recently purchased home caught  fire while the roof was being repaired. Excess water from extinguishing the fire led to mold growth. Her house remains uninhabitable and her insurance company is not paying.

While Hessler’s case is extreme and could not be prevented, most causes can.  

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency states that the key to mold control is keeping an eye on moisture. Water-damaged areas and items must be thoroughly dried within 24 to 48 hours to prevent mold growth.

“Homeowner insurance policies were never meant to be used to pay for maintenance or construction-defect issues,” said Davis.

“Homeowners will need to be more proactive in their approach and the upkeep of their homes. They will have to prove that mold damage was caused through no fault of their own and was a sudden issue.”

Some insurance companies are still writing coverage for mold, but the premiums are much higher. Other insurance carriers are writing mold coverage endorsements to their basic policies for additional premium charges. Davis predicts that all insurance companies will endorse this policy within the next few years.

In order to avoid this insurance nightmare, homeowners must control excess moisture in their homes.

“Most commonly, water comes from problems with indoor plumbing, such as leaking pipes, toilets, dishwashers, water heaters, reverse osmosis systems, other appliances and leaking roofs,” said Davis.

And, if left undetected, mold can cause major problems, including severe damage to household items, producing a strong odor and causing structural damage to a home.

Even so, the Arizona Department of Health Services does not recommend the Kyrene Corridor resents begin testing their homes for mold.

Davis agrees.

“With all of the hype and craze of mold, we are receiving calls from people on a daily basis with concerns about mold and questions as to whether they should have testing done.

“In almost all cases, if there has not been a water leak or flood, there is no reason to have testing done. Remember, mold will not grow without water. Testing is a valuable tool in helping to determine the extent of mold contamination and the extent to which mold is airborne, but it is not a perfect science and should be used only as part of an investigation for mold.”

As a homeowner, there are some things you can do to help determine if you have a mold problem:

Look for visible growth, signs of excessive moisture or water damage (water leaks, standing water, water stains and excessive water bills);

Search behind and underneath materials if they have been wet;

Look behind pictures or for signs of new patterns on wallpaper;

Search areas with noticeable bad or musty odors;

Check around heating and cooling appliances for standing water;

Inspect moisture and condensation on windows or around doors, cracking drywall, peeling or cracking paint and warped wood.

In addition, Davis recommends not carpeting bathrooms, kitchens, laundry rooms or other areas, which frequently get wet, and removing or replacing previously soaked carpets or pads.

If you find mold, what should you do?

In most cases mold can be removed by cleaning the surface with bleach and water.

If contamination is excessive you will need a professional to do the clean up. 

According to Davis, mold spores are typically 10 to 100 times higher during the cleaning of mold damaged materials so it is essential when cleaning large areas to have someone with experience doing the work. 

“The last thing you want is to have a small problem become a large problem.

Selecting qualified people to evaluate and fix the problem can be difficult.

Davis recommends asking the following questions:

What is the contractor’s prior experience? Does the contractor carry microbial remediation liability insurance? Do they have references? Are they licensed and bonded?  Do they offer independent third-party post testing?

“The federal government has not published any regulations for the investigation and remediation of mold, they only offer guidelines so having a qualified contractor is critical to ensuring your mold problem gets fixed right the first time,” said Davis.