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Toxic Molds in Homes, Stachybotrys chartarum

Molds in Your Home Can Cause Health Problems and Structural Damage

The home buying and selling community is abuzz with talk about insurance and liability issues involving stachybotrys chartarum, also known as black mold or toxic mold. Some homeowners have even burned down their homes, and everything in them, because they felt it was the only way to eradicate toxic mold from their surroundings.

Juries have awarded huge sums of money to homeowners who initiated lawsuits against their insurance companies, with most awards given to people whose insurer did not pay for moisture-related repairs in time to prevent severe mold problems. Awards have also gone against home builders when juries felt that shoddy worksmanship contributed to the mold.

Most homeowner policies now include a clause that excludes or limits payments for mold-related issues. While mold is a problem, in most instances its growth can be prevented or stopped before it causes excessive damage.

What is Mold?

Molds are fungi that reproduce by releasing tiny spores into the air. Spores that land on moist objects may begin to grow. There are thousands of different types of mold and we encounter many of them every day, in our homes and outdoors.

What is Toxic Mold?

Toxic mold is a type of mold that produces hazardous byproducts, called mycotoxins. While individuals with asthma and other respiratory problems may have reactions to many types of mold, it's thought that mycotoxins are more likely to trigger health problems in even healthy individuals. These toxins are believed to be linked to memory loss and to severe lung problems in infants and the elderly.

Floating particles of mold are invisible to the naked eye, so it's impossible to see where they might have landed until they begin to grow. Loose mold particles that accumulate on items within a house are easily inhaled and can be a constant irritation to the people and pets who live there.

The toxic mold we hear most about is Stachybotrys chartarum, a slimy, greenish-black mold that grows on moisture-laden materials that contain cellulose, such as wood, paper, drywall, and other similar products. It does not grow on tile or cement.

Even if the mold in your home is not toxic mold, it can still be a problem, because any mold growing on organic materials will in time destroy them--and too much mold of any type smells bad and degrades air quality.

Mold thrives in damp, humid conditions:

  • Bathrooms with poor ventilation. Install an exhaust fan if possible.
  • Leaky water pipes. Repair them immediately.
  • Roof leaks. Repair them right away.
  • Flood aftermath. Repair as soon as possible. See: EPA's Flood Info
  • Clothes dryers and exhaust fans that vent under the house or back into the room. Vent them to the outside.

Flood Damage

Houses that have been flooded are at serious risk for molds, especially in areas when are high humidity and temperatures provide the mold with the perfect place to reproduce before cleanup begins. The houses flooded by the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina--some still sitting in water--are the perfect example of homes that will likely suffer extreme damage from mold.

Help Discourage Mold Growth:

  • Install a dehumidifier in chronically moist rooms.
  • Don't carpet rooms that stay damp.
  • Insulate pipes and other cold surfaces to discourage condensation.
  • Install storm windows to eliminate condensation on glass.
  • Cover crawlspace dirt with plastic and ensure that the area is well ventilated.

Cleaning Mold

Make sure the room is well ventilated before you begin. If the mold covers a small surface area it isn't too hard to clean it with detergent and water. Allow the space to dry, then apply a solution of 1/2 cup bleach per gallon of water to help kill the remaining spores. Never combine bleach and ammonia because the mixture produces a toxic gas. There are products available that are designed specifically for mold. The Centers for Disease Control offers many tips for mold cleanup. Remember that the mold will very likely return unless you elminate the underlying problems that caused it.

Professional Mold Removal

If your mold problem is severe you will likely need the help of a mold remediation company, someone who specializes in mold removal.

Before You Buy a Home

In the past, air quality testing was ordered primarily to detect radon gas, but mold spore tests are becoming more common. Your home inspector might not perform mold tests, but can probably help you find someone who does. In my area mold testing costs between $300-$500 dollars.

If mold is in the air, find out where it's coming from. Mold should be removed and repairs should be made to ensure it won't come back. Talk to your real estate agent or to an attorney to determine if a special contingency should be inserted in the contract that will allow you to back out of the deal if toxic mold or other molds are detected and cannot be thoroughly eliminated. Many standard forms used by real estate agents include the option of a mold contingency.

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