Residential Inspections & Thermal Imaging throughout the Greater Seattle area including King County, Pierce County, & Snohomish County.
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Mold in the Home
Mold is a blanket term used to describe a diverse group of fungi that grow in the form of multicellular strands called hyphae. Mold is one of the most ubiquitous life forms on the planet; avoiding it is impossible. Spores are found on every surface, in every home, on our clothes and pets and in the air we breathe. It has evolved to survive the harshest conditions (including the vacuum and high radiation levels of outer space) and is impossible to eradicate. Fortunately it is harmless in most situations, but we definitely don’t want it taking up residence in our homes. Given that mold spores are omnipresent, how do we keep it from growing and thriving in our dwellings and work spaces?
All mold requires one thing to grow and reproduce: moisture. Mold can grow on any surface, even plastic, glass and metal, as long as there is moisture present. All it takes is an invisible layer of dust to provide enough organic matter for mold to thrive. The key to eliminating and preventing mold growth is controlling moisture in the environment. All indoor air quality (IAQ) issues relating to mold are caused by defects in the structure and/or building systems that allow moisture to build up in some area of the building.
What You Should Know
Numerous media reports on links between mold, particularly “toxic black mold” (Stachybotrys chartarum), and serious health issues have fueled widespread concerns about the dangers of mold exposure. While there are no definitive links between mold exposure and serious illness, there is enough available evidence to conclude that it can cause negative health effects, particularly in vulnerable members of the population like the elderly, infants, the immunocompromised, and those with asthma. Mold can also trigger allergic reactions, including a potentially serious condition known as hypersensitivity pneumonitis. About 300 species of fungi are known human pathogens, and some will produce mycotoxins, metabolites that can be poisonous when inhaled, ingested or absorbed through the skin. Molds also produce potentially harmful gasses known as volatile organic compounds (VOCs). Given this information, it’s no wonder that people have grown fearful of the perceived dangers of mold in their living spaces. These fears are now being taken advantage of by a host of “professionals” offering expensive yet inaccurate testing as well as remediation services that may or may not actually be effective or even necessary. My mission as a licensed home inspector is to provide my clients with as much information as possible so they can make informed decisions. Due to the often fearful reactions people have when mold is found, home inspectors are typically reluctant to even use the “M” word, let alone discuss it with their clients. They may note the presence of “possible fungal growth” and recommend “further evaluation by a qualified professional” as a hedge against potential liability. This is an understandable approach given the litigious environment we operate in, however it does the client a great disservice. Professional inspectors often use the credo “Inspect, report, explain, refer” to guide our process, and I think mold should be fully explained as part of a thorough and complete home inspection.
Remediation and Testing
While there are rare cases of serious mold contamination in which the source of the problem isn’t readily identifiable, the conditions that cause mold growth indoors are generally easy for a trained professional to locate. During a standard home inspection most issues involving excess moisture inside the home will be identified; simply correcting these issues will typically prevent future mold growth. After identifying and correcting the source of the moisture, it is necessary to clean mold from contaminated areas and remove materials that cannot be cleaned.
When performing these tasks it is important to utilize personal protective equipment including gloves, respirators and eye protection. Saturated drywall, wet insulation and rotten wood need to be replaced. Wall to wall carpeting is next to impossible to clean as dust accumulates underneath it in the carpet pad; removing it is generally a good idea. Using strong chemical fungicides isn’t necessary to clean mold from surfaces, basic household cleaners or distilled vinegar are generally sufficient. Natural cleaning products containing thymol have also been shown to be very effective. Spray the surface, scrub thoroughly, wipe it down and let it dry out completely. Scrubbing the affected areas is the most important step when removing mold, simply spraying it with a disinfectant is not nearly as effective. While mold will not grow without moisture, its spores and metabolites (including mycotoxins) can still remain and become airborne. Situations where mold has created an air quality issue may require a whole house cleaning including wiping surfaces, vacuuming with a HEPA filter equipped vacuum, and replacing HVAC filters. Often people will hire a specialty cleaning service to perform this task. Some experts recommend hiring a mold removal specialist for any visible mold patches larger than 30 square feet. The EPA also has a helpful guide for cleaning mold from your home.
Professional mold testing can be very expensive and the widely available home tests sold to consumers are all but worthless. Even the most expensive, high tech mold testing can produce misleading results. The results of these tests can be useful but only when they are administered by an experienced technician as part of a broader testing protocol. Generally speaking, if you have visible mold growth, you don’t need to test it. The only time I recommend testing is when occupants of the building are experiencing respiratory symptoms possibly related to contaminated air and the source of the contamination isn’t identifiable or when the home is so thoroughly contaminated that testing should be used as part of the remediation process. In these situations I would recommend a complete IAQ evaluation, as there are contaminants other than mold that can have detrimental effects on human health. When hiring an IAQ testing professional you should choose an established environmental services company with their own laboratory and staff scientist. This will ensure that you get the most accurate test results possible. As with any home project, hiring the right professional for the job is key to getting the outcome that you desire.