Reactions to mold range from the nonchalant to the full blown alarm mode. Where does the truth lie? What do you need to know about health and safety?
A few questions:
- Do you have someone in your home whose health is affected by mold or who has asthma?
- Do you want to do the best you can to make your home free of mold?
- Are you comfortable if pesticides are used to clean up the mold, or would you prefer a healthier, still effective product?
If you have answered yes, you need to go further than industry guidelines. Most inspectors and remediators only go as far as industry guidelines. You may need to fill in the gaps of what a typical mold inspector does not do. You may need to have suggestions of healthier products for your remediator, who may be unaware of them. Remediators typically use cleaning and encapsulation (sealing) products with pesticides (also called biocides, fungicides, and mildewcides). Most of my clients don’t see the logic of getting rid of one pollutant only to introduce another. I recommend healthier products.
The mold industry typically is happy with a visual inspection for mold, along with several spore trap air tests. A successful remediation job leaves behind no visible mold, removal or treatment of contaminated surfaces, a well cleaned area, and satisfactory lab results from spore trap sampling.
With spore trap sampling, the inspector uses an air pump to draw in a volume of air through a cassette. This air impacts on a sticky surface in the cassette, which is then forwarded to a microbiology laboratory. At the lab, they count the spores that have been trapped on the sticky surface. I like to see raw counts, especially for Penicillium/Aspergillus, in the single digits for cleaned areas.
Spores are the tiny reproductive bodies produced by mold. Think of mold as the plant, and the spores as the seeds. Spore trap sampling counts the seeds.
Beyond industry guidelines
Spores are not the only mold particulates that can affect health. Other biologically active particulates include mycotoxins and microparticles. Further, as mold grows, it gives off gases, and these gases can affect your health. These gases are known as MVOCs, or volatile organic compounds produced by mold.
Some mycotoxins are quite potent. For example, trichothecenes, from molds such as Stachybotrys, Memnoniella, and Trichoderma, have been linked with pulmonary hemorrhages in infants and neurological damage in all ages.
A half dozen microparticles have been identified as inflammagens, that is, a small exposure can set off an inflammatory cascade in the body of the sensitive individual. Conventional remediation following industry guidelines typically results in the release of many microparticles that are too small to fall to the ground due to gravity. The microparticles remain suspended in the air, buffeted about by air molecules. It is estimated that there are 500 microparticles for every spore.
As you learn about mold control on a budget, you need to factor in the level of care to be taken during remediation, whether professional or your own. Are you comfortable with just the level of spores being brought down and contaminated materials removed, or do you want to go the extra distance and also remove mycotoxins and microparticles?
If you choose the latter, which is the healthier approach, here are your options:
If you are undertaking do-it-yourself remediation, follow the first steps of remediation, but before final cleaning, turn off the negative air machine and follow the Weatherman protocol (see below) for glycerin-based fogging/wipe down. This fogging attracts microparticles and drags them through gravity to the floor/walls. Shortly thereafter, all surfaces in the work area (area of containment) are wiped down with an alcohol preparation to remove microparticles and mycotoxins.
If you are planning to work with a mold remediation company, make sure that they are willing to do the fogging/wipe down steps, using the Weatherman protocol and products. Most fogging products contain a pesticide and should not be used in a healthy home. The Weatherman fogging product is glycerin-based. The project manager will need to carefully review Greg Weatherman’s instructions and call him with any questions. A new fogger of a designated size is required and is available at cost through Greg (approximately $350). (I have no financial interest in these products.)
Please note that depending on circumstances, if mold particulates spread into carpeting and upholstered furniture, and perhaps mattresses, these items may need to be discarded.
Risks of conventional mold remediation
- The air in your home may be left more contaminated with microparticles after remediation than it was before because neither negative air machines nor HEPA vacuums can remove suspended microparticles and mycotoxins.
- A sensitive person may not be able to tolerate the home afterwards because of the remaining microparticles and mycotoxins.
- Medical tests may continue to show inflammation due to exposure to mold, even after successful conventional post-remediation testing to show satisfactory reduction in spore counts.
When I first conveyed the information about microparticles to a referring physician who treats many Lyme disease patients, her response was, “I have long suspected something like this.”
One client had remediation done at an apartment near Lincoln Center in New York City. Several rooms were gutted, and a careful cleaning job was done under negative pressure and containment. Still, the client experienced respiratory and neurological reactions when entering the remediated apartment.
The apartment was subsequently cleaned, and then cleaned again. No luck. Every time the client attempted to stay in the apartment for any period of time, she was soon reactive and had to leave. Finally, after the equivalent of three remediations, having no other choice, she sold the apartment.
Several years after this, I learned about the work that was being done with microparticles and remediation and share this information with my client. “That’s it! I’m sure there had to be some particles remaining that the cleaning wasn’t able to get rid of. If we knew about microparticles back when that work was done, I could have kept my apartment.”
You can learn a lot more at this site about mold control on a budget, but you have just encountered your first major decision. Will you go with industry guidelines, or will you take the healthier route, beyond current industry guidelines, with the final fogging/wipe down?
If the latter, you will need to review the websites below and become very familiar with the instructions for the fogging protocol so that you can explain what you want to your remediator, or follow them yourself.
Resources relating to the Weatherman protocol:
Now let’s consider some of the common perceptions about mold.
- Myth: “Mold is everywhere.” Yes, mold spores are everywhere. Open a door and they float in. Walk outside, and some may land on your clothing or be carried into the house on your shoes. Any air testing will invariably show some mold.BUT, what you don’t want is mold GROWTH in your home. Why? Because when it grows, mold gives off various kinds of mold particulates (which are biologically active, i.e., they can contribute to symptoms) and gases, also biologically active.
- Myth: “Mold has been around forever, so why make a big deal of it now?” Houses used to be drafty, so fresh air was continually blowing through, dissipating mold particulates and gases. Modern houses are tight. Basements used to be buffer zones between the house and the ground; now many of finished, providing nutrient matter for mold. Houses used to be built of better quality wood. Modern houses have been called “self-composting houses,” because of the softer wood products like strandboard and other types of pressed wood.Not only are modern houses typically at higher risk for mold, but because they are tight, the mold gases and particulates get trapped in the house. Our heating and air conditioning systems usually recycle the same stale air.
Studying the effects of environmental mold on individuals is a relatively new branch of science. Research only gained impetus around 15 years ago, when a lawsuit and clusters of infants with pulmonary hemorrhages brought mold exposure to the public’s attention.
- Myth: “In mold testing, the total levels of spores indoors should be lower than the total level in the outside sample.” This comparison is largely irrelevant. You have to know the species of mold to know if the indoors mold blew in from the outside. Spore trap testing doesn’t tell you the species.Example: If there are 100 spores per cubic meter of Aspergillus tereus indoors and 200 spores per cubic meter of Aspergillus ustus. The way I read those results is that there is suspected contamination with A. tereus inside, and the outside counts don’t matter.
- Myth: “All black mold should be cleaned up professionally.” Not so. There are a half dozen types of common black fungi (mold) in homes. The most common is Cladosporium, the type of mold that might grow on a shower curtain, ceiling of a bathroom, window sill, and refrigerator gasket. Mold on any of these places are probably homeowner maintenance tasks – just wipe the mold off with some Borax sprinkled on a damp sponge.
If there is black mold on drywall due to a water leak, that’s a different story. That may be Stachybotrys which maybe should be professionally cleaned up (though some homeowners will do it successfully themselves).
Now that we have addressed some of the mold myths, where does the truth lie?
Here’s what we know about exposure to mold:
- Many individuals are robust and think that they are not bothered by exposure. (“Lady, we’ve been in a lot worse than this. We don’t need respirators.”) The trouble is, you don’t know when such an attitude can catch up with you. Some molds can grow in sinus and lung tissue… and beyond. Some common molds can be lethal.
Story: From a guy who had done energy rating for a living.
Gill found my website and called to say that he thought I should know his story. He was working as an energy rater at houses and as part of that job, often he had to be very close to heating vents, covering and uncovering them, taking measurements. No one had told him to wear a respirator when doing that.
He began to have headaches, which were eventually diagnosed as caused by a fungal infection in his brain (Aspergillus mold). After surgery to remove the growth, he was left with epilepsy. Then the mold showed up in his lungs. Common antifungal medications weren’t working. Then the FDA approved a stronger medication, V-Fend, and that seemed to be working at the time of his call.
The problem with anti-fungal medications is that what harms mold harms us too, because we are made up of the same compounds as mold. I wonder how Gill is doing now, some years after his call. These meds are hard on the liver and kidneys. Prevention is by far the safer course. Wear a P100 or N95 respirator (available from a local home supply store). Gill called so that I would warn people. He was concerned about your health and safety. Take heed.
- An estimated 25% of the population has gene mutations that make it harder for them to excrete mold toxins. Since for the most part, we don’t know who that 25% might be, it’s better to act proactively. Take precautions instead of unnecessary risks.
- Some molds give off mycotoxins that can affect anyone, regardless of their genetics. Mycotoxins from Stachybotrys, the so-called “toxic black mold,” have been used in germ warfare. Some mycotoxins have been associated with neurological damage (memory issues, loss of ability to multi-task, etc.) that may or may not be permanent.
- Mold gives off spores (tiny reproductive bodies) that can be allergens or sometimes grow in human tissue (and in cat and dog tissue). Much smaller particulates, known as microparticles, come from mold, too – especially during demolition. A half dozen types of microparticles have been identified as inflammagens. That is, a small exposure to microparticles can set off an inflammatory cascade in the body out of proportion to the small exposure.
- Some people seem to do fine with mold but end up in the emergency room later on because they can’t breathe. Others react, sometimes severely, to products used in their home.
What you need to do if you decide to clean up mold yourself:
- Protect your family. Is someone in fragile health? asthmatic? Make very sure you know what you are doing because your actions could end up contaminating the whole house with mold particulates. Maybe the sensitive individual should be out of the house while you work.
- Protect yourself. Wear a P100 or N95 respirator, available from a home supply or hardware store. Wear protective clothing as needed.
- Protect your home. Separate the work area from the clean area with containment. Containment is like erecting a temporary polyethylene-plastic room around the work area. Ideally, you would set up negative pressure, or an air scrubber. See the remediation section for more on this. You want the direction of air flow to be from the clean area to the dirty area through an air cleaner filter and out to the exterior. This will prevent mold particulates from spreading throughout the house.
- Decide on the products you will use – with or without fungicides (pesticides).
- Decide whether you will go a step beyond industry guidelines, with glycerine-based fogging.
But before you get started with remediation, or hire a remediator, you need to figure out where the mold is and how extensive it is. Meet me at the Do-it-yourself Mold Testing tab!