Managing Mold

This Deadly Toxin May Already be Affecting Your Home

In the fall of 1994, Cleveland pediatrician Dr. Dorr Dearborn got in touch with the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) because of a small but alarming set of cases in which infants were sickened or dying from unexplained lung hemorrhages. As Dearborn and the CDC studied the 10 cases, a connection appeared: Each of the infants lived in homes with large amounts of potentially toxic molds.

Fatal incidents of infant lung hemorrhages have been linked to toxic mold in the home.© Steven Winter Associates

Since 1993, Dearborn cites 47 cases of unexplained lung hemorrhages in infants in northeastern Ohio. Sixteen of those infants have died. Of the 32 babies Dearborn and his colleagues have treated, he says, "Ninety percent have come from water-damaged homes containing toxigenic fungi and environmental tobacco smoke." (Dearborn says smoke appears to trigger the hemorrhages, but the molds cause the underlying damage.)

The initial CDC field study found a very strong correlation between the molds and the hemorrhages. But when officials revisited the numbers in 1999, they decoupled some parameters and found a lessened—but still statistically significant—link.

The Mold Connection

The dramatic CDC study vaulted molds and their effects on human health into the public limelight. They got even more publicity when toxic crusader Erin Brockovitch battled a serious mold outbreak in a California mansion she bought with film earnings. But even your grandmother knew that mold wasn’t good for you. "It’s a very reasonable, prudent position to say don’t live in a moldy environment," says Dearborn.

Mold spores float around both outdoors and indoors, and usually don’t cause problems for most individuals. Concerns do arise, however, when molds settle into your home and expand.

Molds need water to grow, and thrive in places with chronic leaks. The molds implicated in the Ohio cases all grow on organic materials, including wallpaper, wallboard (sheetrock), carpets, and even organic dust that can gather in corners or on insulation behind walls.

Although Staychybotris atra has hogged most of the attention among potentially toxic molds, several common types can release toxins into the home environment. But not all molds are toxic, and even molds that can produce toxins don’t always do so.

Nevertheless, many molds can irritate or sicken sensitive individuals such as infants, the elderly or asthmatics. Even healthy people can get headaches or dizziness from molds; some may develop allergies after long or repeated exposures.

Attack the Source

Most health officials say homeowners shouldn’t worry which kind of mold they have; they just should get rid of it. The Minnesota Health Department recommends addressing home mold problems by first finding the source of the excess moisture—anything from a leaky roof or chronically overflowing bathtub to cracks in plumbing. Wet materials should be dried—or discarded—if heavily infested.

Remove mold gently, taking care not to disperse the spores. Use a non-ammonia cleaner, as ammonia can interact with disinfecting bleach to create toxic chlorine gas. Officials recommend wearing gloves, and sensitive or concerned people may don masks. For large problems or exact mold identification, homeowners may prefer to hire professionals. After cleaning, disinfect the area with a bleach solution (10 parts water to one part bleach). Distilled vinegar, either straight or diluted in water, works to eliminate and prevent recurrence of some but not all molds. You can also use AFM’s Safe Choice X-158, a clear, nontoxic sealer that blocks mold growth.

After cleaning and disinfecting, stay on watch for mold’s return. The CDC recommends keeping indoor humidity below 50 percent with dehumidifiers or air conditioners. Keep carpets out of bathrooms. Good ventilation also helps, as do cleaning products that include mold-killing vinegar or bleach.

Most problems are small and easy to correct, but Dearborn says that the news about toxic molds has led to some hysteria. "People are frightened by small amounts of mold," he says. "And since we don’t know a great deal about it—and the medical science has not advanced much on it—the litigation has flourished."

In 2001, California passed laws requiring disclosure of mold problems during real estate deals. (Dearborn says to rely on your nose anyway.) And 40 states have or are considering laws to set safety standards for molds.

"It’s not like being exposed to lead or asbestos," Dearborn says. "There are hundreds of species of molds, and the prudent approach is to avoid a moldy environment and to keep ahead of it."

ORNA IZAKSON watches for toxic mold in rainy Eugene, OR.