Mold an unwelcomed, unhealthy house guest

ORIGINALLY WRITTEN JANET HAMOUS
While a little mold on the bathroom tile or in a forgotten dish in the refrigerator is nothing to be alarmed about, when mold starts appearing in other parts of your home, it calls for immediate action.

“All mold is bad mold and you should get rid of it,” said Gary Boesker, owner of Boesker Home Inspections Inc. in Canton. “When it grows in your house, it is out of place.”

The right mix of temperature, time, moisture and a food source are all that is necessary for mold to grow and get out of control.

Boesker said mold grows on organic materials, dust and cellulose products such as paper and gypsum wallboard, which are plentiful in homes.

“We build our houses out of a lot of these materials. Everybody has Sheetrock in their house. You put it in your basement, you put it in your bathroom-two high-moisture areas,” he said. “All we have to do is add water and we’ll have mold, given the right environment.”

Boesker said mold spores are naturally present in the air and are activated when they get wet. When the humidity percentage exceeds 50 percent, there is a potential for mold growth.

“In our houses, we run about 50 percent, so we’re already pretty close,” Boesker said. “We don’t need much more to bring it to a point where it’s mold friendly. It’s rather simple; if you add water, they will come.”

Boesker can tell you horror stories of homes he has inspected where Sheetrock walls were heavily covered with black mold and where the fuzzy material was thick on furniture, cabinets and the insides of drawers, but mold isn’t always that apparent.

“You may not even know about it,” he said.

Identifying a problem

Although a mildew smell is a good indication you have a problem, you can’t always smell mold, Boesker said.

“In the last six homes in a row I inspected, six of them had a problem,” he said. “I only smelled two of them that hit me in the face. The other four, I had to look.”

Boesker begins his search with a visual inspection.

“There’s a way I can look for mold in a real simple way with my flashlight,” he said. “I put the flashlight along the wall, shine it along the wall, and I can look for fuzzy stuff growing out the wall. You don’t put the light straight at it-you won’t see it as well.”

Since mold cannot live without moisture, Boesker hunts for clues that might indicate a moisture problem.

“I look for it behind beds, I actually pull up some carpet and look at the tack strip,” he said. “I pay attention to the rust on the nails.”

He said the culprit is often the heating and air system.

“You have a moisture situation and a breeding ground in your heating and air ductwork,” he said. “If mold is present in those systems, it can intersperse it evenly throughout your home because it is coming out your air vents.”

He said if you can actually see the mold, the problem might actually be much larger than what is visible.

“Let’s say you have a piece of Sheetrock in the basement and you see a spot on the wall that’s black or another exotic color. You don’t really know how big a problem you have until you take a look on the other side,” he said.

“You’re going to find that the back side is an exponentially larger area of a problem. You’re going to have more surface area behind the wall that is damaged.”

But because mold spores are invisible to the naked eye, it sometimes eludes even the most thorough visual inspection.

Air-quality testing

“If you are having respiratory issues, or you smell mold but you can’t find it, you can have a test done and it will tell you what’s in your air,” Boesker said.

To do the testing, Boesker uses an air pump.

“We suck air through it into small vials and I capture a snapshot of what was in the air at the time I took the measurement,” he said.

Boesker takes both indoor and outdoor samples.

“We’d do a baseline outside and as many tests inside as prudent to gather information,” he said. “We’re going to want a sample if you have a heating and air system.”

He can also insert a tube behind a wall to test that area.

The samples are sent off to a lab for analysis and Boesker receives a report of types and levels of contaminants.

“The report will tell you a whole lot more than just mold,” he said. “Everything that bothers humans, on an average, will be sampled in that air vial.”

A homeowner’s sniffles and sneezing may not be the result of mold but a reaction to pollen, cat dander, or even copier toner.

“My report will actually tell you the type of contaminant and where it’s commonly found in a home,” Boesker said. “So I have a place to start looking.”

When mold is indicated, Boesker said it is often traced to the basement.

“With gravity, that’s where the water goes,” he said.

Walls are also a frequent problem because of window leaks.

Regardless of the location, mold problems can usually be attributed to poor maintenance, Boesker said.

“Water is really a maintenance problem,” he said. “You may have a person who is older and not able to care of their maintenance needs. They don’t go downstairs.”

Remediation

Once a mold problem is located, the next step is to fix it. That process is twofold, involving both the removal of the mold and fixing the water problem that caused the mold to grow.

“Once there’s mold, it won’t go away by itself. So it needs to be removed physically,” Boesker said. “The mold’s going to come back again as long as the moisture source keeps coming.”

If the problem comes from a plumbing leak or faulty air handling system, the necessary repairs should be made.

Removing the mold may be a trickier proposition.

Boesker said if the problem is small, a person might be able to tackle without professional assistance.

“There is a certain amount of surface area that is acceptable-if it’s something you can put in a small bag of trash and throw it out a door,” he said. “If it becomes more than a trash bag full of waste, that’s not a small area.”

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency says, “If the moldy area is less than about 10 square feet, you can handle the job yourself.”

They recommend scrubbing mold off hard surfaces with detergent and water and allowing the surfaces to dry completely. They suggest donning protective clothing, including goggles, long rubber gloves and a N-95 respirator mask before tackling the job.

A large job may require the assistance of a mold remediation specialist.

When you are dealing with mold on wallboard or wall, you have to remember the area is actually double because the mold is present on both sides of the surface, Boesker said.

“Then of course your Sheetrock’s nailed to your studs, and then that gets into the framing and it goes on from there,” he said. “So it may be just one little spot, but by the time you get done it could be very large project.”

A professional remediation specialist uses a variety of techniques to get rid of the mold, Boesker said.

“Some can be spray-painted over,” he said. “But most of the time, they’re not going to want to encapsulate it so much as they’re just going to want to throw it out the door.

“They’ll come in and they’ll isolate the area from the rest of the home that’s not affected and then they’ll attack the damaged area head on by basically pulling it out of the house. They bag it, and away it goes.”

Real estate inspection

Since mold remediation can be expensive and destructive to a home’s interior, understandably few homebuyers are interested in purchasing a home with a mold problem.

Boesker recommends hiring a home inspector to evaluate the property before you purchase a home and specify that the inspection include air quality.

Because mold can be invisible and affects people differently depending on their sensitivity and health, you cannot rely on a home seller’s assurances that there isn’t a mold problem, he said.

“Just because the person moving out didn’t have a problem doesn’t mean you’re not going to have one,” he said.

“You’re not them, and you’re going to live in the house differently than they did. There may be more of you or less of you, you may have different habits, and you might spend more time doing one thing or another.

“Some people with asthma or other inhalant problems are more susceptible to air-quality problems. So if there is a problem, find out before you buy it.”

Although the EPA says the human reaction to mold varies from person to person, even small amounts of mold may cause allergic reactions in those who are sensitive to it.

Boesker has seen instances where a mold problem broke the real-estate deal.

“You have to inhabit the house, and if you have a house you can’t live in because of the air quality, then you made a bad choice,” he said.

New construction

You shouldn’t assume a house is clear of mold just because it’s new either, said Boesker

“Newer homes are built tighter and certain types of construction will create an environment for mold growth,” he said.

If you are building a home, mold prevention should be a factor in your choice of building materials and construction techniques.

“It starts when you build,” Boesker said. “You have to think about water proofing from the ground up and paying attention to detail.”

He said a pre-wallboard inspection is a good time to catch potential problems.

“After you Sheetrock, you won’t know until the test of time,” he said.

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