Molds are fungi that can be found both indoors and outdoors. No one knows how many species of fungi exist but estimates range from tens of thousands to perhaps nine hundred thousand or more. Mildew is a synonym for mold. Molds grow best in warm, damp, and humid conditions, and spread and reproduce by making spores. Spores can only affect a human when they are breathed in or orally ingested. Spores are so tiny they cannot be seen with the human eye and float in the air currents. Only when they are in large enough concentrations on a surface can they been seen, but they do not have to be seen to cause illness.
There are three basic categories of mold: Allergenic, Pathogenic, and Mycotoxic. Allergenic molds primarily affect only those people with mold allergies. Pathogenic molds also affect those with compromised immune systems as well as the young and elderly. Mycotoxic mold, sometimes referred to as “toxic” mold, can affect any healthy adult and is the most severe.
Mold comes in many colors – black, gray, white, yellow, orange, brown, blue, green, etc. You cannot determine the toxicity of any mold by appearance – only by analysis by a microbiologist under a microscope. Some black colored molds are dangerous and some are not. The same can be said for any color of mold. What some people mean by “black mold” is stachybotrys mold which is dangerous and often black in color, but may lurk in other substances that appear white or gray or any other color.
For people affected by mold, exposure can cause symptoms such as nasal stuffiness, eye irritation, coughing, wheezing, skin irritation, asthma, emphysema and flulike symptoms. Some people may suffer reactions such as fever and shortness of breath, lung infections, and in more severe cases, mold has been linked to permanent memory loss and cancer.
Molds are found in virtually every environment and can be detected, both indoors and outdoors, year round. Mold growth is encouraged by warm and humid conditions. Outdoors they can be found in shady, damp areas or places where leaves or other vegetation is decomposing. Indoors they can be found where humidity levels are high, such as basements, bathrooms and in attics which are usually improperly vented. They also may be in kitchens around refrigerators and sinks, or any other room where there was a plumbing leak or spill or around windows where condensation occurred.
No, not necessarily. The “moldy” smell is caused by certain molecules that are also present in wet paper and other things that do not contain mold. When it is caused by mold, it is from the gas emitted by the spores as a defense mechanism against other spores. The only way to find out if that’s what it is, or just a musty smell from paper or cardboard or wet wood is by air testing.
Yes. Mold oftentimes gives off no odor at all. In fact, if you had any moisture infiltration and you don’t see or smell anything, you may still have a mold problem. Mold spores may be floating around in the air. They are so tiny, you cannot see them and they are lighter than air. To protect the health of you and your family or employees, you should have air testing performed
Inside homes, mold growth can be slowed by controlling water infiltration, humidity levels and ventilating showers and cooking areas. Water should NEVER be permitted to seep into the basement. A waterproofing system can be installed or a civil engineer can be consulted for water control. Make sure no water leaks in through the roof or flashing, or any penetrations in the siding, doors or windows. Keep humidity levels as low as you can—no higher than 50%–all day long. An air conditioner or properly sized dehumidifier will help you keep the level low. Bear in mind that humidity levels change over the course of a day with changes in the moisture in the air and the air temperature, so you will need to check the humidity levels with a hygrometer. Roofs should have a ridge vent and soffit vents that are not blocked by insulation or paint, and if needed, an exhaust fan, or they should be designed to be conditioned space with closed-cell foam insulation. Consult an engineer for specifications.
First of all, you cannot identify mold simply by looking at it, so even if you are positive it is mold, it may not be. (see “Mold Myths” below). You should contact a qualified mold testing company (or mold assessor) that does not do any remediation and have them test it. The sooner you do this, the better, because if it is mold, it can rapidly get worse and be more expensive to clean up.
A qualified testing company or “mold assessor” (one that does not do any remediation)* should visually inspect the house or building, take air samples – an outdoor control or baseline sample and any number of indoor samples, and if any suspected mold is visible, swab or tape lift samples, and submit them to an independent laboratory. If the results are positive, they should write a treatment protocol or action plan that also identifies the source and provides recommendations to keep the mold from returning. A separate remediation company should do the cleaning, then the testing company should be called in to perform a clearance test to make sure the mold levels have been reduced to a satisfactory level.
A mold assessor will use a vacuum pump that is attached to a spore trap by a tube. The pump is turned on for typically 5 minutes and collects between 75-100 liters of air. The spores and other particulate in the air are trapped in the spore trap attachment or on a prepared microscope slide that has a sticky substance one side that traps the solid particulate. The slides or spore traps are then shipped to a lab for analysis.
Air samples tell whether you can get sick from mold exposure by breathing it, as well as whether it is on other contents in a room such as furniture, rugs, appliances, and other furnishings and belongings. Swabs are only taken when there is something visible that looks like mold and tells you whether it is or not. Sometimes the swabs are positive but the air is negative, which means remediation is a smaller, less expensive proposition. To summarize, both methods are important to determine whether there is mold, where it is, what the cause of it is, and how to properly clean it. Only by collecting sufficient data can a prudent action plan be drafted.
Mold testing is primarily based upon the number of samples taken because not only does it take additional time to collect them, but the lab charges to analyze each one. There is no way of gauging how many samples will be needed until the tester/assessor goes to the jobsite. Anyone who quotes a total price over the phone, sight unseen should be dismissed as unqualified. Typical mold assessments done properly range from about $600 - $2000, but can exceed that range in larger homes and commercial buildings. Taking too few samples can result in a false negative, meaning that there was dangerous mold existing outside the range collected in the air samples, so the money you thought you were saving by having fewer samples taken ended up being wasted. The danger will still exist and you will have to pay more to have it eventually done correctly. Remediation can range from the mildest cases where you can clean it yourself with over the counter products to draconian situations where you have to throw out furniture and other possessions and costs can be tens of thousands of dollars.
Generally, the answer is no. In New York State, only licensed mold remediators are legally permitted to do cleaning, and it is likely that other states will follow suit in order to protect home and building owners from shoddy and sometimes unnecessary work. Remediation usually requires special chemical cleaning agents that are not sold in stores, special machines like negative vacuum HEPA air scrubbers, and proper full body protective clothing and respirators. Knowledge of proper cleaning and diagnostic methodology of microbiological agents is highly unique to this specific process, and professionals are trained for it.
You should first consult a family or general health care provider who will decide whether you need referral to a specialist. Such specialists might include an allergist who treats patients with mold allergies or an infectious disease physician who treats mold infections. If an infection is in the lungs, a pulmonary physician might be recommended. Patients who have been exposed to molds in their workplace may be referred to an occupational physician.
If you feel your property owner, landlord, or builder has not been responsive to concerns you’ve expressed regarding mold exposure, you can contact your local board of health or housing authority. Applicable codes, insurance, inspection, legal, and similar issues about mold generally fall under state and local (not federal) jurisdiction. You could also review your lease or building contract and contact local or state government authorities, your insurance company, or an attorney to learn more about local codes and regulations and your legal rights. You can find information on your state’s Indoor Air Quality program at https://www.cdc.gov/nceh/airpollution/indoor_air.htm. Although it is ethically proper for the landlord to have testing done for the safety of his or her tenants, ultimately, it will be your responsibility to pay for testing in order to prove whether a hazardous mold situation does, indeed exist and to protect the health of you and your family. Generally, if the living space is deemed uninhabitable, you should have a basis for legal action.
If you believe you are ill because of exposure to mold in the building where you work, you should first consult your health care provider to determine the appropriate action to take to protect your health. Notify your employer and, if applicable, your union representative about your concern so that your employer can take action to have mold testing performed and if necessary, clean up and prevent future mold growth. To find out more about mold, remediation of mold, or workplace safety and health guidelines and regulations, you may also want to contact your local (city, county, or state) health department. You should also read the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) Guidelines, at https://www.epa.gov/mold/mold-remediation-schools-and-commercial-buildings-guide.
If you believe your children are ill because of exposure to mold in their school, first consult their health care provider to determine the appropriate medical action to take. Contact the school’s administration to express your concern and to ask that they have the building tested and if necessary, remove the mold and prevent future mold growth. If needed, you could also contact the local school board.
You can also read the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) guidelines, Mold Remediation in Schools and Commercial Buildings, at https://www.epa.gov/mold/mold-remediation-schools-and-commercial-buildings-guide. Also, see these Web sites for more indoor air quality tools for schools:
*In New York State, mold testing is regulated and can only be performed by a licensed Mold Assessor. Other states with mold licensing regulations include Kentucky, Louisiana, Florida, Illinois, Maryland, Maine, Oklahoma, Tennessee, and Texas.
Myth: You can identify mold by looking at it.
Truth: The only way mold can be identified is by having a sample of it analyzed under a microscope in a lab. In an NBC Today Show exposé, undercover reporters in New Jersey rubbed mascara on a hallway wall and called in a dozen mold companies to look at it. All of them said it was definitely mold and quoted prices to remove it. “What else could it be?” Qualified mold assessors know that discoloration can be caused by carbon, concentrated dust, dirt, yeast, fibrous particulate, hyphal elements and other unidentifiable matter, which is why testing and analysis must first be performed.
Myth: All mold is dangerous.
Truth: Mold is dangerous only if it is present in a substantial enough quantity. When samples are analyzed, the report not only tells you what kinds of spores were present, but how many of each were present. A low enough level presents no more danger than what you encounter outside your house in mother nature. If the levels are elevated inside, then you run a serious health risk. Various types of mold affects different people depending on their individual physiology and the severity of the type of mold.
Myth: Mold is not dangerous because it is all around the environment.
Truth: The mold levels outside are always changing and some people are affected by the outside mold in the same way some are affected by pollen or pollution. If mold levels are significantly higher inside one’s house, mold can cause severe respiratory damage, headaches, flu-like symptoms, and in severe cases, memory loss and cancer.
Myth: Mold should be cleaned with bleach.
Truth: Bleach should NOT be used. Bleach only kills surface mold and evaporates leaving behind a residue of nitrogen, which is an element of fertilizer. In effect, you are feeding the mold spores that are under the surface or in the air and it can grow back even worse. Bleach is effective only on non-porous materials, but most materials are porous, including sheetrock, wood, concrete and ceramic.
Myth: I can just test my air for mold with a Home Depot kit.
Truth: These are nothing but petri dishes. Growing a culture on your own tells you nothing about whether you have a mold problem because you are not comparing it to a control sample outside or gauging its growth time via any regulated methodology. Mold will always grow in any open petri dish, even in the cleanest of houses, so this tells you absolutely nothing. The best way to determine if you have a mold problem is to hire a mold assessor from a professional company that only does testing and have them take air samples with spore traps and swabs or tape lifts. Knowing how to collect data utilizing the scientific method and how to interpret it is just as important as what equipment one uses to collect it. That’s why professionals are trained in the art and science of their craft.
Myth: Infra red cameras can find mold behind walls.
Truth: The only thing that infra red cameras reveal is temperature differential. They were initially developed for locating energy loss in buildings and are excellent for showing you where you need to add more insulation. Since water is typically cooler than the air around it, it can also locate plumbing leaks or moisture infiltration in a wall. While it is true that mold is attracted to water, it doesn’t mean that what you’re seeing with the camera is water, or whether there is any mold present. You are only seeing which areas are hot (red) or cold (blue).
Myth: Mold can make you sick if it is inside your walls.
Truth: Mold can only make you sick if you breathe it. If it is concealed inside your walls but not in the air of your house, it cannot affect you. That is why having air testing performed by a professional testing company that does not also do remediation is the only way to find out if the air is safe.
Myth: It is better to have one company do mold testing and mold clean up.
Truth: You should NEVER have the same company do both, in fact, in New York, it is illegal to do so. If a company does clean up, also known as remediation or abatement, they have a reason to find a problem so they can make much more money doing the clean up like all the companies who said the mascara was mold. An independent testing company with no conflict of interest should first test, and if a problem is found, they should write up an action plan, also known as a protocol, which specs out the scope of work for a remediator to follow so it is done properly – not too little and not too much. The testing company should then re-test the remediator’s work to make sure the work was successfully and safely completed.