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What is 'mold'?


Gary Ginsberg (Toxicologist) gives expert video advice on: What is 'mold'?; What is 'black mold'?; Is mold ever really 'toxic'? and more...

What is 'mold'?

Mold is a fungus that grows whenever there is enough moisture and food source for it to grow. It needs warmth and it needs moisture. Mold is a biological entity that could be living in your workplace, in your home, and it could spread. Most people know about mold from moldy bread or moldy cheese. It's the same kind of thing that can be growing inside your walls, in your basement. People know mold from that musty, mildewy smell when they go into a damp part of their house. We know that there can be toxic ingredients in mold because mold, to fend off things in its environment, has adapted and produced toxins.For example, some of the molds that grow on food can have carcinogens and highly toxic chemicals in them, things that can give us, people who eat those mold products, hallucinations and can cause liver cancer. But that's if you eat moldy food. So definitely don't eat anything that looks moldy.However, the mold growing in your house generally doesn't have high enough levels, of what we call microtoxins, to be a problem when we inhale the mold spores. Mold sends out its tentacles looking for new colonization through spores. These spores get released from the fuzzy colony you'll see, get into the airstream and we can inhale those. That can be allergenic and it can induce asthma reactions. So that's the major concern with mold. It's not that it's going to cause cancer. It's not that it's going to damage our lungs but it's that it's going to create allergies.

What is 'black mold'?

There was a big scare about mold in the mid 1990's. The Centers for Disease Control went into some homes in Cleveland Ohio where they found there was an outbreak of haemorrhage or bleeding in young children who had damaged lungs. And they associated that with a certain kind of mold growing in these homes called stachybotrys, a black mold. And that hit the media and the airways and there was a scare that went through pretty much the whole country that any black mold in your home may be damaging children's lungs. That study was retracted by CDC several years later; they could not really document it. And it was pulled back but the media never pulled back the story so people walk around thinking that black mold is highly toxic and damaging to the lungs and it's really not true, it's one of those myths.

Is mold ever really 'toxic'?

Toxic mold is largely a media creation, largely a myth. Mold can have toxins which we call micro-toxins in them that they can release in spores. However the concentrations are so low that unless you were eating the mold colony, you know scraping it off the wall and ingesting it. You're probably not going to be affected by a toxic reaction. Damage, we're talking toxic, we're talking damage to the lungs.

When does mold in the home become a problem and how common is it?

What's different now than it was in the old cave men days is that our homes are more air tight than ever before. We are spending more time than ever before in our homes, so the allergens in our home environment are building up and effecting us more now than ever before. So it is important do not be living in a mouldy environment. And you can usually recognize that by seeing mold growing in your home; by smelling mildew in certain parts of your house, in a damp part of your house for example. Some people have the reaction to mold that "I'm just not going to use that part of my house. Lets not go down to the basement because its nasty." But they don't realize that mold growth can spread throughout to the rest of the house and cause, in the spores, in the mold spores that do go everywhere in the air and can cause allergy.

Should I have my home tested regularly for mold?

Black mold, toxic mold is more of a myth than anything and that leads to a lot of waste of money. People think that they have to test their indoor air for mold to find out what kind of mold they have and that is a huge waste of money because there are many companies they are only too willing and happy to do that for you and tell you what kind of mold and they'll find maybe 20 different kinds of mold spores in your house. That's pretty worthless information. There's mold everywhere, there's mold when you take a walk in the park in the summertime. What is important to recognize, and you can usually tell this with a visual inspection and by noticing the odors is where there are excessive mold growth in your house where you actually see colonies forming. There is a black smudge or a yellow smudge or a brown or green that's fuzzy, that's growing on a wall, that's growing in your basement, that's contaminating your clothing that's stored there or the books. That's evidence that there's too much moisture, mold growth that could be leading to an allergic situation for you and your children.

Is the presence of mold in my home a cause for concern?

The major health concern with mold is if someone in the house that has mold growing is allergic to it.However, just because you're not allergic to it right now doesn't mean that you won't become allergic to it down the road. It's sort of like if you're exposed to poison ivy the first time you may not have any reaction but with continued repeated exposure, you may develop one that can drive you crazy. And the same thing with mold.Living in a moldy house for six months, a year, it might take 5 years before you finally become allergic and have to move out of your house.

If I have a mold problem in my home, what should I do about it?

If your home has a mold problem that's usually coming because you've got a moisture problem. Mold is a sign and a red flag for to much moisture. So the first thing you want to do is find out where the moisture is coming from because if you clean up the mold right now and throw out what's been mold contaminated, but you haven't stopped the moisture you're just going to regrow the mold. If you're having a bad reaction to the mold you want to safeguard yourself. You may have to go live in a motel for a few days or a few weeks or go stay with a neighbor or with a relative if you are having a lot of breathing problems in your home, but assuming that's not happening and you could stay there the number one thing to tackle is the moisture problem. Is this coming from flooding, is this coming from a leaky roof, is this coming from a burst pipe. This may have occurred weeks or months ago and it is in areas of the home that haven't fully dried out and the mold can be actively growing inside of a wall, inside of the ceiling, it could be growing in a damp basement. So the number one problem attack where the moisture is and dry out those areas prevent the moisture from getting into your home if it's coming from outside. The second thing is to see where is the mold contaminated parts of your house is it in the carpeting, is it in clothing that was stored some place, is it in your attic, is it in your basement and get it cleaned up.

How can a dehumidifier help me prevent mold?

Dehumidifiers are an important defense against mold. It is a very simple device, but it can dry up a basement and make it much less likely to be mold-contaminated. Any part of your house that tends to be damp, in the summertime, especially, needs to be dehumidified. The problem with the summertime is that the moisture levels in the outdoor air are high, and when you get into a cool, damp basement, all that moisture tends to condense out. Walls could be sweating, and even if you don't see obvious moisture in the basement, just the high humidity--mold loves that. One of the problems we see is in schools over the summertime. The high humidity in a school can lead to mold growth if the air isn't conditioned. Oftentimes, schools are left vacant, or parts of a school are left vacant, over the summer. There isn't good air flow. All of a sudden, comes August 30th, and they want to get the schools ready. The carpeting, the wooden desks can have mold growth on them in a school system, so school systems now are becoming more aware that they have to take preventive measures during the summertime to keep mold growth from happening.

What do I need to know before hiring a mold-cleaning contractor?

Mold clean-up contractors aren't certified by anyone. So anyone can say they are a mold clean-up contractor. You want to ask them how much experience they've had in cleaning up mold, what kinds of scenarios, whether its industrial or homeowner, how they're going to protect their own workers, how they're going to protect you from the spread of mold spores. Because as soon as you disrupt mold from the wall, you may be releasing the spores through the rest of the house. So what steps are they going to take to make sure that you're safeguarded? If you're doing the mold clean-up yourself or you're having a contractor do it, they want to wet the surface first. They might want to use a weak bleach solution or disinfectant to kill the mold. Let that work for a couple hours. And then with proper ventilation, pulling the air out of the room, so that if they are disrupting any mold spores, to have that air flow away from the rest of the house, pulling the air out the window. And then to carefully bag the mold, scrape it off the wall, either with a sponge if it's loose or with a gentle scraping if it's not loose. And then get that into a bag, seal it up, and get it out of the house. If it's a small area, say, this big, you could probably do it yourself. If it becomes much bigger in area and it's a heavily infested area, you probably need a professional.

What is 'biocide' and should I have it applied to my mold problem?

Biocides are like pesticides, they're antimicrobal agents that some mold contractors like to spray or coat surfaces to prevent mold from growing into those areas. Your common paint will have some biocide in it to prevent that surface from becoming moldy over time. I don't recommend biocides being used, it's really a prophylactic preventive measure, some of these biocides can get into your indoor air. Usually they're unnecessary if you control the moisture levels in your home. It is an extra treatment of your house that you don't need to do and mold contractors that do this sometimes, they are invested in selling more product to you and it's something that you often don't need.