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January 30, 2009
©The Northern Virginia Daily

Silent stalker: Household mold can cause damage to health and wallet

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Susan Custer, home inspector for Mountain Home Inspection in Luray, stands in front of two windows covered with mold; mold of varying colors grows on a door in the house. Photos by Rich Cooley/Daily

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Custer stands near the front door of the home holding a device that measures air quality.

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Mold hangs on a drooping ceiling fan inside a Warren County home.

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Mold of varying colors grows on a door in the house.

By Natalie Austin -- Daily Staff Writer

The interior of the innocent-looking, '50s-era rancher looked like a setting for a Stephen King novel.

Green spots covered almost every space in the Warren County residence. Green tendrils reached out across ceilings, choking a fan in one room, leaving it drooping like a giant, dead daisy.

A closer look showed garish shades of pink, orange and black on the off-white walls of every room. Condensation dripped from the interior of the windows due to the humidity. Blinds were covered with a green fur.

A failed sump pump left 3 feet of water in the basement, while a heat pump set on 65 degrees created the perfect storm, spraying warm moisture throughout the empty house --making it a greenhouse for mold.

This, according to several area professionals, was one of the worst cases of household mold they had seen in their careers of looking for the "M" word.

Its remediation not covered by most homeowners' policies and the millions of dollars spent on lawsuits due to illness have made mold the scourge of property owners. Mold litigation has become one of the fastest growing fields of litigation, according to the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences of the National Institutes of Health. Empty houses in foreclosure are becoming mold breeding grounds.

It's not a new problem -- mentions of household mold date back to biblical times -- but is one that is receiving more attention due to huge jury verdicts, allegedly due to its toxicity.

While the Warren County house could be designated a mold museum, most cases don't present themselves so visually. Mold can begin growing in a damp area in as little as 24 to 48 hours, according to the Environmental Protection Agency.

All mold's tiny spores need are water and food. Thousands grow naturally outside, but it's when they become house guests that these molds present problems for the structure and its inhabitants.

Health problems are what normally lead his customers to call, says Robert Whitson, manager of Eyes Environmental Services in Basye.

These can range from respiratory problems to headaches, says Whitson. Remediation requires special suits and respirators.

"It's almost always because they just procrastinated until it does become a problem," says Whitson. "People start to look at the problem when their faucet has leaked in the bathroom for 25 years."

Although most molds exist in nature, black mold, or strachybotrys -- the black plague of the mold industry -- only grows indoors, when exposed to damp conditions and plenty to eat -- walls, wood, carpets, wallpaper. The more favorable the growth conditions, the more the spores become airborne, reportedly causing toxic responses to people exposed to it.

Not only can homeowners become sick, their wallets can, as well.

Whitson says a small crack in a shower in one residence allowed water to drain down a wall and into the house. It cost roughly $300,000 to correct the problem, he says.

Black mold was behind health problems of another homeowner, he says.

"This woman had headaches. She went to neurologists all over the valley," Whitson says. "Since the remediation, she has no headaches of any type."

Area experts agree, that unless the water problem is solved, the mold will come back.

"The most common reason people get mold is they don't take care of the water. People assume the water will dry," says Tobye David of ServiceMaster of the Shenandoah Valley.

People don't realize how long it takes for a leaky faucet under a sink to dry, she says, and that the water will continue to flow downward.

It is a misconception, says David, that only black mold can cause health problems. Others that occur in nature grow unnaturally within a house with water problems.

"All of it can be dangerous, depending on how much of it there is," she says.

ServiceMaster does mold remediation but not testing.

"Most major insurance companies don't cover mold. ... It does get to be very expensive," David says.

Containment areas must be constructed around the area where mold will be removed to prevent spores from becoming airborne and spreading. Along with suits and masks reminiscent of the anthrax scare, special air scrubbing equipment must be brought in. Homeowners shouldn't stay in the house during the process, David adds.

There are signs homeowners can watch for in terms of abating water damage before mold occurs, professionals say.

Leaky faucets, running toilets, rusty water heaters, deteriorating washing machine hoses and other problems may present themselves before mold occurs.

"The worst case I ever had to look at was in a foreclosure, empty house in Front Royal," says David. "We pulled into the driveway and I smelled it. There was floor to ceiling mold on every surface."

In the present economy, says Susan Custer, of Mountain Home Inspection in Luray, mold is becoming more of an issue with the number of empty houses increasing.

Flooded basements, leaks and water damage are left to breed mold.

"It's just a bad situation but that's primarily what I get," she says.

Custer's company does mold testing, generally connected to the home purchase for the buyers.

Some moisture and mold can be hidden, however, such as a small seeping from a missing roof shingle. Damage can be covered with insulation, making detection more difficult.

A musty smell, damp feeling and humidity test, says Custer, can all point to the potential for mold.

Basements and crawl spaces are primary places for water damage to occur, as are bathrooms, particularly when exhaust fans are not vented to the outside.

One of the worst cases Custer says she encountered was water pouring in from the front stoop upon her arrival. The house was in foreclosure and there was standing water in two rooms, she says, adding that she is allergic to mold.

Although obvious in Custer's case, finding the water problem in a residence is the No. 1 issue, says Whitson.

An improperly installed shower pan in a multi-million dollar Wintergreen home cracked, sending water traveling down the wall into the homeowner's media room below. A wet space on a wall was the evidence and once it was cut out, says Whitson, the wall was found to be filled with mold.

Mold is best left to professionals, all agree.

"To do it yourself and be safe as you are doing it yourself is nearly impossible," Whitson says.

Many homes have to be taken down to the studs, he says, the studs dried and a shellac-based sealer applied. All of this remediation must be done under negative airflow, he says, to avoid causing the mold spores to become airborne.

"The best thing you can do as an individual is get that water leak corrected," says Whitson. "Fix it immediately."

*Contact Natalie Austin at naustin@nvdailly.com


Treating mold issues

1. Potential health effects and symptoms associated with mold exposures include allergic reactions, asthma and other respiratory complaints.

2. There is no practical way to eliminate all mold and mold spores in the indoor environment; the way to control indoor mold growth is to control moisture.

3. If mold is a problem in your home, it must be cleaned up and the source of moisture eliminated.

4. Fix the source of the water problem or leak to prevent mold growth.

5. Reduce indoor humidity to between 30 percent and 60 percent to decrease mold growth by: venting bathrooms, dryers, and other moisture-generating sources to the outside: using air conditioners and de-humidifiers; increasing ventilation; and using exhaust fans whenever cooking, dishwashing and cleaning.

6. Clean and dry any damp or wet building materials and furnishings within 24 to 48 hours to prevent mold growth.

7. Clean mold off hard surfaces with water and detergent, and dry completely. Absorbent materials, such as ceiling tiles that are moldy, may need to be replaced.

8. Prevent condensation: Reduce the potential for condensation on cold surfaces (e.g. windows, piping, exterior walls, roof or floors) by adding insulation.

9. In areas where there is a perpetual moisture problem, do not install carpeting.

10. Molds can be found almost anywhere; they can grow on virtually any substance, if moisture is present. There are molds that can grow on wood, paper, carpet and foods.

-- Source: The Virginia Department of Health