Toxic mold: A stubborn houseguest

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“Behold, if the plague be spread in the walls of the house…” Book of Leviticus, King James Version of the Holy Bible.

Although different from the “mold” referred to in the Bible, today’s toxic mold can make people sick and force families to move out of their house, leaving possessions behind.

Recently, a Malibu family was affected by toxic mold in a home they had just purchased near a private beach. They were initially attracted to the house because it offered space for the children and it seemed like paradise for this family of five, but the dream was quickly shattered when the children became inexplicably sick, developing allergies they never had before.

Once they found the cause for their persistent illnesses, the family moved out, leaving everything behind.

The 19-year-old house was affected by mold, a tenacious, unwelcome houseguest. It climbs up bathroom walls, invades carpet and infests drywall.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) in Atlanta, six varieties of household mold are common, and three can produce toxins. The CDC linked one of them, stachybotrys atra, to 10 cases of lung disorder in infants five years ago and 100 cases since then. Unfortunately, it’s impossible for homeowners to distinguish between toxic and the benign molds–they all look like black or gray sooty patches.

This invader usually surfaces when moisture accumulates in hard to reach areas. But not all molds are toxic. However, this Malibu family was heavily impacted by the mold in their home.

“When it rained, it became apparent that water was draining into the house and into the bedroom wall,” said the new property owner. “That construction defect was ignored for years.”

At first, the young mother did not know anything about mold, so she watched her family come down with flu-like symptoms. But two more unusual symptoms showed up in some of the family members–they began to have nose bleeds and rashes. “For a while I thought this was stress. I didn’t really understand what was going on,” she said. “In a way it’s lucky, because right after we moved we had two big storms and we noticed that the walls were wet,” she continued.

Months later, the family is now involved in a lawsuit because of the mold. Furthermore, the family’s insurance company did not compensate for losses because they stated that this was a pre-existing condition.

In an effort to save a few treasured possessions, the family recently hired a special restoration firm. “They sent in a crew of six people who went in the house with masks and saved some treasured hard furniture items and most of the photographs,” said a family member.

“Our philosophy is that it was so expensive that it became necessary for us to save only things that had sentimental value.” Soft items like couches or bedding could not be saved.

This family is not alone. Last year another Malibu resident had $100,000 worth of work done to clean up mold, said Stephen Roy, founder of Process Environmental, Inc., a company based in Valencia that specializes in environmental and structural mold detection and removal.

A few have even taken the drastic step of burning down their houses and possessions to avoid spreading the mold any further.

While there are many reasons why toxic mold may grow in a house, tight insulation could be a primary cause.

As builders and homeowners attempt to insulate homes to alleviate the costs of heating and cooling, the combination of tight insulation and inexpensive water pipes can cause leaks in a tight environment. This increase of moisture leads to mold growth.

According to Process Environmental, mold problems are always the result of a moisture problem. If mold is growing in a home, there is something wrong that needs correction to prevent recurrence. The company states, “Just as with an iceberg, the invisible portion of the contamination is often much larger than the visible bloom. It may be hidden within wall cavities or in the building’s framing.” When certain kinds of molds are present, they release micro toxins, which can what makes people sick. “Even when you kill the mold, the spores can make you sick,” said Roy.

Spores are usually everywhere in the air, but in low concentrations until mold begins to grow.

There are many areas in a home or building where moisture intrusion can take place. For example, mold will live on the backside of wallpaper in the bathroom and eat the glue.

There are 50,000 varieties of mold, of which 50 may be harmful, said Roy. But when moisture comes in and increases moisture content to more than 60 percent, then it only takes three days for toxic mold to grow.

Mold problems can be detected when someone has allergies that originate when they are in a particular building, but go away if they leave the building.

“If they went away from the home for a period of time and felt better, then that’s an indication something in the environment is bothering them,” said Roy.

A musty odor in the house can also be an indication of mold. “Always look at the air flow in the heating and A/C system,” said Roy. Mold puts out spores that can spread throughout the house, and the A/C and heating ducts are a means for it to spread.

Climate is not necessarily a factor. “It turns out there are problems in many areas,” said Roy, including desert areas because they use cheap plumbing.

In Malibu, the climate has higher moisture content and that will precipitate the growth of mold.

Because the concerns about toxic mold and its effects on people have been increasing recently, the California state Senate approved the country’s first mold bill.

Bill 732, authored by Sen. Debra Ortiz, will require a seller to disclose the existence of mold in a home in a real estate transfer.

Mold has also created another domino effect for homeowners. Insurance companies changed their policies in an effort to minimize costs, starting April 1, because of escalating claims. “But it’s much disputed in the courts,” explained Roy, because no clear cut direction exists.

More information about mold can be obtained on the Center for Disease Control’s Web site at http://www.cdc.gov/nceh/asthma/factsheets/molds/default.htm and on the Environmental Protection Agency’s Web site at http://www.epa.gov/iaq/pubs/moldresources.html.