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  • Dan Connors

Mold wars

I have mold in my basement. Mind you, mold is everywhere, but it's having a party now down in my basement. This slow realization has turned my life upside down this month as I learned more than I ever wanted to about fungi and molds.

Mold is a critical piece of our ecosystem as it converts dead matter into usable materials that plants can eventually use to start over. Without molds, dead plants and bodies would pile up and just lay there until wind, water and slower methods of decomposition do their jobs.

There is always mold in the air, and there's more of it when temperatures are warmer and wetter. Mold spores are tiny and can travel long distances, only growing when they find a plentiful source of food.

I had always thought of mold as the stuff that shows up on bread or fruit if you leave it out too long. Fresh foods attract mold quickly as they provide rich nutrients right away. That's why foods need to be refrigerated or sealed- so as to prevent molds from getting a foothold.

Houses, however, have other types of organic matter- wood, plaster, rugs, fabrics and paper, that can also act as food for molds. Only this transformation takes longer than with foods, and can be harder to spot. By the time you see the telltale splotches of grey and black, it may be too late. Molds love to grow in dark, wet, and cool places like basements, which is where mine now resides.

I have been blessed with a large tolerance for allergens, including mold, so that the growth has not affected me that I could tell. For my family, things are worse. Molds are seen as an increasing public health hazard, especially as flooding becomes more common with changing climates. As our homes, schools, and office buildings age, they become more of a target for mold infestations.

Given how prevalent mold is in our environment, there is little information out there about the problems that it presents when it gets out of control. Here is what I've learned so far this month:

1- There are literally hundreds of thousands of different varieties of molds, but only 5 of them are commonly found indoors. Many molds are relatively harmless, but some can produce something called mycotoxins that cause serious health problems. The most common and dangerous mold is Strachbotrys chartarum, aka toxic mold, which is hard to identify visually. The only way to know for sure is to pay for mold testing, which costs about $300.

2- Everybody that has a basement, or works in a building with a basement, should keep track of the humidity levels with a hygrometer. These are cheap and easy to buy and can point to problems that could promote mold growth. Anything over 50% humidity is not a good thing. 35% is better. A dehumidifier can suck the moisture out of the air down to a safer range. This stops new mold from growing, but doesn't remove old mold.

3- Molds can trigger allergic reactions, including sneezing, skin rashes, runny noses and red eyes. In some sensitive individuals they can trigger asthma.

4- There are few reliable medical studies that tell us what other illnesses mold could cause. Since its main job in the world is to break down tissues and cells, it could cause serious health issues for those who are exposed regularly. There have been allegations of mold causing autoimmune diseases, mental health issues (attention problems, depression, anxiety, insomnia) and even Alzheimer's disease.

5- There are some ways to clean mold yourself. Vinegar and hydrogen peroxide are most commonly mentioned as effective mold killers. (Bleach is not recommended) But this only works for small items and small areas.

6- Larger mold problems require professional assistance, where crews come down to your basement and rip out moldy rugs and drywall, while pitching all moldy boxes and furniture. Needless to say, this could cost weeks of time and thousands of dollars, but your health and home resale value are now on the line.

7- HEPA air filters can be used in living areas that remove mold spores from the air you breathe. If you have allergies, this can be a lifesaver as my family has found out. The best brand we found was Molekule. (email me for a discount code)

8- Since mold grows best on organic material like cardboard, its best to store anything valuable in plastic or metal boxes. Basement carpets attract mold, but it can't grow on painted concrete or ceramic tiles.

9- One of the favorite targets of mold in basements is drywall, which has paper as one of its ingredients. There is such a thing as mold-resistant drywall, but mold can still grow on it, just not as fast. Some people try to paint over mold on drywall, which is only a temporary solution. Don't do it- the mold is still there and still dangerous. The best solution is to manage moisture by fixing foundation cracks and using a dehumidifier.

10- Your homeowner's insurance most likely will NOT pay for mold removal and remediation. Most policies don't cover it unless it's part of a sudden disaster, and even then you need to check your policy.

This has been a wake-up call for me. I hope that by sharing this information I can spare others the nasty experience this has become. If you have any doubts about your home, or that of an elderly relative, do them and yourself a favor and check out the basement or any other areas of the house that could be wet from time to time. If you suffer from allergy symptoms more than before, consider where those allergens are coming from and get a HEPA filter.

Mold has a purpose, but I'm not ready for it. I want my body, food and stuff to hang around for a bit longer, and then the mold can have it. Until then, this is war.

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