Moisture the root of household mold problem

Christopher Cooley, of Georgetown, knows all about household mold. He bought a home realtors called “the mold house.”

Cooley, 45, moved to Delaware from California in 2014 to be closer to his disabled brother. He found a beautiful home, but it had some issues caused by a poorly built chimney.

“The house sat vacant for the better part of ten years, so all this snow and water was dripping through the chimney into the crawlspace, and it went unchecked for a long time” Cooley said.

There was visible mold on the walls of the first floor, and he knew more lay beneath the flooring. But the situation with his brother made the move urgent.

“[Mold] wasn’t as prevalent in California, so I didn’t really understand the severity of the issue,” he said. “I was not very well versed in this. I didn’t even think too much about it.”

When Cooley moved in, he was under the impression that the sellers would make repairs in a timely manner. Much to his horror, they never did. He spent a year living in the mold-infested house while the situation was sorted out.

“I had a lot of allergy problems,” he said. “I went to the doctor quite a few times in those first years. I had to have allergy testing and it turned out I was allergic to mold. I couldn’t breathe. I couldn’t sleep at night.”

Ultimately, the repairs became Cooley’s responsibility. An environmentalist detected elevated levels of two types of mold and recommended he remove and replace all the baseboards, drywall, flooring and insulation in the living room.

He managed to do some things himself, like replacing drywall, but he had to shell out about $27,000 to have the leaky chimney fixed and at least $3,000 for various other work.

The mold also took a toll on his mental health.

“We had air scrubbers going 24/7 for like two weeks, they sound like industrial floor fans – they’re loud. There’s plastic hanging everywhere,” Cooley said. “It affects your day-to-day life.”

Household mold 101

Mold is fungi, and it’s everywhere. It travels through the air via tiny spores, growing wherever conditions are ripe. Usually, it’s harmless.

University of Delaware Cooperative Extension agent Nancy Gregory teaches “Introduction to Fungi.”

“Fungi are decomposers in our ecosystem, and provide a valuable role,” she said. “It’s when they decompose or affect … our possessions, such as wood products, that they are problematic.”

When mold starts to build up in your home, the number of spores in the air can increase to a level that’s bad for your health.

“Many fungi produce enzymes and mycotoxins, with a wide variety of fungi producing a variety of toxins,” said Gregory.

Mycotoxins are toxic substances produced by some molds.

“Serious problems can occur with molds, such as black mold Stachybotrys, that produce a toxin that can seriously affect persons who are exposed,” said Gregory. “People vary greatly in their sensitivity and response to mold.”

Mold can cause allergic symptoms, such as nasal and sinus congestion, coughing, breathing difficulties, sore throat, skin and eye irritation and upper respiratory infections. Infants and children, the elderly, those with respiratory conditions and those with weakened immune systems are more susceptible and may have a severe reaction.

“It is also important not to be alarmist, as mold spores are common everywhere,” Gregory cautioned.

According to Jamie Mack, environmental health director at the Delaware Division of Public Health, determining what kind of mold you have in your home is less important than simply getting rid of it.

“Any time you get to a point where you can see or smell something, it’s time to take action,” he said.

Because where there is moisture, there will be mold.

“If you see discoloration on a wall, that’s the first sign. And we all know that musty basement odor,” Mack said.

According to the Division of Public Health, mold can appear cottony, velvety, granular or leathery and white, gray, brown, black, yellow or green. The key to identifying it is unexplained discoloration.

However, if you suspect mold but can’t find it visually, hiring an environmentalist may be in order.

Once identified, victims of mold can often take care of a small area of contamination themselves. After identifying and fixing the moisture problem, DPH recommends drying wet materials, disposing of mold-contaminated materials and cleaning and disinfecting surfaces before rebuilding.

Rubber gloves, goggles, air masks and an outer layer of clothing that can be shed before leaving the area are all necessary, since disturbing mold causes more particles to be released into the air. Hanging plastic sheeting can help protect the rest of the home, but it’s best to have only those wearing protective gear present when cleaning.

However, if you’re not comfortable doing the cleanup, hire an expert. That may be a contractor or a plumber or both.

“Ask them how they’re going to do their work and how they will protect the residents during the work,” Mack said. “Find out how they’re going to address everything, from beginning to end, and make sure they’re comfortable addressing moisture and mold.”

For further information, visit dhss.delaware.gov or cdc.gov/mold.