Truth be Mold
Forget the pollen. The most dangerous allergen might be lurking in your home.
By Donna Burch
Midlothian resident Kay Smiley hates rainy days.
The rain is not only gloomy and depressing, it also brings misery in the form of a stuffy or runny nose and a postnasal drip that doesn’t end when the drops stop falling outside.
“You know that wonderful smell that everyone associates with rain?” she asks. “I associate that with feeling icky.”
Since being diagnosed with a mold allergy more than three decades ago as a young girl, she’s learned that rainy days are one of her biggest mold allergy triggers. So are decomposing fall leaves.
Smiley falls into the 10 percent of the U.S. population that is sensitive to mold.
“It’s mostly an annoyance,” she says.
She minimizes her symptoms by taking an over-the-counter antihistamine every day.
But like seasonal allergies, mold allergies can vary in severity from person-to-person.
“Most patients we see with mold allergies … as long as they can control their exposure, it is a mild or moderate quality of life issue,” says Dr. Ted Schuman, assistant professor with the VCU School of Medicine’s Department of Otolaryngology.
In rare cases, symptoms can be so debilitating that people are mostly confined to their homes.
The symptoms of a mold allergy mirror those of seasonal allergies: sneezing; runny or stuffy nose; cough; postnasal drip; itchy eyes, nose and throat; and watery eyes.
A mold allergy can be particularly dangerous to those with asthma since exposure can trigger an attack.
Mold allergy symptoms manifest when someone who is sensitive to mold breathes in airborne mold spores. Unfortunately for mold sufferers, these spores are rampant in the environment and thrive in the humidity of the summer and early fall. Mold is commonly found outdoors, especially in densely wooded areas with heavy, moist leaf debris.
But mold can also infect one’s home, particularly crawl spaces, basements and any room with a water source, such as kitchens, bathrooms and laundry rooms.
“In order to have mold, you have to have damp conditions, humidity over 50 percent and something organic for mold to actually grow on,” explains Rob Hicks, president of Ashland-based Virginia Basement.
The first line of treatment for a mold allergy is to eliminate exposure as much as possible. This means avoiding certain outdoor environments or wearing protective clothing (face mask, gloves, eye goggles, etc.) if that’s not possible.
Treating indoor mold sources can be challenging and expensive. A leaking shower or a puddle of condensation in the corner of the basement from the HVAC unit creates a perfect breeding ground for mold. Mold can infiltrate any porous material, including carpeting, Sheetrock and insulation.
And just because it can’t be seen doesn’t mean that it’s not there. It can hide behind walls and under flooring.
“If … you smell that organic, musty scent, you likely have mold there,” says Philip Masterson, family nurse practitioner at Bon Secours FastCare. “You should work at eliminating that mold source.”
Many online sources, including a few government agencies, suggest using a mixture of bleach and water to treat small areas of mold, but some local mold remediation companies advise against taking the do-it-yourself approach.
Sometimes the problem is much larger than what homeowners realize. That small area of mold on the drywall in the laundry room may seem innocuous enough, but spores could have already infiltrated the insulation and wood behind the wall.
“I’m not going to recommend the do-it-yourself approach,” says Don Jones, president of Chesterfield-based Richmond Mold Remediation. “Each situation is unique in and of itself. It might be nothing, but it might be something.”
Mold remediation companies prescribe different treatments depending on the severity of the invasion. The first priority is to stop the moisture source that’s feeding the mold. This might involve fixing leaking pipes, installing extenders onto gutter downspouts so that water is directed away from the home’s foundation or installing French drains to catch water that’s leaching into a basement or crawl space.
Sometimes the basement or crawl space is encapsulated with thick, heavy-duty plastic to keep water from seeping in.
Remediation companies typically use industrial-strength disinfectants to kill mold. All surfaces are usually wiped or brushed, and some companies use special vacuums or air machines to capture errant spores.
In some cases, part of the home’s HVAC system is piped into the crawl space or basement to keep the area climate-controlled, which deters mold growth. (Conditioned crawl spaces are becoming a standard feature in some new-home communities.)
A dehumidifier might be installed to keep the humidity level below 50 percent. A sump pump and drain tile can be added to spaces that are prone to flooding.
Most of Jones’ remediation jobs come from people who are selling their homes, and mold is found during the home inspection.
“Most people who have a crawl space don’t ever go in it,” Jones says. “It’s out of sight, out of mind.”
But the effects of a moldy crawl space or basement aren’t contained to those areas. Because homes are made from mostly porous materials, mold spores easily migrate into the upper floors, affecting the health of everyone who lives there. In fact, mold is recognized as one of the most common indoor air pollutants by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and the American Lung Association.
Hicks recalls one customer in particular whose kids were able to stop taking their allergy medications after having their home remediated for mold.
“Just because you can’t see it doesn’t mean it won’t hurt you,” he says.
If limiting one’s exposure to mold doesn’t relieve symptoms to a manageable level, physicians will often recommend certain allergy medications, including nasal corticosteroids, antihistamines and decongestants.
“If patients aren’t responding well to treatment for mold allergies, they may be referred to a specialist,” Masterson says.
Allergists use skin prick tests and blood tests, along with the patient’s clinical history, to confirm a mold allergy.
Immunotherapy (aka allergy shots) is recommended for patients with extreme mold allergies.
“About 80 percent of patients will notice an improvement in symptoms and see a decrease in the need for medications,” Schuman says.
But allergy shots don’t work for everyone.
“There are some folks who don’t respond to the treatment,” Schuman says. “Those are really difficult situations.”
Do you have “black mold” or “toxic mold”?
The simple answer is probably not.
Years ago, the media (and probably a few unscrupulous mold remediation companies) hyped the dangers of so-called “toxic mold.”
But according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, there is no such thing.
“While certain molds are toxigenic, meaning they can produce toxins, the molds themselves are not toxic or poisonous,” reads the CDC’s website.
There have been a few reports of unique or rare health conditions that have been blamed on toxic mold exposure, but “a causal link between the presence of the toxigenic mold and these conditions has not been proven,” the CDC reports.
So what about so-called “black mold”?
There are thousands of mold species, and many of them are black.
When people refer to “black mold,” they are probably actually talking about Stachybotrys chartarum (also known as Stachybotrys atra), a greenish/black mold that some have claimed is toxic. Stachybotrys chartarum is not rare, but it also isn’t that common, so it’s unlikely to show up in your basement. According to the CDC, all mold, including Stachybotrys chartarum, should be remediated using the same techniques as described in the accompanying story.