Minimizing Your Mold Exposure at Home and From Your Indoor Air to Preserve Good Health
While many of us are still spending the majority of our time at home during the shelter in place orders that are still active in most of our communities, the need for an indoor air quality assessment and possibly remediation for mold may become more evident. As so much time is spent in the home environment, I have heard from many patients noticing new symptoms or an exacerbation of existing symptoms that seem to be tied to where they are living and trying to keep themselves safe from the novel coronavirus in our midst. Further, if you are someone who has already been made sick from mold and mycotoxins, you know that it is all the more essential to make sure that the air you are breathing in a contained space, i.e. your home, is as clean as possible. Once a person is sensitized to mold or any other toxin for that matter, it takes very little re-exposure, in this case recirculated indoor mold, to set off the chain of inflammation we refer to as “cytokine storm” which can present in myriad ways both physically and mentally.
Investigating Your Home for Mold
As we head into warmer weather, humidity within the home naturally rises and fosters the growth of mold spores, if present. Use of air conditioning increases the temperature difference between outdoor and indoor air and can easily create condensation on walls, windows, vents, and your AC coil providing a great moisture source for mold to grow on. If your home has had water intrusion, such as flooding, leaks, a wet basement, or crawl space, then mold growth should definitely be on your radar. As a matter of fact, any water saturation of building materials that is not thoroughly dried in less than 48 hours will lead to mold growth. But we also see mold growth in homes in which issues are much less obvious, such as slab foundations not properly lined or sealed before installation of flooring, or insulation within walls becoming wet due to leaks around windows, From a personal standpoint, I can tell you that the mold in my previous home, built in the mid-80s was caused by a foil wrap placed around the insulation in an effort to be more energy efficient. Unfortunately, what no one realized was that this foil wrap created a condensation problem within the walls, and an unseen, but very dangerous mold problem evolved.
How Do I Know If My Home Has a Mold Problem?
Testing for mold in your home can be done with the use of inexpensive EC3 Mold Screening Test Plates. This is a simple, straightforward starting place for anyone curious about mold. Using plates to test the air in various rooms, and to test some of your belongings can help you start to “peel the onion”, so to speak, so that you can begin to piece together IF there is a problem, and WHERE that problem seems to be. There are limits to plate testing, though. For example, some mold spores, such as those from Stachybotrys or the toxic black mold that many of us have heard about in the news, are very heavy, do not sporulate very well, and are more of a slime mold. Thus, Stachy does not often show up in plate tests, even when levels are exceedingly high, and the environment is not safe for living. Also, if the mold is contained within walls and not airborne, sometimes plate tests will come out “ok”, even though the mycotoxin levels are dangerously high.
Another form of DNA-based mold testing is called Environmental Relative Moldiness Index (ERMI) testing. There is also an abbreviated form of this testing called the HERSTMI test that is less expensive and only tests for what are considered “water-damage indicating molds”. Both are a way to get a snapshot picture of whether or not a home is “safe” in terms of dangerous molds. This type of testing involves using Swiffer wipes or a vacuum collection method, where dust is collected or vacuumed from various locations in a home and sent to special a lab for analysis. The lab then analyzes the counts and types of mold present and uses a scoring system to rate the home as safe or not. These tests are helpful, but also cannot give homeowners the complete picture of where the mold is located or what is causing the mold issue in the first place.
Using inexpensive humidity monitors and moisture meters can help homeowners see if their environment is ripe for mold growth. Anywhere indoor humidity exceeds 50% is the right conditions for mold to flourish.
The bottom line is that is any of these testing methods are “positive”, then it is a particularly good idea to call in a professional mold remediator to address the issues making the mold growth occur in your home. I also like to tell my patients that if they feel sick or worse when they spend time at home, but feel symptoms subside or better when on vacation, or away from home, there is a strong probability that the source of their sickness has something to do with their home environment.
What Makes for a Good, Professional Mold Inspection?
It is my experience that a thorough mold evaluation should include answers to the following questions:
- How is your home situated on the lot? Is it downhill? Does water pool around your foundation after heavy rain? Are gutters functioning and taking water away from the home? While you cannot change the situation of the house on the lot, grading can be done, to direct water away from the foundation. Keep this in mind if purchasing a new home, as it may save headaches later!
- Does the home have a basement or crawlspace? If so, is there moisture in those below-grade spaces? Bare earth requires covering and dehumidification is always necessary.
- Does the home have an attic? Attics need to be thoroughly examined for roof leaks. Insulation integrity needs to be checked for evidence of water or mold.
- Has the home experienced any leaks or water incidents? The interior of the home should be carefully and thoroughly examined for leaks and water marks. Some inspectors even use a thermal camera to pick up areas of moisture not visible to the eye. Bathroom toilet seals and shower pans need to also be inspected.
- Does the home have central heating and air conditioning? HVAC systems need to be very thoroughly inspected. The cooling coils should be tested both visually and with swabs. Additionally, there is a part of the system called the plenum, which covers the coils like a box. Many of these are made of fiberboard which is very porous and can become dampened due to condensation over time which can lead to mold blowing throughout the system. Flexible ductwork commonly has fibers in it which are great vehicles for mold spores. Cleaning ducts sounds like a great idea, but if the problem is in the unit itself this does little good. Also, flexible ductwork must be replaced as it cannot be sufficiently cleaned.
- Has mold testing been done? Checking for mold microscopically by plating, wiping, or air counts is necessary. Indoor spore counts are compared to that of the outdoors, and if less, the home air may be ok. This is NOT the whole story, though, as certain types of indoor mold are quite toxic when concentrated inside, regardless of outdoor counts.
What Happens If I Find Mold in My Home?
If mold is found in your home, then remediation techniques may vary from one specialist to another. A good and reputable remediator will have proper certifications and will go over the findings from the above questions and then give a written description of the plan and cost of addressing the issues. Controlling water ingress and keeping humidity levels down to 45% are paramount. Removal of water-damaged materials (wood, Sheetrock), and not just painting over it or treating it with Clorox and Kilz is necessary. Thoroughly cleaning and sealing concrete, foundation material is another step. Fogging of the home is also helpful as this penetrates deeply into areas, nooks and crannies to kill spores. This should ONLY be done after the issues causing the mold are solved and after all mold is removed and/or thoroughly cleaned. I only recommend using botanical and non-toxic fogging materials, such as EC3. You do not want to add a toxic compound to your home or to contribute to your total body load by using chemicals and detergents.
Consider remediation a great time to declutter your home. Books and papers do not clean very well, even after fogging, and may need to be discarded. Some soft, upholstered furniture, mattresses, pillows, curtains may need to be replaced, as fogging can only do so much.
All clothing from closets should be washed in mold spore killing compounds, like EC3 Laundry Additive. Dry-cleaned clothing sometimes can be salvaged as there are a few dry cleaners who offer mold mitigation processes.
If this sounds overwhelming, I have been there, and I know that it can be, from a mental, physical and financial standpoint. However, if your health and life depend on it, then it must be done. Interim measures can be taken using HEPA air filters, EC3 Candles and EC3 cleaning solutions to make an environment livable until a move or professional measures can be taken. Reducing clutter in your living spaces will also help. You can even fog some areas yourself, but do not consider this full remediation without addressing the underlying problems.
In addition to my earlier comment, I would like to thank you for this excellent information.
Thank you so much! Catherine jumped in to answer your other question.
Hello Dr. Tanner
Do you see a role for mycotoxin testing of furnace/AC filters such as the EMMA test?
Yes. That kind of testing can be very helpful in pinpointing if you have mycotoxins in the ambient air in the home. If you find them in the filters, then it is not usually a hidden link or spot issue, but something wider-spread, like a indoor humidity problem, condensation, or mechanical issue in the system. It is also an indicator that the ductwork is contaminated. The ERMI can be good in telling if an environment is safe or not, but it often does not give you answers about the source or about how widespread it truly is. Also, after remediation, if you still have an EMMA with high levels of mycotoxins, you know that you didn’t get the source.