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Hit mold at the source, says specialist

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[AUG. 2, 2004]  URBANA -- Mold. No one likes it, but no one can avoid it, because mold spores are present everywhere. Who among us hasn't conducted the inadvertent science experiment in our refrigerator? The sour cream starts growing fuzzy green spots, so we pitch it and buy a new carton.

But what do we do when those green spots show up on the ceiling in our bathroom or there's a suspicious black stain on the wall in the back bedroom?

First of all, use common sense.

"A small amount of mold is no reason to panic," said Ted Funk, an Extension specialist in the University of Illinois Department of Agricultural and Biological Engineering. "Many people see mold and their first reaction is to call an 'expert.'"

But Funk says most people can do just about all of the mold observation that's required themselves. Since mold needs moisture to grow, your first job is to find the source of moisture that's causing the problem and correct it. An obvious water leak or drainage problem is often the culprit. Once you've found the problem and corrected it, if there is only a small amount of mold, scrub the area with soapy water, rinse it thoroughly and allow it to dry.

However, there are times when the source is more difficult to find. Funk once worked with a couple who woke every morning with a metallic taste in their mouths. They had black dust on their curtains and black soot coming down their walls.

"They said their crawl space was dry, so I checked out everything else I could think of," Funk said. "I finally said, 'Look, I know it's winter and I know it's cold, but we have to check that crawl space.' We went outside, opened the entrance and found two inches of water that had been there for months. Their sump pump had failed."

Another man that Funk worked with moved his family out of their home because of allergic reactions to mold in the house. "He looked all over for water leaks, drainage problems, but he couldn't find a thing."

Then Funk learned the man had installed a second air conditioner. He ran the air conditioners long enough to get the temperature down to 68 degrees, but the cooling cycle wasn't long enough to lower the humidity.

"He'd created a refrigerator," said Funk. "The humidity was extra-high, the temperature was low, and the mold was having a heyday."


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If you have extensive mold growth before it's detected, or if you find that moisture has caused a substantial amount of mold to grow behind wallpaper or in a wall, ceiling or floor cavity, it might be wise to ask someone who has experience dealing with mold in homes to evaluate the problem. It's possible to dramatically increase your exposure to the mold if you don't clean the space properly.

And exposure to mold is rarely a good thing -- penicillin excluded. Exposure means different things to different people. If you have asthma, exposure to mold can cause an attack or make your chronic asthma worse. It can stimulate an allergic response in people who are susceptible to mold, and it can even set off coughing and wheezing in otherwise healthy people.

So how do you prevent mold from growing in your home? The answer is simple. Keep your home dry. If mold doesn't have moisture, it can't grow.

  • Use exhaust fans in bathrooms and kitchens, where moisture is often generated.
  • Avoid the use of a humidifier if possible.
  • Roofs, windows, basement walls and plumbing pipes often leak. If a leak happens, dry the wet material as quickly as possible, since mold begins growing within 24 to 48 hours after a leak.
  • Be alert for dampness in other areas, such as under sinks, in bathrooms and in ceilings below bathrooms or other plumbing.

"Remember," said Funk, "you're going to find garden-variety molds floating around in the air all the time. They're just looking for an opportunity to grow. If you provide the opportunity, you're going to get mold. So don't provide the opportunity."

[University of Illinois news release]

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