Mold pollution is a key element of indoor air pollution that few people understand.
Mold has been making the headlines more frequently over the last several years, largely as a result of Hurricane Katrina.
If you live in one of those water-stricken areas, you could already be “sleeping with the enemy.”
Along with obvious places such as shower stalls and damp basements, there can be many hidden sources of mold in your home.
Mold can find its way into some rather surprising places. One study found that even Christmas trees can breed mold, quietly releasing millions of spores into the room and causing winter allergies and asthma attacks. Millions of mold spores may even be hiding in your pillows.
Mold Can Be Deadly
What many people don’t realize is that mold can make you extremely sick, or even kill you. According to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), all molds have the potential to cause ill health. The type and severity of your symptoms depend, in part, on the types of mold present, the extent of your exposure, your age and general health, and your existing sensitivities or allergies.
At a 2003 environmental medicine symposium in Dallas, studies of more than 1,600 patients suffering health issues related to fungal exposure were presented. These patients experienced major medical problems, including the following:
- Fatigue and weakness
- Headache, light sensitivity
- Poor memory, difficult word finding
- Difficulty concentration
- Morning stiffness, joint pain
- Unusual skin sensations, tingling and numbness
- Shortness of breath, sinus congestion or chronic cough
- Appetite swings, body temperature regulation,
- Increased urinary frequency or increased thirst
- Red eyes, blurred vision, sweats, mood swings, sharp pains
- Abdominal pain, diarrhea, bloating
- Tearing, disorientation, metallic taste in mouth
- Static shocks
- Vertigo, feeling lightheaded
Mold’s Favorite Places in Your Home
Fungi grow by releasing reproductive cells (spores) into the air, just as plants reproduce by spreading seeds. The airborne spores are invisible to the naked eye, which is a major reason mold is such a problem. It is not uncommon to find hundreds or even thousands of mold spores per cubic foot of indoor air. Spores are extremely small (1-100 microns)—20 million spores would fit on a postage stamp.
Spores can survive harsh environmental conditions, such as dryness, that do not support normal mold growth. In fact, many spores can lie dormant for decades until favorable conditions allow them to spring back to life.
Molds can be found almost anywhere; they can grow on virtually any substance, provided moisture and oxygen are present. There are molds that can grow on wood, paper, carpet, tile, sheetrock, insulation, leather, fabrics, and foods. Molds survive by digesting whatever substrate they are growing on, which is a real problem when it happens to be your floorboards. There is no way to eliminate all mold and mold spores from your indoor environment; the only way to control indoor mold growth is to control moisture. The most common indoor places for mold to take hold are damp areas, such as:
- Bathrooms and kitchens, especially under sinks—particularly leaky ones
- Behind or under appliances that hide slow plumbing leaks (refrigerators, dishwashers, washing machines, etc.)
- Roof leaks
- Around windows where condensation collects
- High humidity areas of your home, such as basements
Often, the first sign of a mold problem is a “musty” odor. You are probably familiar with the smell of mildew—mildew is simply a variety of mold. You could also notice bowed or buckled floorboards, discolored carpet, a new water stain on your wall, or black or white specks—all signs you could be developing a mold problem.
What to Do Once You’ve Established That Mold Is a Problem
Mold spores are very difficult to destroy, even with cleaning agents, such as hot water or bleach (which is itself toxic). The best way to reduce the problem is through smart preventive measures.
If you can’t move, there are other remedial steps you need to take to address the problem:
- Leaks in plumbing or other structures that lead to moisture buildup should be identified and repaired.
- Areas of leakage and water damage in the home should be cleaned and dried within 24-48 hours.
- Use of an air conditioner or air dehumidifier during humid seasons can help reduce the potential for moisture buildup.
- Avoid the use of carpets in humid basements and bathrooms.
- Using fans and maintaining good ventilation in the home can also help prevent or control dampness.
- Mold inhibitor products can be added to household paints.
- Keep indoor humidity low (ideally between 30%-50%).
- Use bathroom fans or open bathroom windows when showering.
- Appliances that produce moisture, such as clothes dryers and stoves, should be vented to the outdoors when possible.
- Adding insulation can reduce the potential for condensation on cold surfaces (such as windows, piping, roof, or floors).
How To Remove Mold Naturally
Rather than turning to harsh chemicals, such as bleach or borax, to banish mold, there are eco-friendly, natural ways to kill mold at home that won’t hurt your family, pets or the environment.
Vinegar: Though you can dilute it with water to cut the pungent scent, vinegar works best as a mold-killer when it’s sprayed straight up from a bottle onto the offending area. Leave on for a few hours, then scrub the mold with a brush. If the vinegar smell bothers you, add a few drops of essential oil, but otherwise, know that the powerful scent will be gone when you return from running errands or going to work. Studies have shown that white vinegar kills 82 percent of mold spores, as well as viruses and bacteria. Vinegar also can prevent mold if you spray it on surfaces and leave it to dry.
Tea tree oil solution: Tea tree oil, though effective as a natural mold remover, is more expensive than some other eco-friendly remedies, but just two teaspoons of tea tree oil mixed with two cups of water can last you a while. Spray the solution onto the mold spores but do not rinse. Tea tree oil also has a strong scent, which will dissipate within a few days.
Citrus seed extract and water: Unlike vinegar and tea tree oil, citrus seed extract (such as grapefruit) does not have an odor. Dilute about 20 drops of extract with 2 cups of water, mix in a spray bottle and spray onto the mold. As with the other solutions, do not rinse.
Hydrogen peroxide: Spray three percent hydrogen peroxide from a bottle onto the moldy surface and leave on for about 10 minutes. Scrub clean, then wipe with a damp cloth to remove residual mold spores. You can also use hydrogen peroxide and vinegar together, and then store the bottle in a dark area (as light breaks down the potency of the hydrogen peroxide).
Baking soda: Used with vinegar and water or alone with water, baking soda is effective at removing mold naturally. Dissolve baking soda into water or water-and-vinegar solution, and spray onto surface. Let it sit, then scrub and wipe with a damp cloth. Baking soda is a natural disinfectant and very mild, so this solution will clean mold without leaving behind a scent.
How do you prevent mold naturally? Wipe damp surfaces frequently, run a cool mist humidifier, spray vinegar onto damp surfaces such as showers when you’re through, and, above all, be vigilant about leaks. Mold is natural, but in the house, not so much.