Understanding Mold Exposures for the Homeowner

National estimates show that one in three houses has a moisture problem, and one in ten houses has enough mold that could cause allergic reactions.  All of us are exposed to some mold every day with no side effects. We may breathe in mold spores that are present in the air or eat foods in which mold has begun to grow. People with mold allergies, however, may have a reaction if exposed to too much of the fungus.

While not everyone is allergic to mold, if a person has a mold allergy it can cause a variety of reactions throughout the body, and in particular the central nervous system.  Symptoms can include the inability to concentrate, memory loss and headaches.  Children can react with behavioral and learning disorders, sometimes misdiagnosed as attention deficit disorder or asthma.  One form of mold, black mold, is extremely toxic and can be deadly, especially to children with mold allergies.

Recently, a jury awarded a Wichita couple $1 million in damages because a house they bought was infested with mold the plaintiffs claimed had caused allergic reactions.  The jury ruled that the sellers were negligent in failing to disclose a leaky roof that caused the mold.  Around the nation, juries have awarded damages in the hundreds of millions of dollars for mold lawsuits, not only against previous property owners, but also construction firms, engineers, architects, and others alleged to be responsible for mold problems.  In fact, mold lawsuits have been one of the fastest growing areas of litigation in recent years. 

A homeowner’s insurance policy usually covers mold damage only if it results from something sudden and accidental, such as a burst washing machine hose.  But if the root cause was a maintenance defect or neglect, mold removal most likely would not be covered.  Due to skyrocketing losses from mold and other water-related damage claims, some homeowner’s policies in 44 states have exclusions for mold and other water-related damage in standard policies, according to the Insurance Information Institute.  Homeowners facing this change have two options:  purchase extra insurance for mold in the form of a rider or take measures to prevent the problem from occurring.  Riders can cost from $50 to $1,400 per year, depending on the insurer and location, according to a spokesman for Tillinghast, the insurance-consulting unit of Towers Perrin.

     What to Do About Mold

Whenever water gets into a house-through a leak in the roof, a burst pipe, a hard rain seeping into the basement, etc.-the affected area must be dried completely within 48 hours (72 hours tops) to prevent mold.

Mold can also result from high humidity, but this problem can usually be solved with a dehumidifier.  Yet another cause of mold is clogged air-conditioning coils.  Ask a service technician to check the air-conditioning coil to make sure the condensation drain line is free flowing and the coils are clean.

Mold may be present in your basement without your knowing.  Hold a flashlight toward the floor so that the light shines down the wall but not directly at it.  Look for shadows cast by the fuzz of mold, usually in a band on the bottom of the wall.  Also look at the tack strip under carpeting for signs of rot and behind baseboards for mold.  If you find mold anywhere, it may be advisable to contact a professional for further assessment.

According to the Environmental Protection Agency, mold that covers an area smaller than a 3-by-3-foot square can be safely removed by a homeowner.  Many people use bleach on mold, but the EPA disagrees.  Bleach can kill mold, but the dead mold will remain and could cause the same allergic reactions as live mold.  Instead of bleach, just use detergent and water.  Detergent lifts the mold away.  Then dry the area as quickly as possible.   

For larger problems, you should consult a professional environmental consultant.  Fire and water damage restoration companies will provide free or low-cost assessments, too, but keep in mind there could be a conflict of interest with these companies.

For more information about mold, consult the EPA brochure, “A Brief Guide to Mold, Moisture and Your Home.” It’s available online at www.epa.gov/mold.  For more in-depth information, see the EPA brochure “Mold Remediation in Schools and Commercial Buildings” which also applies to homeowners.

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