High humidity spawns mold

Tough, low-profile health hazard flourishes in floods

June 28, 2006|By DENNIS O'BRIEN | DENNIS O'BRIEN,SUN REPORTER

A distinct and disagreeable life form is quietly colonizing Maryland's rain-soaked homes and businesses.

It's mold.

The ubiquitous fungus -- distinctly different from plants and animals -- sends out tiny, unseen spores that permeate the air and give mold its unique ability to survive and spread.

The mold that appears as a harmless speck on a leaky faucet or under a basement water heater will soon eat away at walls, floors, foundations and other surfaces if left unchecked.

"Mold is a very resilient organism," said Lance Fisher, general manager of the Salisbury office of Marcor Remediation Inc., a Hunt Valley-based firm that removes mold and other environmental messes from businesses and homes across the nation.

As rains continue to pound Maryland, mold is an increasing concern. It's why Ellicott City furniture dealer John Harris threw out thousands of dollars' worth of water-soaked furniture and collectibles yesterday. It's why brewer Frank Helderman was getting ready to apply Clorox to the basement floor of his nearby brew pub. They want to limit the potential damage from both water and mold.

"We're calling for a Dumpster, and we're throwing out what we have to," said Harris, co-owner of Caplan's Furniture on Main Street in Ellicott City. Although Caplan's main showroom remained open yesterday, his auction gallery two blocks up the street was damaged by floodwaters.

Harris estimated that he lost thousands of dollars' worth of furniture and other merchandise that he had planned to auction because of flooding that occurred when debris blocked a nearby stream. But he hoped to have the gallery cleaned up by Sunday, in time for the usual auction.

"We'll be opening as soon as we can," he said.

At the Ellicott Mills Brewing Co., Helderman was busy cleaning up the pub's flooded basement. He planned to apply a chlorine bleach solution to kill the mold. If that doesn't work, he said, he has another industrial cleaner on hand.

"Downstairs, the basement is concrete, so we were lucky," he said. "It got wet in the basement, but mostly it's just damp now."

Experts say that mold can be eradicated with chlorine bleach and other cleaning solutions. But the critical first step for many victims is recognizing that the mold is there.

"I like to say mold is fixable, but that mold ownership is without knowledge," said Doreen Eiserman, a Baltimore home inspector who operates a home and mold inspection business and holds mold remediation seminars for real estate brokers.

Mold needs two things to thrive: water and a food source, Eiserman said.

The food source can be wood, paper or even a speck of dust that contains some organic matter, she said.

But mold can be a bit choosy. It likes wood better than brick or stone surfaces. And a wood or cardboard surface with microscopic nooks and crannies is even more attractive than a smooth wood surface, said Henry Shotwell Sr., vice president of Atlantic Environmental Inc., a New Jersey cleanup firm.

It only takes a day or two of moisture to produce mold in crawl spaces, attics and bathrooms, experts say. But mold most often prefers the basement because that's where the water usually is, Eiserman said.

She recommends that property owners clean rain gutters, extend downspouts so they are two to three feet away from the foundation and grade their property so that water flows away from the structure.

"Mold is caused by humans because we're not paying attention to where we live," she said.

Dehumidifiers are also a good idea: "If I could buy everyone a gift, it would be a dehumidifier," she said.

The age of a house is not a factor in susceptibility to mold. "I've seen house that are 150 years old that have no issues, and houses that are 10 years old that have beaucoup issues," she said.

Mold also has been known to cause skin ailments and to trigger asthma, allergies and sinus infections. Ringworm is a mold, and athlete's foot is a mold-like fungus. Inhaling a mold in straw or hay can cause an infection known as farmer's lung, health experts say.

Why a mold will sicken one person -- and remain harmless to another -- likely depends on an individual's immune system, as well as the environmental conditions that spawned the mold, health experts say. Scientists have yet to pinpoint which molds trigger asthma, allergies and other ailments.

"The mold can be different from one environment to the next. There are different species, and you have to factor in specific growing conditions, like what temperature you're growing them in. It does get complicated," said Dr. Kenneth Dangman, an expert on occupational and environmental medicine at the University of Connecticut Health Center.

Dangman was part of a research team that wrote a 2004 report for the Environmental Protection Agency on recognizing and treating ailments caused by molds.

Many of the blights, rusts, rots and wilts that attack gardens and kill a variety of plants are different kinds of molds, said Joan Bennett, a fungal geneticist at Rutgers University.

"Every year on planet Earth, all kinds of plants are killed by different molds," she said.

But molds also play a crucial role in cleaning up organic waste.

"The planet would be filled with leaves and dead animals if mold wasn't there to eat it away," she said.

dennis.obrien@baltsun.com

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