The world’s surfaces are covered in mold spores just waiting to sprout. Most of these spores will crack, dry out, and die before they can start to grow, but in countless other places fuzzy colonies of fungi will appear seemingly out of nowhere to devour any organic matter they can. Usually mold is just part of nature, but in the home it can get out of control and lead to health problems.
Most fungi go about their business without you noticing, and there are also quite a few species that can be eaten as food or have medicinal benefits. Here at Molekule we are dedicated to spreading the word about the air quality impact of mold spores and the colonies they form, so here’s a review of the most useful information we have covered on this blog.
Mold allergies and mold illness
Inhaling mold spores can expose us to the mycotoxins and allergens present in a lot of fungi. This can lead to allergy attacks or systemic problems from a reaction to the constant presence of mold. Our article on the species of mold that cause allergies can help to identify some of the more common spores in your region.
Allergens and mycotoxins can easily get into our blood when inhaled, where they then have access to the rest of the body. When mold spores and colonies dry out and break apart, they can become particles less than a thousandth of a centimeter (less than 1 micron). These particles are hundreds of times more likely than large spores to penetrate the lungs' defenses and pass into the blood.
Mold spores contain allergens in addition to toxins and almost any of us can become sensitized to mold over time and develop a mold allergy. According to the CDC, the most common symptoms of mold exposure share a lot with the most common allergy symptoms:
- Nasal stuffiness
- Coughing or wheezing
- Eye, throat, or nose irritation
Always remember that people with existing mold allergies, asthma, who have weakened immune systems, or have chronic lung disease are at a greater risk.
In our article on the signs and symptoms of mold sickness we lay out how to know if mold might be exacerbating health problems in the home. It is not clear if problems from mold exposure are a result of an immune reaction, like allergies, or a different way that the unique toxins in fungi react with our bodies.
When we asked mold specialist Dr. Lauren Tessier, ND, about what to look for, she mentioned that chronic inflammation, chronic infections, or chronically irritated tissues may indicate a deeper issue. Dr. Tessier points out that although black mold is the most notorious offender, there are many molds in many colors that can cause serious health problems.
If you are sensitive to mold, remember that mold spores can come from outdoors. The outdoor mold spore count is usually available at the same places the pollen count is available.
There is a strong smell of mold, and it also might form dark-colored colonies. However, molds are scavengers and survivors and excellent at hiding out to avoid destruction. Mold only grows where it is wet, and may be preceded by mildew.
Where is the mold?
In our article on the 11 most common places to check for mold, we go over the common spots in each room that might be harboring a mold colony. For each room, check:Bathroom
- On the floor and between tiles
- Under the sink
- In the walls (it’s easier for mold to get in there in the wet bathroom)
- In the fridge or pantry
- On or under the sink
- Window sills
- The trash can
- Behind the stove
- Window sills
- In and around the mattress
- AC or heating vents
- Under the couch
- Fireplace or chimney
- Indoor plants
Mold or mildew?
Mildew is a type of mold that is hardy enough to live exposed to the elements. It also comes in many colors and species, but usually appears powdery. It grows in the crevices of plants, in the grout between tiles, or anywhere organic matter collects with moisture. There are not any known health problems resulting from mildew, but mildew means a habitat hospitable to other more dangerous species of mold.
There are products that can kill or bleach mildew away, but if the conditions aren’t changed it is very likely to return. Reducing moisture and increasing ventilation are usually the best ways to stop mildew growth.
Mold or dirt?
Colonies of mold grow in stagnant and seldom-used areas, which are also places where dust and dirt might collect. Under window sills, in the corners of bathrooms, or between the mattress and the wall are places where both grime can accumulate and mold can grow. There are a few simple steps you can take to tell if you’re dealing with dirt or mold.
- Is there moisture? If there’s no water there’s no mold. But even the moisture from your body or breath can be enough if concentrated.
- Does it stink? If it smells musty, swampy, or any other form of gross then it’s probably mold.
- Does it bleach? Put a small amount of bleach on the suspect with a cotton ball. Mold uses pigments to color itself but dirt is made of rock. If it bleaches that means pigments were destroyed and it’s probably mold. If it disappears and comes back within a few days it’s definitely mold.
Getting rid of mold
Dealing with a mold infestation is no simple task. The colonies spread spores literally everywhere, looking for a nook or cranny that fits their needs. Controlling moisture can also be daunting and sometimes expensive. Let’s start with what can be done from our article on how to clean up big or small mold problems.
Cleaning up small mold problems yourself
If the mold colony covers an area just a few feet wide, you can first try to clean it yourself.
- First, mold loves tiny spaces, so figure out if the colony is growing on the surface or has penetrated into a porous surface. Metal, rock, tile, and other surfaces where water beads off are not porous. Anything that can get wet is porous, which could include drapes, carpet, wood, drywall, or anything else that can absorb moisture. Porous surfaces will require more effort and may need to be removed from the home entirely.
- Second, protect yourself and the rest of the indoor space. Use a respirator like an N95 to avoid breathing spores, and close doors and open windows to be sure spores stirred into the air are most likely to end up outside instead of somewhere else in the house. Consider using an air purifier, particularly if you’re removing or otherwise roughly handling moldy items which can put more spores and dead colony bits in the air.
- Third, prepare your cleaning products. It’s not necessary to use bleach which can harm air quality, soap kills mold quite well and with warm water soap can penetrate into cracks and crevices. Use two buckets- one with warm soapy water and the other to rinse.
- Fourth, scrub it off. You want to remove as much fungal material as possible, anything that remains can still be alive to start the infestation over again. When done, be sure you have a plan to dry out the cleaned area. Cut out and throw away porous objects if possible.
- Observe the area for returning mold for a few weeks. Check to be sure that everything was removed frequently, a single spore given food and water can multiply in days. If it remains mold-free, you can replace the carpet, repaint the wall, or otherwise fix the damage. Never paint over mold, you will just be sealing it in with the food and moisture it needs to come back.
Cleaning up larger mold problems
For larger colonies, it’s probably best to skip to the next section and call a professional remediator. If you’re handy and want to have a go at it yourself, here are some of the tips from our How to Get Rid of Mold article.
- The first step is the same as with small jobs, scope the surfaces that are infested. Porous surfaces are much more problematic and are likely to need removal and replacement.
- The second step is also the same, be sure you have a respirator for yourself and a decent way to prevent mold spores from spreading through the rest of the house.
- Before you start to clean, you have to dry. If you remove mold without solving the moisture problem it is very likely to come back. Stop the water from intruding, then use heat or a dehumidifier to be sure the area is dry before proceeding.
- Scrub with warm soapy water to remove the visible mold. It may be necessary to sand wood down to a non-moldy layer, or to cut out carpet completely. Anything that has been made soft by water or mold like drywall or other construction materials needs to be removed and replaced.
- Remove scattered mold spores with a HEPA vacuum and soapy water. Using a vacuum with a HEPA filter is necessary because those less-than-a-micron-sized fungal fragments will easily blow through a regular vacuum filter. Anywhere the colony could have spread spores should be wiped down and dried off.
Carpet is usually unrecoverable after a mold infestation. Carpets are full of dust and mold spores to begin with, and the spaces between fibers are ideal for a mold colony to set up. In our articles on how to deal with moldy carpets, we go over some of the ways that carpet could be salvaged.
- Dry it thoroughly
- Use a hard brush to remove all visible mold
- Apply baking soda and/or vinegar to break down the stinky mold fragments
- Use a steam clear to release stuck mycotoxins
- Apply an anti-fungal coating to prevent further growth
Replacing structural elements may be beyond most homeowners, so when the infestation has gotten that deep look for someone who specializes in mold removal.
Like sinks, air conditioners can present a specific mold problem because of the moisture they have to deal with. Our article on mold in air conditioners goes over some of the ways to clean and maintain an AC unit that is at risk for mold. For a common window-mounted unit, keeping it tipped back so water drains out is a great first step, along with keeping dust to a minimum. If there is mold visible on the vanes then the entire unit needs to be cleaned or replaced, so don’t let it get that far.
When it’s time to call a pro
When the moldy area is much bigger than 10 feet or has gotten behind the walls or into ductwork, most occupants will be out of their element and will need a professional mold remediator. Removing mold can potentially cost thousands of dollars if, for example, wooden structural beams need to be replaced. In our article about mold inspections we lay out why you should get one before any remediation.
If you have found previously unknown water damage, are moving into a new home, or just smell mold and want to figure out why, a mold inspection is a good idea. Some companies may offer mold testing, which will give some idea of the amount of spores in the air and of what species. While this information can be fun to know, there’s no specific species of mold or amount of spores that are considered good or bad. Many species that show up may be from outside and not growing in the house, and many others might be harmless. Only species that are growing and consistently emitting spores are of concern, and they’re best found by looking.
What to look for in a mold inspection
- Don’t overpay, most inspectors will charge no more than $500 for a 4,000 square foot house, though larger houses may run up to $1000.
- Know your house so the inspector checks everywhere. Attics, crawlspaces, under stairwells, or any other out-of-the-way space are all necessary to check.
- Know what a mold problem looks like. In many areas of the world there is some amount of mold growing somewhere in the walls in every home. Small patches near known moisture issues are less likely to be a problem, you’re looking for several feet of growth or penetration of a porous surface.
If the inspection finds mold, before an expensive remediation be sure none of the less-intensive methods will work. Reducing leaks, drying out the area, or setting a lower target for humidity in the home can stop the growth.
Reduce mold spores in the air
In addition to getting rid of any growing mold, it’s also an option to remove drifting spores and fragments with an air purifier. Different air purifiers will have different effectiveness against mold spores. An air purifier that is just an ionizer, for example, isn’t likely to have a huge effect on mold spores.
We published an article on how Molekule air purifiers break down mold spores and capture mold particles. All Molekule come equipped with a HEPA filter that uses PECO to destroy mycotoxins and other organic material at the microscopic level. There are many other air purifiers out there, so be sure to get one that has a HEPA filter to trap not just whole spores but also dried-up fragments.
Air purifiers are not just good for removing the spores. In smelly or stagnant rooms bacteria or other organisms are producing substances as byproducts of their growth that make for a bad sink. Molekule air purifiers will also remove smell from areas like the basement that never quite smell right.