Does my Home Contain Toxic Mold?
The Silent Killer
No matter the climate you live in, your house may contain toxic mold due to moisture in the air or any kind of flood - basement to kitchen sink. Unless you built the home you live in, it's hard to know its history - mold may have started growing decades ago or more recently. Normally homes and apartments are painted before new owners or renters move in, further hiding (but definitely not fixing) the problem. Just because you can't see it, doesn't mean it can't cause you serious health issues or even death.
Who Might Suspect the Presence of Toxic Mold?
If any of the following applies to you, it would be worth taking the first steps to determine if you have a toxic mold in your home:
- You live in a humid area.
- You live in a dry area, but have had spills, plumbing leaks, or floods.
- You or your pet have unexplained illnesses, especially related to your cardiovascular system, such as asthma, an allergy to mold, a fungal sinus infection, a cough that isn't cured by antibiotics, bronchitis, and much more.
Toxic vs Everyday Mold
First, be aware that there are many types of mold - some harmful to humans, some not. Some are only harmful at very high levels. Toxic mold is generally not the kind that grows in a cup of coffee you haven't washed for a couple of days. It is more insidious and often hidden, like in a water heater cupboard or inside your air vents.
Molds come in thousands of varieties, but Susan Lillard describes molds that contain mycotoxins in an article posted by the well-respected Mold Help Organization:
The most dangerous mold strains are: Chaetomium (pronounced Kay-toe-MEE-yum) and Stachybotrys chartarum (pronounced Stack-ee-BOT-ris Char-TAR-um) as they have been proven to produce demylenating mycotoxins among others, meaning they can lead to autoimmune disease. Under certain growth and environmental conditions, both of these fungi release toxic, microscopic spores and several types of mycotoxins that can cause the worst symptoms which are usually irreversible such as neurological and immunological damage. Some of these natural mycotoxins include a very strong class known as trichothecenes. Trichothecenes are also produced by several common molds including species in the genera Acremonium, Cylindrocarpon, Dendrodochium, Myrothecium, Trichoderma, and Trichothecium. The trichothecenes are potent inhibitors of DNA, RNA, and protein synthesis, and have been well studied in animal models because of concern about their potential misuse as agents of biological warfare, due to their ability to destroy human health (mentally and physically), and never appear in an autopsy.
How to Test for the Presence of Mycotoxins
When I discovered a black, flowery looking mold when painting a vent cover, I did hundreds of hours of research including talking to public health officials, doing extensive reading on the EPA, CDC, WHO, Mold Aid, and ducting manufacturer websites, reviewing tenant/landlord laws in my state, and much more, to determine the proper course of action.
I first needed to determine what type of mold was growing in my HVAC system and the levels just floating around in my home's air, to know if I had anything to worry about.
Keep in mind: Mold does not need to be growing to have toxic affects on humans and animals. When it dries out, is when it is dispersed into the air. So, the presence of current moisture is not needed. Mold only needs dark, moisture, and a food source to grow, but the mycotoxins exist even if the mold has dried out.
The basic steps that were recommended to me were:
- Home Test
- Professional Mold Inspector
Step 1: Home Mold Test
Keep in mind that a home mold test holds almost no weight in the legal world, but it can be used as an indicator to see if further investigation is needed.
I ordered three tests from Amazon to test for the following:
- Mold obtained directly from where I first saw it (the vent cover)
- Mold being blown out of the HVAC ductwork
- Mold in the still air in my home
The instructions for the tests were very clear. I performed the tests and sealed and mailed them off (with payment) to the labs, per the instructions, and waited a week for the results.
Step 2: Professional Mold Inspector
Because of the results I got from the home tests, I decided that I needed a professional mold inspector and talked to my landlord about the costs, as this is a very expensive procedure if done right. I learned that MANY organizations advertise tempting low-cost inspections, but that certain state governments have mandated training and certification programs. So, I obtained a list of certified inspectors, checked their resumes, credentials, and reviews online, and ended up with an inspector that cost $1200 (an average price for this type of professional).
He and his assistant were extremely professional, had the latest detection equipment, and were able to detect behind walls and places I never could have reached. About 2 days after they left, we received a 36-page report, with pictures, that described in detail the location of the molds, the types of molds, and the levels of mold present in various areas including the air.
Based on the inspector's findings, you will probably want to do the following:
- Breathe a big sigh of relief; or
- Hire a state-certified remediator to fix the problem. Check your insurance at this point, as the expense to properly remediate (do your research here - don't let anyone just brush out your ductwork or apply bleach to visible mold - both the entirely wrong course of action) can run into the multiple thousands of dollars.
- If you are a tenant, read your state's landlord/tenant laws, and give the landlord, in writing, the appropriate notice to accomplish the remediation (Again, do your homework here. I knew I was in for a struggle when my landlord sent out a chimney sweep to remediate.)
- Have your and your pet's health problems checked for toxic mold - this could entail blood tests for mold allergens, sinus scans for fungus, and the list goes on.
- If you are not getting proper remediation from the responsible party, hire an attorney who is an expert in this type of case and can give you references.
- Most importantly, and this is the one that I had the hardest time with, GET OUT of your mold-ridden home. Unfortunately, all of your clothing and soft surfaces (couches, etc) are not remediatable - some hard surfaces can be saved if professionally treated (bleach does not kill mold - just changes its color). Even if you've hired an attorney, the case will take many months or even years to resolve - in the meantime, you are breathing in deadly mycotoxins. If you cannot afford remediation, and the responsible party isn't taking proper steps, and you can't find an attorney, this will probably be a permanent move.
My experience with toxic mold was, I believe, typical. The property management company for my apartment complex hired expensive, high-power attorneys to win their case, and I was forced to move out, leaving behind nearly everything.
But, now, about 6 months later, I appreciate my simpler life. I got to make a whole new start. And best of all, my dog has quit wheezing and I no longer cough day and night. I feel 100% more healthy than during the 2 years I lived in the mold-infested apartment - and that is priceless.