What are the risks of post-flood mold, and what to do about them

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Molds are life forms that recycle dead plant and animal material back into soil. Some molds can also use certain synthetics and plastics as food. Molds survive dry conditions by producing inactive forms called spores, which begin to grow whenever they have the combination of food, water and oxygen.

Molds can grow in above-freezing, non-flood conditions when they can get enough moisture from air, or when water leaks or accumulates in indoor spaces. Molds can’t grow under water, during a flood, because they don’t have enough access to oxygen, but they typically cause problems after floods because wet items become food sources after the water recedes.

The best way to prevent mold damage after either a flood or a water leak is to dry things out quickly. Indoors you can open windows if it’s dry or turn on air conditioning or heat and blow fans over wet carpet to increase circulation of air. Things that can’t be dried out before mold growth takes over, such as stuffed furniture and sometimes carpeting, wall board, sub-flooring and finishing and trim from construction, must be replaced.

The health risk of going into an environment contaminated by mold depends on the amount of mold present. The federal Environmental Protection Agency website www.epa.gov/mold contains guidelines to determine when an amateur can safely clean up a mold-contaminated environment and when it’s healthier to call the pros. Start with the free download from the EPA website, “A Brief Guide to Mold, Moisture and Your Home.” The EPA offers a free on-line course on mold and mold remediation for environmental and public health professionals.

Anyone can take it or just download and read the course materials. The language was chosen to be simple and non-technical so that interested members of the public should be able to understand it. I recommend downloading and reading it if you have mold issues either at home or in your workplace.

Health effects of mold exposure:

The greatest fear about mold that I encounter as an allergist is fear of neurologic or liver toxicity from mycotoxins, toxic substances produced under certain conditions by certain mold species. Mycotoxins can cause injury and sometimes death if you eat them, as happened during the Irish potato famine when there was often no available food except moldy potatoes, but there is no scientific evidence that anyone ever suffered a permanent injury from mycotoxin inhalation.

The National Academy of Sciences reviewed this topic and in 2004 published, “Damp Indoor Spaces and Health” (available free on line from the National Academies Press) as an objective review of the relevant scientific evidence. The reason most homeowner’s insurance doesn’t cover losses caused by molds is that lawyers have convinced juries that their clients suffered permanent injuries from mycotoxin inhalation following water leaks in their homes, but there is absolutely no scientific evidence that this type of injury exists. 

Almost all medical and health effects of mold exposure get much better or resolve completely if the mold exposure can be stopped. The most common health effects of mold exposure at levels encountered in leaky buildings and after floods are respiratory allergies presenting as hay fever, sinus disease and/or asthma. Their management: avoidance to the greatest degree practical, medications to control symptoms, and allergy shots to reduce allergic reactivity.

As many readers know, I’m an engineer by training and our teaching of indoor mold control includes simple measures for rainwater diversion and effective indoor dehumidification when these topics apply.

Dr. Robert Coifman is an allergy and asthma specialist with offices in Galloway and Millville. For information, call 652-1009.

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