So what is this insipid spore that has caused such fear and consternation?

Mold is a naturally occurring microscopic organism, classified as a fungus, that is neither plant nor animal. There are many mold types, and they are found in every U.S. region. Under typical ambient conditions, mold spores exist at safe levels; it is only when living conditions for mold are enhanced, primarily through an influx of water, that spores proliferate to a degree that they could threaten health or cause property damage. The risk of exposure to airborne fungi is many times greater in an enclosed space than in the ambient environment.

As long as moisture is present, fungi will reproduce. If a building is dry, mold will not proliferate. To stop mold growth, the source of water intrusion must be stopped and existing mold must be cleaned. Moisture sources could be roof system leaks, exterior wall leaks, condensation from an improperly installed vapor barrier, foundation leaks, sewage backups, improperly sized air-conditioning units that do not remove enough humidity from the air and improper landscaping. The most notorious source of water intrusion probably is through stucco or synthetic stucco walls. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency estimates that one-third to half of all U.S. buildings have areas damp enough to grow mold.

Any cellulose-containing material coupled with an ambient temperature between 40 F and 100 F (4 C and 38 C) is ideal for mold growth. Drywall or gypsum wall board, all types of wood, adhesive, ceiling tiles, insulation, paint, plywood, paper and cardboard are potential sources of nutrition that spur mold growth. Wallboard is an ideal food source for mold, leading to development from a few spores to a colony that can be seen with the naked eye.

Once mold begins to grow, it does not require much moisture to continue growing. Humidity may be enough to keep a colony of mold multiplying. Some molds can get a foothold in a structure in less than 48 hours. One commonly cited theory for the development of interior mold problems is the construction of airtight buildings to increase energy efficiency. When "tight" buildings suffer from water leaks and poor ventilation, they trap high humidity and become breeding grounds for mold spores.

It is important homeowners and building owners respond quickly to water intrusion by repairing a leak's source and thoroughly drying all wet materials. Any active or visible mold growth should be properly removed as soon as possible, and moisture sources need to be identified and corrected. For immovable woodwork, techniques to remove mold contamination include scraping and bleaching.

Woodwork should be removed if possible. Metal structures, such as ductwork, can be brushed clean and a bleaching solution can be used.

Health effects

Most people are exposed to mold daily and suffer no adverse health effects. In the absence of scientific studies, there is debate among people involved with mold claims concerning whether there is a causal connection between mold exposure and serious illnesses. The most common health problems associated with mold exposure are respiratory ailments that include runny nose, cough, congestion, allergic reactions and aggravation of asthma.

There currently are no federal or state regulations or standards that establish a permissible exposure limit for mold. California enacted legislation in October 2001 requiring its Department of Health Services to study the effects of mold on public health and implement guidelines and regulations. By July 1, 2003, a task force is to advise the department about the development of permissible exposure limits to mold, standards for the assessment of mold in indoor environments, and standards for the identification and remediation of mold. The California Toxic Mold Protection Act also requires sellers or lessors of real estate to provide disclosure about mold to purchasers and tenants.

Although some molds emit chemicals, called mycotoxins, that may cause health problems if present in sufficiently high concentrations, there is no complete list of molds that are harmful to humans. The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) has identified 25 toxic molds out of 3,000 known molds. The health effects of airborne mycotoxins are not currently well-understood.

The Boston-based Harvard University School of Public Health studied 10,000 homes in the United States and Canada and found that half had "conditions of ... mold associated with a 50 percent to 100 percent increase in respiratory problems." And a 1999 Rochester, Minn.-based Mayo Clinic study attributed nearly all chronic sinus infections suffered by 37 million patients to mold. There also are studies linking mold to the tripling of the asthma rate during the past 20 years.

The most well-known toxic mold is Stachybotrys chartarum, a greenish-black mold often found inside wet walls. Sometimes called "black mold," Stachybotrys feeds off organic material and is found worldwide. It requires an ongoing water source and/or extremely high humidity to grow. Stachybotrys is not the black mold found in the shower. It colonizes particularly well in high-cellulose material, including building materials, such as drywall or gypsum board, fiberboard, ceiling tiles, and wooden structures that are continually moist or water damaged, and when the humidity is in excess of 55 percent.

CDC reported in 1997 that significant exposure to Stachybotrys and other molds may have played a large role in the development of infant lung disease. Despite widespread claims and some studies that Stachybotrys produces potent toxins that affect the immune system and cause serious adverse effects on the central nervous system, upper and lower respiratory tract, eyes and skin, the American Industrial Hygiene Association states Stachybotrys "has been inconclusively associated with more severe health effects in some people."

The people most likely to be susceptible to the effects of mold are those with respiratory problems; those suffering from allergies, asthma or a compromised immune system; or the elderly or very young.

The presence of mold can be tested through surface testing (a bulk, swap or tape sample) or air samples. However, testing for mold generally is not recommended as a normal protocol because testing is not recognized as a reliable measurement of the amount of mold present or the amount to which people are exposed. The general rule is if mold can be seen or smelled, it is a concern and should be removed.

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