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by CareyBot

Dear Barry,

Do you think the mold issue has been exaggerated? I do. Mold has been on the earth for millions of years. How is it that all of a sudden, last year, mold became so toxic that people are now tearing down their homes, ripping out sheetrock, pulling out their hair, and spending untold millions annually on mold inspections and repairs. What is the source of this crazy new scare? Could you offer a more logical, even-handed response to this overblown issue? – Martin

Dear Martin,

Your questions have been voiced by many and certainly warrant consideration. One does wonder how a naturally occurring, ubiquitous substance suddenly became a life-and-death scourge. So let’s take a look at this latest indoor air quality concern.

To begin, let’s define the problem. Mold infection typically occurs where there are excessive or persistent moisture conditions, such as unresolved plumbing leaks, ground moisture under a building, or lack of adequate building ventilation. Exacerbating the problem in recent years has been airtight home construction methods intended to conserve energy, but inadvertently conserving mold spores and moisture as well. In most cases, visible stains or musty odors can alert homeowners to the presence of mold. But some mold cases can only be detected by professional testing, and the cost of a mold survey is often prohibitive.

As with other indoor environmental hazards of the past 30 years (i.e. asbestos, radon, formaldehyde, lead, electro-magnetic fields, etc.), media-induced hysteria often outweighs balanced reality. This is not to say that these materials do not pose significant health hazards for specific individuals in particular situations. However, overreaction is possible, and instances of excess abound. In the late 1980s and early ’90s, home buyers routinely cancelled escrows at the mere mention of asbestos or radon gas. In the mid-1990s, lead paint sent buyers running for the hills. With each of these issues, responses exceeded the actual risks. In the case of asbestos, most residential forms (i.e. cottage cheese ceilings and vinyl flooring) posed no direct or immediate health hazard to occupants. With most cases of radon gas, mitigation was simple and relatively inexpensive. Lead paint was also manageable. Just keep your kids from teething on the woodwork, and use proper methods when stripping.

But now comes mold, the environmental/economic bombshell of them all. Detonation occurred when some extreme cases of mold infestation were given the high-profile media treatment by network TV magazine shows. This gave rise to an avalanche of mold-related lawsuits and insurance claims nationwide, causing major insurance carriers to withdraw their business from some states. Likewise, the real estate, pest inspection, and home inspection industries began scrambling for safe ground, searching desperately for safe verbiage – what to say and what not to say amid this new liability environment. Meanwhile, trial attorneys were sharpening their teeth and chanting the new mantra, “mold is gold.”

Some, no doubt, will read this article and say that I’m whitewashing a significant environmental health hazard, exposing his readers to catastrophic illness by disseminating misleading information. In the interest of averting any such misunderstandings, let’s clarify a few essential points: 1) Toxic forms of mold definitely exist and can have harmful effects on the health of some people; 2) Some homes have become so seriously infested with mold that mitigation was not possible, necessitating total demolition; 3) The statistical likelihood of serious mold infection does not warrant the dire levels of anxiety, mitigation, litigation and expense presently taking place. In the proverbial “good old days” (about two years ago), a mold stain on a windowsill or below the kitchen sink could be cleaned with bleach, primed with Kilz, and repainted. Now we must engage the costly services of a certified industrial hygienist for an in-depth analysis, and all affected materials (drywall, wood, carpet, etc.) must be replaced.

A more sensible approach to the issues of mold infection would be to balance the costs with the risks. The risks, of course, are real. Mold might someday invade your home, just as a drunk driver might someday cross the double line in your path of travel. But to what extent should we stress over these potential threats? How much must we spend and what procedures must we employ to affect an atmosphere of safety? Eventually, the emotional dust of mold hysteria will settle, as it has with previous residential environmental panics. Then, barring the discovery of some new and unforeseen health hazard, we might return to the relative composure of sensible problem solving, to a place where mold, toenail fungus and the common cold occupy their customary positions among the adversities of everyday life.

To write to Barry Stone, please visit him on the Web at www.housedetective.com.

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