DEAR BARRY: My home was in escrow until the buyers found mold under the kitchen sink — just one black stain from an old plumbing leak. They didn’t even ask us to fix it. They just canceled the deal and walked away. I don’t get it. Mold has been on the earth forever.

How did it suddenly become so toxic that people are tearing apart their houses, pulling out their hair, and spending fortunes on mold removal? People used to just clean it up with bleach, slap on some primer, and apply a fresh coat of paint. Now people act like it’s an invasion of space aliens. How did mold become such a major panic? –Martin

DEAR MARTIN: One does wonder how a naturally occurring substance, present almost everywhere, came to be seen as a life-threatening scourge. Actually, it’s just the latest in a series of indoor air quality "crises" to sweep the nation. To begin, let’s define the problem.

Microscopic mold spores are present in the air in nearly all homes. Mold infection on walls and other surfaces occurs where there are excessive or persistent moisture conditions, such as unresolved plumbing leaks, ground moisture under a building, or areas with insufficient ventilation.

In newer homes, mold infection has become common because of airtight construction to conserve energy. When there is little air exchange with the outside, mold spores and moisture can increase within a building, causing mold to grow on some materials.

In many instances, visible stains or musty odors can alert homeowners to the presence of mold. But some mold cases can be detected only by professional testing, and the cost of a mold survey is often prohibitive.

Since the 1970s, there has been a parade of indoor environmental hazards, including asbestos, radon gas, urea formaldehyde, lead, electromagnetic fields, microwaves, etc. In each case, public hysteria was induced by exaggerated media coverage. In the late 1980s and early ’90s, homebuyers routinely canceled escrows at the mere mention of asbestos or radon gas. In the mid-1990s, lead paint sent buyers running for the hills.

This is not to say that there are no related health risks, but the risks were limited to specific circumstances. For example, acoustic ceilings often contain asbestos, but asbestos fibers are not released into the air if the material is left alone. The same is true of lead paint: keep small children from teething on woodwork involving lead paint, and use appropriate safety methods when stripping paint.

But then came mold, the environmental/economic bombshell of them all. The excitement began when some extreme cases of mold infection were given high-profile media treatment on network news shows. This was accompanied by a rash of mold-related lawsuits and insurance claims, causing major insurance carriers to withdraw their business from some states.

In reaction to this, the real estate, pest inspection, and home inspection industries began scrambling for secure ground, searching 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 may read this article and conclude that it whitewashes a significant environmental health hazard. To avert this misunderstanding, a few points should be clarified:

1. Toxic forms of mold definitely do exist and can have harmful health effects.

2. Some homes have become so seriously infected with mold that mitigation is not possible, short of total demolition.

3. The statistical likelihood of serious mold infection does not warrant dire levels of anxiety, mitigation, litigation and expense. There was a time when a mold stain could be cleaned, primed and painted. Now we invest in costly analysis by a certified industrial hygienist, followed by removal and replacement of all affected materials.

A more rational approach would be to balance the costs and risks of mold infection. 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 how much must we spend to affect a sense of safety? The panic over mold will eventually subside, as it did with previous environmental concerns. Then, barring the discovery of some new and unforeseen health hazard, we may 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.

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