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SEEK AND DESTROY


The good news: Black mold is not too common in Michigan The bad news: If not caught early, it can become a nightmare
February 16, 2003


BY JUDY ROSE
FREE PRESS REAL ESTATE WRITER


Detroit's ultimate home owner horror story concerns a nice young Hazel Park couple. Black mold damaged their home so badly, the story goes, they had to burn it down.

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Is this truth or urban legend? Is black mold the new great threat to our health and finances, or is it the latest boondoggle? Could this happen to you?

The fast answer: Black mold is not new, although mold outbreaks are increasing a little in some new houses. What's new about black mold is the additional public attention it's getting.

Like other molds, black mold can turn into a terrible problem if allowed to grow unchecked. But it's also quite preventable.

It's less common in Michigan than in hot, humid states like Texas and Florida.

As for the couple in Hazel Park, building officials there say the incident didn't happen. But the story shows how scared some home owners have become.

"I've been doing this for 12 years, and we've had these problems for 12 years," says professional mold remover Edward Maloney.

"It's just that consumer awareness is at an all-time high."

Suddenly, black mold has popped up on many radar screens -- those of home owners, insurers, builders, medical folk. But research -- both government and private -- is shallow and contradictory so far, especially about the health effects.

Luckily, we know more about practical issues -- what black mold is, how you get it, how to prevent it.

It's time to learn what the enemy is so you can avoid it. Catch any mold early, and it's easy to eliminate. Let black mold grow a long time, and you have an expensive problem.

One important warning: Black mold is becoming the newest home repair scam. Do not deal with anyone who calls on the phone or shows up at your door and offers to test for mold. Reputable services don't work like that.

Here is a primer of what black mold is and isn't, how it grows, how you can avoid getting it and where to get help if you do.

What it is and isn't
First, most molds look black, so don't panic when you see one. The one hogging today's conversation is Stachybotrys atra, or Stachy (STACK-ee)for short -- and actually it's green-black.

The mold you see on the concrete wall behind your washer and dryer might be black, but it's probably not Stachy. Nor is the black mold on the grout in your shower. Stachy doesn't grow where it's exposed to air and light.

Stachybotrys is the most famous of four well-known toxic molds. The others are Penicillium, Aspergillus and Fusarium. If any of these four are in your house, you want to get rid of them. Though research is skimpy and conflicting so far, its likely they can trigger illness in some sensitive people.

Hundreds more nontoxic molds float through our air, some of them valued parts of our biosphere. These nontoxic molds may trigger cold-like symptoms for people who have allergies.

The Environmental Protection Agency and the American Lung Association say it's less important to identify mold than to get rid of it. The basic rule in the home is: Kill any mold you see, right away. Then hunt down and stop whatever water leak made it possible.

How it grows
You can assume the mold on your shower grout or shower curtain is not Stachy. But if the grout is leaking down to the wood subfloor, that hidden damp plywood could indeed grow black mold.

This is where you step in. You can troubleshoot your house if you know the four conditions Stachybotrys needs to grow:


A long-term source of moisture -- not a onetime wetting.

An organic material that acts as food. Concrete and tile will not support Stachy. Drywall and plywood will.

No ventilation. A well-ventilated attic will not support Stachy. A humid, dead-air attic will.

No ultraviolet light.
Where it grows
From this list you can predict which areas in your house could be susceptible. They're mostly areas you don't see, under a carpet, behind the wall.

In addition, mold must have long-term moisture and food. Drywall, carpet and wood are good food, especially processed wood products like those used as subfloors or under shingles.

Some areas in your house that could grow Stachybotrys are:


Drywall next to plumbing with a slow leak, as behind a sink.

Wood subfloor and joists under a leaking toilet seal, dishwasher or laundry connection.

Drywall and subfloor near a tub or shower with faulty grouting.

Drywall and wood wall studs touching concrete in a finished basement. Concrete draws in dampness like a wick.

Carpet installed on the basement floor or any concrete floor.

Boxes or other organic material stacked on the basement floor.

A suspended ceiling, if there's a water leak above it.

Drywall near the roof eaves, if ice dams at the roof's edge caused water to melt into the wall.

Flooring under a bath or kitchen cabinet that holds a slow-dripping water line or drain.

The wood sheathing under shingles and the wood trusses in a poorly ventilated attic.
Preventing mold
Here's the mantra for avoiding mold: Hunt down every leak and fix it.

"This is a problem, but it's a fixable problem," says Seth Norman, who owns the testing and abatement company Mold Free, in Walled Lake. "If people would eliminate moisture intrusion, they would never have mold."

When a material like drywall gets wet, different mold spores in the atmosphere will colonize in stages, Norman says.

Quickest to breed will be some common allergenic molds. Then, if the drywall stays wet, the next wave of colonizing might include Penicillium and Aspergillus.

Stachybotrys is a third-wave mold, Norman says. "Stachy, among all the molds, needs a lot of moisture."

So inspect your home constantly, says Norman's colleague at Mold Free, Edward Maloney. "Carefully and critically examine the house for flaws" -- water stains in the ceiling tiles, dampness in the floor under a sink.

That goes for the attic too, a place that's vulnerable to two problems you can't see. The first is that the roof might leak into this space. Look overhead for nails that are rusty, for water stains on the rafters. Look below your feet to see whether the insulation has spots matted by water drips.

Secondly, the attic might not be vented well -- and could be a trap for damp summer air (see more on attic vents below). Also make sure any bathroom fans vent to the outside air, not the attic.

Keep your home's humidity below 50 percent with an air conditioner or dehumidifier in summer. In winter, if you run a humidifier, take it apart and scrub it out every month.

If you're really concerned, you can use a moisture meter to find elusive damp spots. Meters cost about $250 and can be rented.

New house mold
You might remember that in 2000, several home buyers in a new South Lyon subdivision sued their builder because their attics grew large amounts of black mold.

This points up the fact that sometimes molds are more common in new houses than old. There are two reasons for this

Today's houses are built tighter than in the past and have less air infiltration. That's good, but it demands that houses be engineered for adequate ventilation. Sometimes builders achieve only the first half of the equation.

In addition, some of today's building products are more susceptible to mold. Drywall, which soaks up water, is a much better host food than plaster. "Plaster was much more forgiving," says Connie Morbach, owner of Sanit-Air in Troy. Glued, engineered woods are more inviting than solid wood.

In the South Lyon subdivision, the culprit was bad attic ventilation, says Maloney, who inspected the houses.

"You could see there were not enough soffit vents to support the ridge vent," Maloney says. "From the lack of ventilation, they had this tremendous condensation inside. So there's our moisture."

The wood under the shingles he inspected had become pitch black with mold, Maloney said, and mold had gotten into the roof trusses.

Michael Jacobson, an attorney for the builder, Silverman Companies in Bingham Farms, would say only that "The potential class action they originally filed has been dismissed, and the case is no longer in litigation."

Dodging new-house mold
When you have a home built, it's tough to exert much influence on construction; that's mainly in the hands of the builder. But you can ask for a few precautions.

From a long list, here are some key issues to watch, according to construction investigator James Partridge of Birmingham and Healthy Homes owner George Riegel of Southfield:


Ample attic ventilation: The best-vented attic will have a continuous ridge vent along the roof peak. Along the lowest edge of the roof overhang, it will have a continuous soffit vent. Either vent alone won't do. Air must come in at the bottom of the roof in order to circulate out at the top. Michigan's building code allows individual, rather than continuous vents, but the cost isn't high and adding the extra is a wise precaution. "Almost 85 percent of every attic I've been in is improperly vented," says Riegel. "In Michigan we get these excruciating, high-humidity summers."

Attic insulation placed correctly. The insulation between your rafters should stop at the outer edge of the house's outside wall. That way it won't block fresh air from the soffit vents at the low edge of the roof. With blown-in insulation like cellulose, "channel vents" of plastic foam need to be inserted between rafters to keep the loose insulation from falling onto soffit vents. Be sure the insulation hasn't flattened the foam forms. Stand in the attic with all lights off. You should be able to see daylight from the soffit vents at the roof's edge.

Extra ice and water shields, made of rubber. These are required around every roof edge and every valley in the roof. Ask that they be at least two courses of 36-inch-wide shield. In addition, ask for extra shields any place snow could build up on the roof, for instance, the place where a gable interrupts the roof line. "It's really inexpensive and once it's there it has a 30-year life," says Partridge.

Slimmer strips of the same rubber water shield around all doors and windows. "Don't accept anything else," Partridge says. These joints usually are sealed with caulk on wood. "The caulk doesn't necessarily last."
Extra care
Beyond that, there are spots you can check yourself. Do this before the insulation and drywall are installed, Riegel and Partridge say. Few buyers do, though, so don't be surprised if your builder feels you're in the way.
While the walls are still open, you can check water lines and white PVC waste lines to make sure they are tight. Laundry lines are notorious leakers, Riegel says. Check your shower pan, a rubber membrane in the floor of the shower, before it's tiled. Make sure the membrane has no leaks.

It sounds extreme, but both said it's important to not insulate and drywall over the house's wood framing if the wood is wet. Often, houses are framed in snow and rain. But that wood needs to dry to a 12- to 14-percent moisture range before it's sealed behind drywall. It's likely your house is OK, but if you suspect it's not, you can call a professional inspector to check with a moisture meter.

Like the public, most builders are just becoming aware of these issues. The National Association of Home Builders launched a consumer Web site that's just about mold, www.moldtips.com. Information there emphasizes how to prevent and clean up mold.

The group also has builder-oriented information on the research Web site www.toolbox.org. Among the developments the industry is coming up with is a drywall less hospitable to mold.

If you have mold
If you have mold, any mold, get rid of it. You don't really have to identify it first, the EPA says, unless you need to for medical or legal reasons.
If you suspect you have a mold problem, but you're not sure, call a professional testing company like Mold Free or Sanit-Air. The tester will take air samples and physical samples that can be incubated for seven days in a petri dish -- the most reliable test.

They'll have a little snake device that can go behind drywall to find mold in the wall cavity. They'll have a moisture meter to check for unseen leaks.

For some mold, removal can be as simple as scrubbing down a wall surface with detergent and water, then rinsing it with a 1:9 solution of bleach and water.

You can tackle a small Stachy growth yourself, say on a hard surface that's unlikely to have an infected wall cavity behind. But don't wing it with a bigger growth; learn the right way. The EPA has an informative Web site about mold, www.epa.gov/iaq/molds /preventionandcontrol.html. Or call 800-490-9198.

The industry standard for removal is a long list of guidelines published by the New York City Department of Health. Visit www.ci.nyc.ny.us, then type "mold removal" into the search window. Or call 212-442-3372.

If you have a large infestation of mold, you must call a professional remover like Mold Free, or Sanit-Air. There is no single certifying agency, but you'll find one list on the Web site of the Indoor Air Quality Association, www .IAQA.org.

Mold removal can be expensive. Mold Free's Seth Norman estimates that fixing a simple closet could cost hundreds of dollars, a badly infested attic could cost $8,000-$12,000.

Most ethical mold companies will not act as tester and remover on the same project to avoid conflicts of interest.

Do not be panicked by pressure tactics. If you think you have a problem, find a real expert.

"There's a lot of cowboys and unethical people," says Norman, "just out there to make a buck."




Contact JUDY ROSE at 313-222-6614 or rose@freepress.com.
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