Just a patch or a plague?

Times Staff Writer

Mold. The word has power.

It can propel entire families to flee their homes to bunk in cramped hotel rooms, leaving cherished possessions behind to rot. It can make a condo resident accuse a neighbor of being so dirty that property values have fallen, and a landlord worry that it will be impossible to find a new tenant.

"The black plague." "Leprosy." "The new asbestos." The terms for toxic mold sum up the fear and stigma attached to it. One Bel-Air woman was so afraid of what people would think that she asked the company hired to clean up the mold in her house to cover that word on the side of its trucks.

Contaminated homes have been cordoned off as if they were crime scenes, bulldozed and burned.

Celebrity cases have moved mold into headlines. Jennifer Aniston found it growing in the garage of the $15-million Hollywood Hills home she shares with husband Brad Pitt; she flew to Malta to join Pitt while a crew came to the rescue. Toxic-crusader Erin Brockovich got sick from it; she is suing the seller and has settled with the builder. Ed McMahon fell ill, and his dog died; he got a $7-million insurance check.

How dangerous is this stuff? Does a fuzzy splotch on the shower curtain mean it's time to call in the mold removers in moon suits?


"Having mold in a bathroom is not unusual," says Dr. Eckardt Johanning, director of the Fungal Research Group Foundation in Albany, N.Y. "Mold grows where you have water, moisture or high humidity. If you see it, just don't wait until it's several square feet wide before you do anything about it."

Before springing for air-quality test kits with petri dishes or calling in the mold-sniffing dogs, take a crash course on the subject. What you'll discover is calming. Or maybe not. For you see, mold is natural. And it's everywhere.

Mold is a fungus, a family that also has some good relatives like mushrooms and yeasts. To grow, it has to have something to drink (the tiniest drop of water), eat (anything soft) and a little warmth. There may be hundreds of thousands of types; no one is sure. Some make penicillin and ripen chevre cheese, while others can be harmful. "The bad boy is Stachybotrys, the nasty, black toxic mold," said Chris Vuckovich of Aaaaable, an Orange-based company that specializes in mold and water damage. "By the time you see that, you've got a problem."

Mold is so small that it's invisible, so when a blotch of black, gray, white, red, orange, yellow, blue or violet shows up, you're actually seeing hundreds of generations of mold carcasses and waste.

A patch of mold on one side of a wall might mean the inside is covered with it. "It's like cockroaches," says Elliott Block, a Los Angeles attorney with Stanzler Funderburk & Castellon, who gives seminars on mold-damage liability. "If you see three or four, there may be hundreds of cockroaches you don't see. If you see three or four mold spots, well ...."

Mold outbreaks are more prevalent now because of the way homes are built. Since the 1970s, they've been made more energy-efficient, that is, buttoned up so tightly that moisture can't escape. Homes are also built with less expensive, porous materials, such as drywall, plywood and stucco, that lure moisture. Modern plastic pipes aren't helping; they break easier than copper plumbing, causing water leaks. And building-boom-style faulty construction has meant cracks in the foundation, improperly installed windows and other problem areas where water can pool.

The building industry is changing its course. It's testing drywall backed with glass-fiber rather than paper, antimicrobial sealants and paints, and water-proofing systems. Some architects tout steel, concrete and glass as mold busters.

There are products that try to blast-kill it with dry ice, ultraviolet light and ozone, but some doctors, including Johanning, worry that some of these may bring on their own harmful reactions.

The steps to tackling mold come down to this: Look for it. Remove it. Prevent it from coming back.

There are clues: If the water bill has spiked, it might mean you have a leak that could be cultivating a colony of mold. If a room smells musty -- "like sneakers left in a really dirty men's locker room for five years," says Block -- or people in the home have mysterious sneezing, fatigue or other symptoms, hunt for the source.

If there's a leak, repair it and keep the area dry. Rent an industrial dryer and let it run continuously until walls, floors, everything is completely water-free.

If the moldy area is smaller than a cabinet door panel, you can seal the room with heavy plastic to stop spores from spreading to the rest of the house. Put on rubber gloves, safety goggles and a disposable dust mask and wipe down the area with detergent and water. Watch that the mold doesn't return.

You can prevent that by opening windows and allowing fresh air and sunlight inside and moisture to go outside. In rooms where condensation or moisture lingers, turn on an exhaust fan to circulate the air and maybe a dehumidifier to dry it out.

Whether it's a splotch you may be able to handle yourself or an infestation so bad that hardened pros run out of the room, the most important action you can take is this: Fix it. Now. Mold and the serious problems it can create multiply the longer you wait.

"A $2,000 water-damage job that's not properly done can swell to a $10,000 mold-removal job," says remover Vuckovich. "And it costs more every day. Depending on the humidity and temperature, mold can duplicate every 20 minutes and destroy the contents of an entire house; so now you're looking at a loss of $300,000."

Who pays for mold? Some homeowners' or landlords' insurance policies exclude or limit mold coverage, covering only "sudden and accidental" release of water caused by pipes bursting, but excluding water damage caused by rain, leaking roofs or earth movement, says Block. If the mold returns, the insurance company can say it's a new claim that's not covered.

If you turn to a mold expert, find one who meticulously follows Environmental Protection Agency recommendations to remove it. Some people call in a team: a remediator to remove the mold, an industrial hygienist to map out the treatment and an inspector who is not loyal to the insurance company or the remediator to evaluate the work.

"Most people either think you're a snake oil salesman or a god, and the truth is somewhere in between," Vuckovich says. "Every job has a different cocktail of mold, and every human has a different immune system. What's appropriate for you might kill my mom. We rely on air-quality standards."

Air samples compare the air outside with what's inside. The inside air of a healthy home is 50% cleaner than outside, but a mold-damaged home is 10- to 1,000-fold dirtier, Vuckovich says.

"There are a lot of companies that will rip you off even as they're handing you a 20-page report on your 'problem,' " says Diana Meier of Inglewood, a mold survivor, advocate and educator who hosts a Web site, moldgoddess.com.

Her advice: Get an education, and get the job done right the first time.

Government and health agencies -- such as the EPA (www.epa.gov) and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (www.cdc.gov) -- are good places to start.

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