Toxic and Non-Toxic Mold: Because you Don't Test Table Salt for Anthrax

by Marcus Pickett

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Anthrax may register high on the public's consciousness, but table salt is probably the bigger threat to overall public health, as high-sodium diets create a number of health risks over the course of a lifetime. Indoor mold problems act in a very similar fashion, as rare forms of dangerous mold grab all the headlines, while more common molds quietly cause headaches, sinus problems, and other respiratory problems for thousands of Americans.

Just like anthrax, there are a ton of facts and myths associated with mold, based on scientific evidence, sensationalized media, urban legends, and common fears. Here are three of the more useful fact v. myth phenomena that you should understand mold and your home or apartment.

Mold for Dummies

1. Mold in the Home. The uninformed may wonder if they have mold in their home; the answer is yes. Mold spores are truly ubiquitous. Indeed, some people may think if they have a moisture problem or water leak in their homes, they must get unlucky to have mold land on the wood, insulation, or any other number organic substances. Truth be known, if you add water to these substances, chances are overwhelming that will mold will eventually begin to grow. Thus, mold remediation ALWAYS involves not only removing the mold, but eliminating the source of the water or moisture.

2. Toxic Mold. The label "toxic mold" is misleading. Mold is not in itself toxic, although some molds produce mycotoxins that have the toxic effects attributed to mold. Plus, it's extremely rare to find the more aggressive forms of toxic mold, and even these forms of mold are generally only life-threatening to infants, the elderly, or the infirm. Worse yet, you can't simply point to specific molds as the "dangerous" kind or the "harmless" kind. While mycotoxins are almost universally toxic, other molds are allergenic and still others are pathogenic. Needless to say, mold allergies aren't exactly rare. In fact, someone with a severe mold allergy may be worse off being exposed to an allergenic mold, than a healthy person would be after being exposed to a "toxic mold." Meanwhile, pathogenic molds can wreak similar havoc as toxic molds for people who have weakened immune systems.

3. Mold IS a Common Health Problem. The immediate risk of mold exposure, while present, has certainly been exaggerated in the media. At the same time, academic suppositions about the general health effects of prolonged exposure to mold is probably underestimated, and almost certainly has been underestimated in the past. A 1999 Mayo Clinic study found that 93 percent of chronic sinusitis cases are attributable to mold, a figure previously estimated at 6 to 7 percent. Headaches, sinus problems, sore throats, and other common respiratory symptoms can be caused by dozens of things, but mold—even indoor mold—may be just as likely as the next culprit.

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Mold Testing

If You Think Anthrax is Hard to Identify?
Then, you should try identifying mold. While anthrax can appear like salt grains, raw sugar, or sand, there are 100,000+ types of mold spores, all of which are impossible for a homeowner to identify. Mold can be black, white, yellow, green, pink, all in a number of different shades or hues. Worse, the same mold can appear to have a different color depending on the situation. In fact, it's often pointless to identify a specific mold spore. Unless you are experiencing serious health problems, rather than spending time trying to identify the mold, simply call a mold remediation contractor and have it removed.

One of the trickiest elements of dealing with mold in the home is trying to identify whether you have a mold problem behind a sealed interior wall. The most telling sign is yellow or pinkish stains on the wall, but just because there are no visible signs doesn't mean you don't have a mold problem. In fact, smelling mold can be almost as reliable as seeing mold in terms of identifying a mold problem in your home.

More Identification Problems: Mold Testing
Mold testing is hugely controversial. Since mold is always present, air-based mold testing is extremely unreliable. Plus, airborne mold levels fluctuate throughout the day, so multiple, long-term testing is the only way to determine if your mold content is increasing and represents a mold problem. On the other hand, if someone in your home has a known allergy to mold, you might want to invest in a mold testing kit so you can verifiably know as soon as mold levels begin to rise out of acceptable ranges for that household member.

Sometimes Action, not Knowledge, is Power
While all of this information is interesting, it may not be particularly useful to the average homeowner in common mold situations. If you find mold in your home, there is probably no need to run screaming from the house and head directly to the emergency room. On the other hand, you shouldn't let an infant, elderly person, or someone with respiratory problems spend time in a room or area where mold has been identified. If you don't see or smell any mold, but have household members develop some type of inexplicable respiratory problem, well, then, it's time to go see your doctor. Of course, you should always have a mold problem immediately dealt with, if not for the health of your household, then the health of your home. Mold can eat away at building materials, including insulation and support structures.

Marcus Pickett is a professional freelance writer for the home remodeling industry. He has published more than 600 articles on both regional and national topics within the home improvement industry.