Solving Mold Problems and Sick Building Issues
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Environmentalist to discuss your indoor air quality concerns.
Molds are ubiquitous in nature, and mold spores are a common component of household and workplace dust. However, when spores are present in large quantities, they are a health hazard to humans, potentially causing allergic reactions, respiratory issues, headaches, dizzy spells, sinusitus, hives and other serious health problems.
Some molds also produce mycotoxins that can pose serious health risks to humans and animals. The term "toxic mold" refers to molds that produce mycotoxins, such as Stachybotrys chartarum. Exposure to high levels of mycotoxins can lead to neurological problems and in some cases death. Prolonged exposure, e.g. daily home or workplace exposure, can be particularly harmful.
Molds are found everywhere inside and outside, and can grow on almost any substance when moisture is present. Molds reproduce by spores, which can be carried by air currents. When these spores land on a moist surface that is suitable for life, they begin to grow. Mold is normally found indoors at levels that do not affect most healthy individuals.
Because common building materials are capable of sustaining mold growth, and mold spores are ubiquitous, mold growth in an indoor environment is typically related to water or moisture indoors. Mold growth may also be caused by incomplete drying of flooring materials such as concrete. Flooding, leaky roofs, building maintenance problems, or indoor plumbing problems can lead to mold growth inside homes, schools, or office buildings.
For significant mold growth to occur, there must be a source of water (which could be invisible humidity), a source of food, and a substrate capable of sustaining growth. Common building materials, such as plywood, drywall, furring strips, carpets, and carpet padding are food for molds. In carpet, invisible dust and cellulose are the food sources (see also dust mites). After a single incident of water damage occurs in a building, molds grow inside walls and then become dormant until a subsequent incident of high humidity; this illustrates how mold can appear to be a sudden problem, long after a previous flood or water incident that did not produce such a problem. The right conditions reactivate mold. Studies also show that mycotoxin levels are perceptibly higher in buildings that have once had a water incident (source: CMHC).
Although this home suffered only minor exterior damage from Hurricane Katrina, small leaks and inadequate air flow permitted this mold infestation.
Spores need three things to grow into mold:
- Nutrients: Cellulose is a common food for spores in an indoor environment.
- Moisture: Moisture is required to begin the decaying process caused by the mold.
- Time: Mold growth begins between 24 hours and 10 days from the provision of the growing conditions. There is no known way to date mold.
- Mold colonies can grow inside building structures. The main problem with the presence of mold in buildings is the inhalation of mycotoxins. Molds may produce an identifiable smell. Growth is fostered by moisture. After a flood or major leak, mycotoxin levels are higher in the building even after it has dried out (source: CMHC).
Food sources for molds in buildings include cellulose-based materials, such as wood, cardboard, and the paper facing on both sides of drywall, and all other kinds of organic matter, such as soap, fabrics, and dust containing skin cells. If a house has mold, the moisture may be from the basement or crawl space, a leaking roof, or a leak in plumbing pipes behind the walls. People residing in a house also contribute moisture through normal breathing and perspiration. Insufficient ventilation can further enable moisture build-up. Visible mold colonies may form where ventilation is poorest, and on perimeter walls, because they are coolest, thus closest to the dew point.
If there are mold problems in a house only during certain times of the year, then it is probably either too air-tight, or too drafty. Mold problems occur in airtight homes more frequently in the warmer months (when humidity reaches high levels inside the house, and moisture is trapped), and occur in drafty homes more frequently in the colder months (when warm air escapes from the living area into unconditioned space, and condenses). If a house is artificially humidified during the winter, this can create conditions favorable to mold. Moving air may prevent mold from growing since it has the same desiccating effect as lowering humidity. Keeping indoor air temperature higher than 74 °F (23 °C) also has an inhibiting effect on mold growth.
Because common building materials are capable of sustaining mold growth, and mold spores are ubiquitous, mold growth in an indoor environment is typically related to an indoor water or moisture problem. Leaky roofs, building maintenance problems, or indoor plumbing problems can lead to mold growth inside homes, schools, or office buildings. Another common cause of mold growth is flooding.
Removing one of the three requirements for mold reduces or eliminates the new growth of mold. These three requirements are 1) Moisture, 2) Organic Food source for the mold spores (dust, dander,building materials etc), and 3)Oxygen.
HVAC systems can create all three requirements for significant mold growth. The A/C system creates a difference in temperature that allows/causes condensation to occur. The high rate of dusty air movement through an HVAC system may create ample sources of food sources for the mold. And finally, since the A/C system is not always running - the ability for warm conditions to exist on a regular basis allows for the final component for active mold growth.
Because the HVAC system circulates air contaminated with mold spores and sometimes toxins, it is vital to prevent any three of the environments required for mold growth. A) Highly effective return air filtration systems are available that eliminate up to 99.9% of dust accumulation (as compared to 5% elimination by typical HVAC air filters). These newer filtration systems usually require modification to existing HVAC systems to allow for the larger size of electrostatic 99.9% filters. However, thorough cleaning of the HVAC system is required before usage of high efficiency filtration systems will help. Once mold is established, the mold growth and dust accumulation must be removed. B) Insulation of supply air ducts helps to reduce or eliminate the condensation that ultimately creates the moisture required for mold growth. This insulation should be placed externally on the air ducts, because internal insulation provides a dust capture and breeding ground for mold.