Publication Date: Wednesday, April 7,
Making war on mold
Too much of a good thing can be expensive to fix
by Muoi Tran
an unexpected house guest showed up and didn't want to leave,
Lynn Drake knew she had a serious problem on her hands. For five
years, Drake and her family of four shared their Palo Alto Eichler
home with mold -- a microscopic type of fungus that seeks and
thrives on moisture.
Drake, a full-time mom trained as a materials engineer,
couldn't give up without a fight, however. Looking back, Drake
said that her war to oust the mold, which grew on various cold
walls and in damp closets throughout her home, was long and costly
-- and involved a lot of mistakes, as well as creativity. But
ever since she correctly identified and fixed the root of the
problem by bringing down the moisture in her home through a custom
ventilation system, she and her family finally are enjoying a
"You see, mold is everywhere around us," Drake said.
Outdoors, mold is in the air and in the soil, constantly breaking
down organic matter. Indoors,
even in the most well-scrubbed homes, its spores are floating in search of
moist spots to grow. In fact, of the tens of thousands known types
of mold, most are
beneficial and used to create a variety of foods and beverages -- as well as
life-saving medicines such as penicillin, said Dr. Robert C. Bocian, head of
the allergy department of the Palo Alto Medical Foundation.
"Without mold, life on Earth as we know it would not be possible," he
Yet too much of a good thing can turn into an expensive problem very quickly,
especially when it just won't go away. Also, some types of molds can cause allergic
reactions in some individuals. Fortunately for the Drakes, the mold was more
of a nuisance than a health threat.
While the ingredients for mold are known -- an abundant source of water or moisture
(more than 60 percent relative humidity), organic materials (such as wood, particleboard
or paper-faced drywall), and the right temperature (40 to 100 degrees Fahrenheit)
-- solutions are much more difficult to determine because the sources of these
factors vary from home to home.
Although currently there are no regulations in the building code that deal specifically
with mold, Bud Starmer, the supervising inspector of Palo Alto's building department,
said that he points callers to the Environmental Protection Agency and the Department
of Health Services for helpful advice on how to deal with mold.
He also suggested that people start by taking the basic steps: "Open
a window, use fans. Basically the issue comes down to moisture in air
condensing down on
cold surfaces. Then get out the soap and water, buckets and brushes,
When Drake first spotted her mold problem in the winter of 1997, her family's
first winter in their Eichler home, she immediately called a mold expert. That
was her first mistake.
"I called a mold expert to do some experting, but it was expensive," she
"They didn't offer much in the way of solutions. It
turns out that if you see mold, you don't need to hire someone
to do a
you there's a problem."
According to the California Department of Health Services, testing
to determine mold inside the home is not recommended. "Most problems are evident without
testing, that is, test results generally give little or no useful information
for planning the clean-up," said Jed Waldman of the Indoor Air Quality Section
of the DHS. "Secondly, testing is expensive -- resources are
better spent on the clean-up."
Drake's second mistake in her fight against mold was thinking that
the moisture came from outside her home. She saw water condensing
on her windows and walls
and thought that she needed to insulate her house more by replacing
the single-paned windows with double-paned ones.
Her problem actually got worse. "Turns out people are moisture generators," Drake
said when she ultimately discovered the source of her moisture. "They
take hot, steamy showers. They boil pasta. They run the dishwasher
and the washing
After her house was more insulated, more moisture became trapped
inside, which perpetuated the mold growth. Finally, Drake knew
she needed to ventilate her
house and installed a custom-designed system.
On the DHS Web site, it states that once the moisture source is
identified and corrected, then begin to clean, disinfect and dry
the area. Some materials such
as glass or metal can be cleaned, but porous materials that can
trap molds, such as paper, fabric and wood, should be discarded.
These steps may sound simple, but there is plenty of room for
is important that personal protection equipment -- gloves, mask, eyewear -- be
used, and the clean-up of a contaminated area be contained, e.g., on plastic
sheets, so that dust and spores do not spread," said DHS'
"Another common mistake is to treat mold with bleach. Using
bleach as a disinfectant is generally unnecessary, if the material
can be thoroughly
cleaned, and it can be unnecessary use of a hazardous chemical."
Depending on the scale and complexity of the problem, calling for expert
advice might be the only solution, but be wary because there is little
it comes to dealing with mold.
"A lot of people try to do it, but not a lot of people know what they're
doing," said Arley Campbell, owner of San Mateo-based Aachwen Environmental
and a licensed contractor dealing with mold since 1989. "It's a specialized
field, but you can go out today and open a mold remediation company by 2 p.m." Always
ask for references, at least 10 or 20, he added.
And if you do have a mold problem, the worst thing you can do is
ignore it or try to cover it up with paint, Campbell said.
"The problem is that cellulose-based paints feed the mold. It's like feeding
people a buffet and telling them to lose weight," he said.
Once the mold spreads, the only option is to remove the contaminated
materials and rebuild, and this can be very costly, anywhere from
"People usually call me when they're selling or buying a home," Campbell
"They let the problem get completely out of control, and then it costs