Spring Real Estate 2002

Publication Date: Wednesday, March 13, 2002
Mold: a growing concern
New law requires disclosure of presence of mold in a home for sale

by Kelly Griego

It wasn't the rain from El Nino or the water from a pipe breakage that later flooded her home that ultimately drove Marjorie Groshart and her family from their Palo Alto home. It was mold.

More than four years later potentially deadly mold is preventing them from living in their home -- and now a new law, instated in January 2002, requires that a homeowner disclose any past incidences of mold when putting a house on the market. In severe cases, such as Groshart's, this disclosure could preclude any sale in the near future.

What seems to be the asbestos of the new millennium, household mold is a growing concern for homeowners across the country. All it takes is moisture, and molds can grow on essentially anything. State experts say that half of Bay Area homes have significant mold. And the local climate is perfect for exacerbating an already troubling issue.

Molds not only pose serious threats to a home's construction and survival, they pose serious threats to one's health. Where most of us can be unaffected by certain levels of mold exposure, the elderly, children and people with asthma or chronic illnesses are more vulnerable. In their deadliest form, some molds can kill.

Scientists have discovered more than 100,000 types of molds. Yet, little is known about the life of these molds - namely why they leave menacing enzymes, proteins and toxins on the surfaces they contaminate, and how they become airborne.

One type of mold called Stachybotrys has earned the title "toxic black mold," as it is one of the most lethal, yet common forms. This insidious spore can become airborne and cause serious respiratory difficulties, memory and hearing loss, hemorrhaging, dizziness and sometimes death. Prolonged exposure to this strain can impair memory so profoundly that, as cases have proven, school or work performance can go from normal to nonexistent, resulting in failure or job loss. Stachybotrys has been linked to infant deaths.

Less harmful molds called Cladosporium, Penicillium and Alternaria are more frequent. Where not as likely to pose a fatal threat, these molds are known for causing asthma-related symptoms. Studies suggest that such molds are culpable for, or at least connected to, the tripled asthma rate in the past 20 years.

Before discovering that mold was literally consuming her home, Groshart was experiencing frequent heart palpitations and respiratory complications. "It is very, very scary to start having heart palpations and several doctors can't figure out why you're sick," she said.

Her then 4-year-old daughter developed a severe case of pneumonia, requiring an extended hospital stay, and developed a chronic and persistent case of asthma. Fortunately, one of her doctors suggested that mold may be the culprit, giving long-awaited understanding to their ailments.

When the section of Groshart's home that was flooded by El Nino was being refurbished, she and daughter and husband lived in one section of their home that had not been damaged. Nine months later, a water pipe burst, flooding this section. The mold in her house had become so severe and pervasive that it was simply not livable.

"The scary part of mold is that you can't really get rid of it. And once you become allergic to it, you'll always have symptoms," Groshart said. The only way she can foresee returning to her home is to level it and build a new one, and dispose of most of the contaminated furniture.

Aided by any moisture, molds are typically found behind walls, floorboards, under tiles, especially bathroom tiles, or in ceilings. However, molds can spread to almost anything - clothing, computers, kitchen counters, purses or foods.

In severe cases, insurance companies can spend millions of dollars dealing with mold damage. It is labor intensive, requiring moon suits and breathing masks to prevent exposure to this biohazard and toxic material. And it is disposed of like toxic waste - wrapped and buried. Mold often demands the complete reconstruction of a home. As such severe cases are becoming more frequent - and they are - more and more California insurance companies are declaring that they no longer want to cover mold.

Yet, if a homeowner wants to sell a house that has been mold infested at any time, it is now required that this fact be disclosed. Homeowners run the risk of a decreased home value with this declaration. This conundrum almost always segues into a deadlock battle between homeowner, insurance companies and potential buyer.

"Mold is a concern right now. But there is no law that requires a mold inspection before putting your house on the market," noted an agent from Alain Pinel Realtors in downtown Palo Alto. Although any past cases of mold must be disclosed to a prospective buyer, the seller need not commission a mold inspection by law.

The agent said any prospective buyer has the right to request a mold inspection, but the buyer would likely have to finance the requested inspection. If severe mold is discovered, who pays for the repair is a matter of negotiation between buyer, seller and insurance company.

To further complicate this relatively new issue, the EPA has not yet set standards or threshold limit values for airborne concentrations of mold or mold spores. Consequently, there are no set guidelines to which Realtors abide when determining the gradient at which a home's value decreases when mold is pervasive.

"Mold is just about everywhere," said the Alain Pinel agent. "Anywhere there's moisture, there's likely to be mold. It's bleu cheese." Determining at what point mold becomes a real issue is still a hot debate.
The Toxic Mold Protection Act of 2001, which went into effect in January 2002, declared that the state of California will begin a series of complex tests to assess the health risks molds pose, determine the most efficient methods of sampling and removal, and decide the need for standards of mold assessment and remediation professionals. The state is now in the process of assembling a task force to carry out the act's measures, so no concrete standards are currently set.

Why now? Why the recent epidemic of household mold? Experts say that modern homes are using materials that are more conducive to harboring and spreading molds and retaining moisture, such as fake stucco. Additionally, today's homes are re-circulating contaminated air through central heating and air-conditioning systems.

It is suggested that any major water spills or leaks in a home be cleaned within 24 hours to preclude mold growth. With such a fast growth and reproduction time, and an ability to attach itself to almost anything, Groshart said she has heard many people suggesting steel-based, rather than wood-based, home construction.

E-mail Kelly Griego at kgriego @paweekly.com

How to prevent, control mold

Where the logistical details of resolving household mold-induced issues remain indefinite, molds can be prevented and controlled. And with severe health complications a very real risk, it is important to be vigilant.

** Tend to water leaks or spills immediately
** Be aware of moisture levels and try to keep indoor humidity between 30 to 60 percent
** Be on the lookout for buckling of wood or walls, a common result of water saturation
** Look for visible mold spores, often green, black or white; namely pay attention to moist areas, like shower tiles, bathroom and kitchen cabinetry
** Notice any unusual or musty odors
** Inspect air handling units for pools of still water and make sure they are serviced regularly
** Contact the Indoor Air Quality unit of the California Department of Health Services for mold inspection laboratory referrals at (510) 540-2476; www.cal-iaq.org
** Visit www.cal-iaq.org or www.epa.gov/iaq for additional information on household mold