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This Mold House redux: Same old same mold

NolaVie editor Renee Peck wrote This Mold House for The Times-Picayune for four years after Hurricane Katrina. She is reposting a number of her favorite columns in conjunction with the 10th anniversary of the storm. This article originally was published in The Times-Picayune InsideOut section on Oct. 29, 2005.

New Orleanians aren't much in the mood for fake spider webs or ghoulish trappings this Halloween: The post-Katrina invasion of mold has covered the city in an all-too-real horror decor.

New Orleans is home to thousands of mold species. In fact, Dr. John Salvaggio, a local internist who died in 1999, dubbed the annual late-summer onslaught of wheezing and coughing "New Orleans asthma," a condition he believed was prompted by August's high levels of mold spores and accompanying heat.

But what was a normal outdoor nuisance became an indoor onslaught when Hurricane Katrina blew through. The flooding and power outages after the storm provided exactly the right conditions for mold growth: moisture, darkness and warmth. And common building materials provided excellent nourishment: Mold eats organic material, including anything containing cellulose such as Sheetrock and particle board, and invades virtually any porous surface in the house, from upholstery to insulation.

Even homes lightly touched by Katrina saw mold infestation. The industry rule of thumb is 48 hours: If your house stayed wet for two days, you got mold. Problems mushroomed because residents couldn't return for several weeks, houses without electricity didn't have air conditioning to lower humidity, and windows were shut tight, turning homes into virtual mold hothouses.

"This is an unprecedented amount of mold," said Bill Sothern, a certified industrial hygienist with Microecologies Inc. "It doesn't exist anywhere else. Even the tsunami wasn't this bad -- maybe because they didn't have Sheetrock."

"The issue is quantity," agreed Claudette Reichel, extension housing specialist with the Louisiana State University Agricultural Center. "Mold releases tiny spores that travel in the air and settle on surfaces and multiply exponentially under the right conditions."

Painfully plentiful

A typical recent mold sampling by Sothern revealed 18,360 mold spores per cubic meter of air outdoors -- "that's normal, no big deal," he said -- and 1.27 million mold spores inside the accompanying house. Some homes have tested at nearly 3 million mold spores per cubic meter of air.

Mold comes in a rainbow of colors and a range of textures and shapes. The kind of mold growing in your house depends on what you had floating around in the air before the storm.

The white fuzzy mold currently growing up to 2 inches deep on local interiors is referred to in the industry as "cotton candy." Many molds are black, but not all of them are the "black mold" that reached celebrity status in 1993 when it was found growing in several Cleveland, Ohio, homes where infants had died of pulmonary hemorrhages.

" 'Black mold' is a meaningless term," said Reichel. "Most molds are black."

In fact, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention states that there is no proven connection between infant bleeding and stachybotrys chartarum, the original "black mold." The center also points out that the term "toxic mold" is inaccurate: While certain molds are toxigenic, meaning they can produce toxins (specifically mycotoxins), the molds themselves are not toxic, or poisonous.

There are, however, health risks associated with toxigenic molds, and Sothern said he has found "massive levels" of stachybotrys in several local homes. The mold expert also is concerned, he said, by findings of trichoderma and fusarium, the latter of which looks like a spider web and is considered rare. "I'm shocked at the amount of it I've seen," said Sothern. He is awaiting further testing on several kinds of aspergillus to see if any are toxigenic species.

The multiple varieties of mold found in many homes creates another problem. When different species fight for the same food sources -- as has happened with Katrina -- they produce higher levels of toxins. And killing the mold does not get rid of the toxins: While dead mold spores can no longer cause infectious diseases (which are rare anyway), they are just as potentially perilous if inhaled.

"The health hazard depends on the level of exposure and the sensitivity of the individual," said Reichel. "Some people can clean up with no effects. Others can come in contact with a tiny bit of mold and get sick."

Mold can be a trigger for asthma and allergies. If you're allergic to penicillin, you'll also be allergic to the 150 species of penicillium molds.

The young, the old and those with suppressed immune systems are particularly susceptible to mold. Ingesting, inhaling or even touching mold can cause reactions, which may range from flu-like symptoms, eye irritation or rashes to chronic fatigue or nausea.

"Coupled with all the stress we're under, you might get the flu this year when you usually don't," said Reichel.

Even extensive mold, however, often can be successfully removed.

"The good news is, if mold is going to be a problem, it usually will be visible," said Sothern. Of 20 houses he tested that had high mold content, all but one were deemed remediable.

If you do the mold removal yourself, be careful how you proceed: Mold spores float into the air at the least disturbance -- waving a hand in front of your face is enough to dislodge them. (See mold remediation tips on Page 17.) The EPA recommends that individuals should consider hiring a professional if mold covers an area larger than 10 square feet.

"Most people will use common construction methods to rip out moldy surfaces, and some of them will get sick," said Jeff Pothast, a Colorado industrial hygienist who specializes in mold remediation. A half-face purifying respirator with an N-95 or better rating, goggles and gloves are minimum requirements when removing mold.

Meanwhile, the infestation of mold has made remediation a growth industry. "Professional" mold removers are multiplying almost as fast as the spores they're offering to eradicate. By law, however, professional mold remediators must have 24 hours of class time and be licensed in mold remediation by the Louisiana State Licensing Board for Contractors. To search for licensed mold remediators in Louisiana click here.

Most professional mold remediators charge about $10 to $12 per square foot; the fee includes demolition and removal, but not reconstruction. While there are workers who will pull out Sheetrock for $2 to $4 a foot, adds Sothern, they can conceivably seek damages from the homeowner if they get sick. Also, improper drywall removal can spread the spores to other areas of the house.

Failure to do a thorough job also can lead to problems down the road.

"Some mold strains can lie dormant (in a wall) for up to 12 years, waiting for moisture to grow," said licensed remediator John Salmon of Aire-Scrubbers.

Renee Peck is editor of NolaVie. Email her at [email protected]