Mold — The Uninvited Visitor

We would not be here long on this Earth if it weren't for the soil recycling efforts of the multi-celled organism we call mold. However, the same organism that supports outdoor life becomes a health hazard inside the closed space of our homes and work places. Mold can cause a wide range of health problems in humans ranging from cancer to heart disease to asthma when we are exposed to even small amounts over an extended period of time. Chronic infections caused by mold can wreak havoc for years inside the bodies of hosts who are unaware of their mold allergy or sensitivity.

Mold degrades and decays organic material to survive, even including the paste under wallpaper. We recognize its presence by discoloration and/or its mushroom-like odor. In order to thrive, mold requires 40-80 percent humidity plus darkness and stagnant air. Knowing these three survival criteria allows us to be creative and proactive in the prevention of mold formation indoors.

The basement is a common place for mold to take up residence in your house. Try low tech solutions first. Spray the air with a mixture of one cup of water to one teaspoon of tea tree oil. Used on a monthly basis, this simple technique can discourage mold growth. Hang new packages of Zeolite pebbles to absorb moisture. Dry the packets out in the sun to refresh them. If your basement is very damp and susceptible to mold, try keeping the lights on, using a dehumidifier or setting up a fan to keep air moving. Although all three remedies require the use of electricity or a power source, they may be enough to discourage the development of mold colonies and worth the energy expenditure. The trick is reaching those dark, stagnant corners of the room.

common-sense-medicine-mold-smallMany of us know all to well how easily mold thrives in damp bathrooms. One way to discourage its growth is to wipe down damp shower walls and doors after each use. For a clean antiseptic smell in the bathroom, spray the air with vodka. This also discourages the growth of mold. If you have a window in your shower/tub area, open the curtains or shade and let the light shine in during the day.

Mold also accumulates on old papers, newsprint, magazines and books as it uses cellulose paper as nourishment. If you have a collection of old papers, you may want to isolate them inside a cabinet. It is a good idea to check for mold growth on old furniture, areas where pipes can leak and in dusty areas. Even the spider plant or Boston fern that cleans your home's air of chemicals can carry mold in the soil. To avert this common houseplant problem, add play sand to the top layer of soil.

If you suspect an indoor mold problem, you can easily test the air with kits available at the hardware store. Many people test the air inside the room, but neglect to test the air outdoors on the other side of the walls. The outdoor mold count should exceed that on the inside. Check to see if the source of indoor mold contamination may be coming from outside. In that case, clear the area of high vegetation to allow air circulation.

The cleaning up of mold has become a big industry. Maintenance is key to preventing the growth in the first place. This is especially important to those with forced hot air heating, as the air ducts tend to accumulate both dust and moisture. Using a HEPA (High Energy Particulate A) filter in the area goes a long way towards collecting dust and mold so that you're not breathing it in. A vacuum cleaner with a HEPA filter is also a worthwhile investment. Air cleaners with ultraviolet light sources are also available to help keep dust down and kill mold.

One other place to look for mold is in your refrigerator, both inside and outside of food storage containers. Mold's function in the fungi kingdom is to decay matter, and along with the bacteria that catalyzes the whole degradation process, is responsible for the odor where mold is present. Mold flourishes in the door gaskets and other grooves near the door. To clean in the grooves, dip hydrogen peroxide in a Q-tip and run it in the track. The shelves need to be wiped periodically, especially spills and package leaks. The condenser and coils need periodic vacuuming to remove dust and mold. Some refrigerators have a removable drip pan that can harbor mold. Cleaning this with borax will do a thorough job.

Sugary foods such as drops of maple syrup clinging to the bottle or residue from sticky fingers on jam and jelly jars provide food for mold. Food jars should be wiped and closed with tightly fitting lids. All food that is stored in the refrigerator needs to be covered or wrapped.

Food such as aged cheese and fermented foods like sour cream, buttermilk and yogurt are prone to growing mold colonies, so those who have mold allergies or sensitivities should take extra notice. Vinegar and foods marinated in vinegar, smoked meats and fish, as well as fermented beverages (cider, beer, wine) also support the growth of yeast and mold.

For a copy of "Home is Where Your Health Is" with detailed information on indoor air pollution and solutions, send a SASE to Environmental Health Coalition of Western Massachusetts, Box 187, Northampton, MA 01061-0187.

Mary Shaffer is a freelance writer and elder living self-sufficiently, sensibly and sustainably. Her approach to health care is self-care first and when help is needed search out more than one discipline. "I'm not a scientist nor have I studied medicine, but my years of research and healthy lifestyle have garnered me a great storehouse of practical information about healthy living on a budget." Mary can be reached at 413-339-4342.