Exploring Mold

An Introduction

Suspecting that you have mold, but not knowing for sure, is perhaps the most difficult and disconcerting situation to be in. What is even worse, however, is not finding credible information when you try to find out.

Mold has a specific meaning, but the word “mold” used here is in quotes because the common usage has come to mean whatever someone wants it to mean. Any symptoms from indoors is often touted as proof of a “mold” problem.

Here are key criteria for the presence of mold:

If you answer none of the above, then it’s unlikely you have a mold “problem.” If one or more are present then further investigation may be advisable.

The Basics

It is as important to know if you don’t have “mold” as it is to know if you do. Otherwise, you are likely to waste valuable time and money that is either not necessary or the effort is on the wrong problem. The first step in how to explore is learning basic information about what mold is, where to look, and how to know if it is a problem.

What Mold Is
Mold is an entire group of over a million similar tiny living organisms that are too small to see with the unaided eye. However, their spores can germinate and grow into a “plant” (called a colony). A colony can be so small that it can’t be seen without a microscope, or as large as several square feet. Germination and growth of mold requires sufficient dampness for 2-3 days for many, or as long as 3-4 weeks for some molds. When the germinated seeds (spores) grow and later reproduce they generate more small “seeds” called spores. Spores are even smaller than a colony and cannot be seen without a strong magnifying glass or a microscope.

Growing mold also has an odor, usually described as “musty,” although other descriptions are possible. That odor may smell like other substances because some of the chemicals that growing mold generates are identical to other chemicals found in building materials, plastics, and some cleaning products.

Where Will I Find Mold Growth
Mold growth – rather than just the spores – will be found in locations that are currently wet or have been wet in the past. Mold spores, on the other hand, can be found everywhere all the time because they are typically airborne – which means they will migrate wherever the air goes. But the spores will not – and cannot – germinate and grow without sufficient dampness.

Is Mold a Problem?
Spores are typically not a problem unless an individual is already reactive to “mold.” People who are chronically ill after long-term exposure to high levels of mold are often extremely reactive even to very low amounts of growth and of spores. Most people, however, can tolerate “moderate” levels of mold without ill effect. The best way to initially evaluate is to monitor your reactions (or lack thereof) when you are in close proximity to the damp spots or the surface discoloration. If your symptoms increase when close to it, and decrease when you move away from it, then “something” is affecting you. It may be from “mold” but it could also be from something else, or a combination of mold and other exposure substances.

If you know or suspect you have mold, further exploration is strongly recommended:

Beyond The Basics

The Wrong First Step
Testing is the wrong first step in determining if you have a ‘mold problem’. There are many reasons why this is true, but the primary reason is that all but one of the 16+ different tests for mold only detect spores. While spores are always present everywhere in the air, both indoors and outdoors, mold growth – which is what we want to locate – does not always produce spores. If there is sufficient moisture and food the mold “plant” will continue to spread and grow like a vine rather than stopping to reproduce with spores. This means a test that can only detect spores cannot reliably be accurate. Also, the single lab method for detecting more than spores, such as spore fragments and mold “body parts,” is strictly limited to just 36 mold species out of more than a million different species. Again, who knows if its accurate!
Also, the results of a mold test do not determine two critical things:

The Correct First Step
Explore your house for visible wet areas, damp spots, leaks, condensation plus signs where that dampness may have already dried, like water stains, damage, or discoloration. A simple moisture meter (about $30; available at hardware stores or online) can then help determine if the spot is still damp or if it has dried. When a damp spot with mold growth dries out, the mold doesn’t go away. It’s still present. And, by the way, mold presence is not the same as mold exposure. Presence doesn’t cause problems. Only exposure can.

Mold Exposure (not presence) is the Problem
Mold is a problem only when a person is exposed to any of the many parts and pieces of “mold” – not just the spores. Exposure means the person and the “mold” are in physical contact with each other by either inhaling it, ingesting it, or touching it. The second part of exposure is how long the contact continues. Breathing spores, fragments, or odors for a couple of breathes is unlikely to trigger a response in all but the most reactive individuals. But living or working large amounts of almost any mold for months or years has the potential to sensitize most people. Once sensitized, then extremely tiny amounts for very short times can be sufficient exposure to trigger severe reactions in sensitized individuals.

Mold is Rarely the Only Exposure Problem
The sufficient moisture necessary for spores to germinate and the mold “plant” to grow is also sufficient for bacteria to grow. Staying damp long enough can lead to infestations of insects and rodents. Water damaged materials will also release chemicals, many of which are Volatile Organic Compounds (VOCs), some of which are indistinguishable from the VOCs of building materials, new paint and carpet, plastics, and even some cleaning products.

People are different
Because no two people are identical, and will not react to the same substance at the same time in the same way, the answer to when mold becomes a problem will be different for every single individual in the world. Unlike strep throat or poison ivy which are specifically defined and trigger consistent symptoms, “mold” is only generally defined and triggers large clusters of symptoms – many of which overlap with other conditions.

There are two ways to determine if “mold” exposure is a problem.
Exposure is not the only requirement for reactions. The person must also be susceptible. For example, if a person is exposed to “mold” but not susceptible, there will be no reaction. Likewise, if an extremely susceptible person is not expose to “mold”, there will be no reaction. In other words, no matter how complex the situation, if either the exposure or the susceptibility are missing, there can be no reaction. Two ways to stop the exposure to determine if “mold” is a problem: Remove the exposure source or remove yourself from the source.

If you decided that you need to take action, and you determined that “mold” exposure is the culprit, then the next challenge is how to remediate mold growth. Start by downloading the Moisture Action Plan.