Posted by: Lawyer Sanders | June 17, 2008

Flooding causes huge mold problems for Midwest homeowners.

Record flood waters in the Midwest are slowly receding from their crest.  Unfortunately, victims of this latest natural disaster are now facing a battle with a new enemy.  Mold and fungi will rapidly grow in water logged homes and buildings in the summer heat.  Unless mold is thoroughly cleaned away and the structure disinfected, molds will cause substantial damage to homes, furnishings, and personal possessions.  Mold may also cause long-term serious human health effects. 

Molds are a type of fungi and there are over 100,000 known species. They can be nearly any color – white, orange, green or black. In our natural environment, molds are beneficial and are needed to break down dead material. Very tiny and lightweight, mold spores travel easily through the air.  Unfortunately, molds may become a major problem when they grow in our homes after natural disasters such as hurricanes, tornadoes, and floods.  After such events, excess moisture and standing water contribute to the growth of mold in homes and other buildings.  It is always a good idea to first take an inventory of your damaged belongings before attempting to clean up or remove damaged items. Compile a room-by-room inventory of missing or damaged goods, and include manufacturer’s names, dates and places of purchases and prices.  Videotape and/or take photographs to document the damages for insurance purposes.   Remember that your cell phone may be the only camera available to you after a flood event.

Remember, time is of the essence.  In a relatively short period of time, mold can rapidly grow out of control wherever buildings retain too much moisture for too long without drying out, even in arid climates.  The single most important step in preventing or stopping mold growth is to control all moisture problems. Simply put, without moisture mold cannot grow.  If there is mold growth in your home, you should clean up the mold and fix any water problem, such as leaks in roofs, walls, or plumbing. Controlling moisture in your home is the most critical factor for preventing mold growth.

If your home has been flooded, be aware that mold may be present and may be a potential health risk for your family.  Small, isolated patches of mold growing on and around your shower curtain or bathtub normally aren’t a concern. Most building surfaces can provide adequate nutrients to support the growth of mold. When mold spores land on material that is damp – for example, walls, floors, appliances (such as humidifiers or air conditioners), carpet or furniture – they can begin to multiply.  When molds are present in large numbers, they may cause allergic symptoms similar to those caused by plant pollen.  Because mold breaks down and eats dead material, excessive mold can also damage your home by weakening floors, walls, and ceilings as it feasts on wet wood and wallboard, ceiling tiles, caulk, cellulose insulation, and other organic materials.  Homes that are also severely contaminated or that are cross-contaminated by hazardous chemicals and bacteria from untreated sewage need to be stripped down to the framing, disinfected, and rebuilt. This may not be cost-effective. Some homes may be in such poor condition that they must be torn down. 

If you do not properly clean or remove contaminated materials and eliminate moisture from your home, it can lead to potentially serious long-term health risks.  People with asthma, allergies, or other breathing conditions may be more sensitive to mold. People with immune suppression (such as people with HIV infection, cancer patients taking chemotherapy, and people who have received an organ transplant) are more susceptible to mold infections. People who are sensitive to mold may experience stuffy nose, irritated eyes, wheezing, or skin irritation. People allergic to mold may have difficulty in breathing and shortness of breath. People with weakened immune systems and with chronic lung diseases, such as obstructive lung disease, may develop mold infections in their lungs. If you or your family members have health problems after exposure to mold, contact your doctor or other health care provider.

The Center for Disease Control (CDC) warns that homeowners must clean up and dry out the building quickly (i.e., within 24 to 48 hours).  To help remove moisture from inside the house, open doors and windows and use fans to dry out the building.  (See the CDC’s fact sheet for drying out your house, Reentering Your Flooded Home).  According to the CDC, when in doubt, take wet materials out of the house. Remove all porous items that have been wet for more than 48 hours and that cannot be thoroughly cleaned and dried. These items can remain a source of mold growth and should be removed from the home. Porous, non-cleanable items include carpeting and carpet padding, upholstery, wallpaper, drywall, floor and ceiling tiles, insulation material, some clothing, leather, paper, wood, and food. Removal and cleaning are important because even dead mold may cause allergic reactions in some people. Homeowners may want to temporarily store items outside of the home until insurance claims can be filed. See recommendations by the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA). If you wish to disinfect, refer to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) document, A Brief Guide to Mold and Moisture in Your Home.

According to U.S. EPA, to remove mold growth from hard surfaces use commercial products, soap and water, or a bleach solution of no more than 1 cup of bleach in 1 gallon of water. Use a stiff brush on rough surface materials such as concrete.  If you choose to use bleach to remove mold: (a) never mix bleach with ammonia or other household cleaners. Mixing bleach with ammonia or other cleaning products will produce dangerous, toxic fumes; (b) open windows and doors to provide fresh air; and (c) wear non-porous gloves and protective eye wear.

If the area to be cleaned is more than 10 square feet, consult the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) guide titled Mold Remediation in Schools and Commercial Buildings . Although focused on schools and commercial buildings, this document also applies to other building types. You can get it free by calling the EPA Indoor Air Quality Information Clearinghouse at (800) 438-4318, or by going to the EPA web site at http://www.epa.gov/mold/mold_remediation.html .

More information on personal safety while cleaning up after a natural disaster is available at emergency.cdc.gov/disasters/workers.asp.

If you plan to be inside the building for a while or you plan to clean up mold, the federal government suggests that you buy an N95 mask at your local home supply store and wear it while in the building. Make certain that you follow instructions on the package for fitting the mask tightly to your face. If you go back into the building for a short time and are not cleaning up mold, you do not need to wear an N95 mask.  Other federal government mold-related resources are found at: Clean Up Safely After a Natural Disaster; Reentering Your Flooded Home; Mold – General Resources; NIOSH Interim Recommendations for the Cleaning and Remediation of Flood-Contaminated HVAC Systems: A Guide for Building Owners and Managers; Population-Specific Recommendations for Protection From Exposure to Mold in Buildings Flooded After Hurricanes Katrina and Rita.


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