By Dr. Jeremy Morrison, Grace Cottage Family Health
This has been a difficult summer for people with allergies. Between the heavy rains, heat, and wildfire smoke, it seems like many more people are experiencing sensitivity and allergies this year. Pollen seasons have been lengthening and pollen concentrations increasing over the last decade. Add to that the unpredictable weather and the increase in viral infections caused by the immunity gap from two years of relative isolation, and it seems like some folks can’t catch a break.
Now the days carry a crispness that hints at approaching autumn, and hopefully some of this will subside. The rains and flooding may have left you a legacy though – household mold. In basements, sheds, and woodpiles, around windows and doors, and in corners, previously dry areas may have gotten wet, stayed wet, and grown mold this summer.
While there do exist toxin-producing molds, most mold is not toxic per se, regardless of color. Molds do produce allergens and irritants, however, and repeated exposure can increase sensitivity. Mold can irritate your eyes, skin, nose, throat, and lungs. As an allergen, mold can also cause trouble breathing and asthma and eczema flares.
You don’t have to look very far to get advice on mold cleanup. The internet is full of well-meaning suggestions, recipes for highly toxic bleach solutions, and mysterious chemical sprays for sale. The biblical book of Leviticus offers a few ancient solutions ranging from dismantling the entire house and removing it from the village to a formula utilizing two birds, a clay pot, cedar, hyssop, and red yarn. A more reliable source is published by the Environmental Protection Agency, and this can be accessed at: https://www.epa.gov/mold. What follows are a few of the EPA’s useful guidelines.
Small areas are usually easier to address, as long as the dampness was a one-time issue. The most important thing is to make sure the area can stay dry, with good air circulation.
Any porous moldy materials will have to be laundered well if possible and discarded if not. For example, ceiling panels may have to be discarded if they are moldy. For non-porous surfaces, a spray surface cleaner or borax solution is usually sufficient. For untreated wood, vinegar can be used.
When you are cleaning, be sure to wear protective equipment like long gloves, a tight-fitting respirator of N95 mask (a familiar accessory nowadays), and goggles. If the water causing the damage was contaminated with sewage or if you have carpeting that has been affected, it would be wise to consult a professional.
The above should be generally effective, but if anyone in your household has breathing difficulties or a limited immune system, then you may decide to use a bleach solution after the detergent. Bleach does not have to be stronger than 1/3 cup bleach per 1 gallon of water. Bleach fumes themselves are highly irritating, so anyone with asthma or reactive airway disease should not be in the house while you are cleaning with it, and precautions should be taken to ventilate the area well. Never mix bleach solution with window cleaner or other cleaning solutions that contain ammonia because toxic fumes could be produced. It is usually not possible to completely sterilize an area of all mold and spores, but the mold should not return as long as the area remains dry. Do not paint or caulk until the mold is cleaned up and the area is quite dry.
The EPA recommends different strategies for areas larger than 10 square feet, outlined in “Mold Remediation in Schools and Commercial Buildings” on their website. If you do have a great deal of water damage, or if you suspect hidden mold or mold in your heating or air conditioning system, then you should consult a building or HVAC professional. If this isn’t in your budget, then you could contact your homeowner’s or renter’s insurance carrier to see if it might be covered. Depending on your landlord, they may also be willing to help address mold issues.
If you are still experiencing symptoms such as headaches, eye irritation, rash, runny nose, cough, or if you are troubled by unexplained symptoms, you should make an appointment to see your Primary Care clinician, Allergist, or Pulmonologist.