Mold Molds are biological microorganisms that can grow almost everywhere. Outside, molds are necessary to our ecosystem because they decompose decaying substances, such as dry leaves, wood, and other plant debris. Once recycled, the broken-down substances become nutrients that sustain plant and animal life. Heightened concern over indoor mold began in the mid-1990s, when the mold Stachybotrys chartarum was found in a cluster of homes in Cleveland, where infants died from a rare bleeding lung disease. Mold, however, wasn’t proven as the causal link for those deaths, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, although further research is needed. In any case, mold shouldn’t be allowed to proliferate indoors. It may cause certain people to have allergic reactions, infections, respiratory problems, and other ailments. Mold also can cause structural damage to personal property and buildings. The California Department of Health Services doesn’t recommend professional testing as a first step to determine whether a mold problem exists. In fact, the most practical way to detect mold may be by looking and smelling–even though a very careful inspection may not reveal all molds in a home. A visible mold colony is cottony, velvety, or granular, but some mold may appear as just a stain, smudge, or discoloration. Certain molds smell musty, earthy, or faintly like alcohol. If a suspected area is dabbed with a drop of chlorine bleach and the area changes color or disappears, it’s likely organic and is probably a mold. According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, the key to preventing mold growth is to control moisture. Good tips include keeping the house clean and dry, providing good ventilation, using exhaust fans, and keeping the house at 30 to 50 percent relative humidity.

Lead is a toxic metal that was used in many consumer products like paint, gasoline and water pipes before we knew how harmful it is, even at small concentrations. Lead poisoning can cause permanent brain damage and damage to other organs. In children, it can cause reduced intelligence, low attention spans, and other developmental and behavioral problems. Young children are especially at risk because they often put things into their mouths, and once ingested, their developing bodies more easily absorb the lead. Lead-based paint was banned in 1978, so many people simply assume older houses contain lead in the paint, dust and soil. Otherwise, a certified lead-based paint inspector needs to be hired to assess lead hazards. If lead is present, good safety tips include getting young children tested for lead, keeping the house clean and dust-free, hiring an abatement specialist to repair damaged paint surfaces, planting grass to cover the soil, and flushing the tap before drawing any drinking water.

Asbestos is a naturally occurring fibrous mineral that was used from the 1920s to the 1970s in building materials, especially for insulation and as a fire retardant. Scientists later discovered that, if inhaled, asbestos could cause lung cancer and other illnesses. As a result, many asbestos-containing products have been banned and homes built within the last 20 years probably have no asbestos, according to the EPA. In older homes, asbestos may be found around pipes and heating and air-conditioning systems or in tiles, vinyl flooring, acoustic "cottage cheese" ceilings, textured paint and other building materials. However, if the building materials are in good condition, they’re generally not dangerous because the asbestos fibers are intact. But, as with lead-based paint, health risks increase if the building materials are damaged, deteriorated, or disturbed. Asbestos can’t be identified simply by sight. Qualified professional needs to be hired to inspect the property, take samples for testing, and determine what corrective actions are needed. You also should note that they should never handle materials containing asbestos themselves.

Radon is an odorless, colorless radioactive gas that can, after prolonged exposure, cause lung cancer, especially among smokers. When the uranium contained in soil, rock (granite and shale), and water naturally decays, it releases radon gas into the air. This isn’t a problem outside because radon diffuses into the atmosphere. However, radon can enter buildings through cracks in concrete, crawl spaces and other openings and become problematic. The only way to detect radon is by testing. Initial test kits are available at hardware stores. If radon is present, there are many effective ways to fix the problem. California’s Department of Health Services the National Environmental Health Association (NEHA) and the National Radon Safety Board (NRSB) all can provide information about radon testing and mitigation.

Formaldehyde is a colorless but pungent gas used in certain household products, such as pressed wood products, paint, fiberboard and foam insulation. Formaldehyde gas can be emitted from these products, especially when the products are new. Exposure to formaldehyde may cause cancer and allergy-type reactions. Other than smelling it, formaldehyde can be detected only by trained professionals who chemically test for the gas. If it’s present, indoor formaldehyde levels can be lowered by, among other things, increasing the ventilation and removing new pressed-wood products.

Reprint from CAR web site 03/19/02

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