Mold: A Common Misconception

  • Published
  • By Senior Airman Gregory M. Rollings
  • 55th Aerospace Medicine Squadron

Summer’s almost here!  Time to dust off the grills, break out the bug spray, and enjoy the warm weather.  Unfortunately for some of you, summer also means allergy season.  From the pollen in the grass to the pollen in the trees, it seems the only way to enjoy summer is by staying indoors.  However, if you discover mold in your home, you may not be completely free from allergy symptoms. 

Mold is also an allergen, and is especially prevalent in the summer.  Have you ever taken a vacation for a few weeks only to return home to mold growth in your kitchen or bathroom?  Did you leave your thermostat on or did you turn everything off before you left?  Due to the temperature and humidity of summer, mold has an easier time growing indoors, especially if there’s not enough air circulation.  So, what can you do to prevent mold growth?  What should you do if you already have a mold problem?  What about “black mold” or the negative health effects that mold may cause?  Let’s take an in-depth look at the true nature of mold.

For starters, mold spores can be found literally everywhere, both indoors and outdoors.  Mold spores are not visible to the naked eye and float around in the air outside and even in your home.  Now, don’t panic just yet.  Although spores can be found everywhere, mold will only grow if there’s an adequate source of water to feed on.  A few examples of common water sources for mold growth are: leaky pipes, rain water seeping into the windows, and repeat condensation.  Sometimes mold will even grow in your toilet bowl if it has not been flushed for a few days.

So with that in mind, the first thing to prevent mold from growing in your home is to ensure that there are no open water sources.  Next, you should watch your indoor temperature and humidity levels.  The Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommends that you keep humidity levels in your home between 30% - 50%.  Try to keep the air conditioner on throughout the summer to prevent the temperatures from getting too warm, as well as to help circulate the humidity.  Last, you want to make sure your vents are not blocked or cluttered, and are opened so that the air flows into the room and not up behind curtains.  When the airflow is blocked, you run the risk of creating what is called a “microclimate”.  A microclimate is basically atmospheric conditions that are different from the conditions in the surrounding area.  For example, when your curtains drape all the way down to the floor vents it’s possible you can create this microclimate.  The cold air coming out of your vent can get trapped behind your curtains.  When this happens the surrounding air, which is warmer than the air trapped in the curtain, condenses when it comes into contact with the cold air.  With condensation as a prime water source, you could end up with moldy curtains.

So, let’s say you already have a little mold growing somewhere in your home or workplace.  For solid surfaces, the easiest way to get rid of mold is with a one cup of bleach per one gallon of water solution.  Spray it on, let it sit for roughly five minutes, and scrub the affected areas.  Once the area is free of visible mold, rinse the area with water and dry.  For fabrics, you can use a cup or two of vinegar along with laundry detergent and machine wash as normal.  As for upholstery, mix a quart of warm water and half a teaspoon of liquid hand soap.  Your goal is to create soap suds.  Apply the suds directly to the affected areas and scrub.  Alternatively, you can use equal parts rubbing alcohol or white vinegar and water.  After cleaning, use fans to dry in a well-ventilated area or in the sunlight.  Once dry, you can spray a fabric safe fungicide to help prevent future mold growth.  Always be sure to wear rubber gloves when handling cleaning products.  It is also recommended that you do these steps in a well ventilated area.

Removal of the visible mold is paramount to cleaning and remediation.  Even if you spray the mold and kill it, the dead spores could still cause an allergic reaction.  Removal of the visible mold is the only way to eliminate the possibility of any health symptoms.  Porous materials, such as ceiling tiles and wood, are very difficult to treat for mold and will more than likely need to be thrown away and replaced.  Mold can gradually degrade or destroy objects they grow on, so it’s best to remove any visible mold as soon as possible.  If you suspect that the mold is rooted deep in the walls, ceiling, or flooring, you should contact a licensed professional to properly remediate the affected areas.  Any mold not treated properly will grow back, providing a water source is still present.  

You might be thinking, “But won’t I get sick from being exposed to mold while I’m cleaning?”  Well, as with all allergies, your sensitivity to mold spores may be different compared to someone else.  Even individuals with no history of allergies have the possibility of experiencing symptoms.  Currently, there are no standards from the EPA or other federal limits for mold exposure.  This is because mold has hundreds of thousands of species types, as well as the variables in what causes an allergic reaction to an individual.  

Now, what about Stachybotrys Chartarum, or “black mold”.  Fear not, mold is not “toxic” as the media would have you believe.   While certain molds can produce mycotoxins, according to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and the CDC, mold in itself is not toxic nor is it poisonous.  It would be extremely rare for mold to cause unique health effects, and the link between the presence of toxigenic mold and these effects have not been proven.  Most individuals develop allergy-like symptoms through a process called “sensitivity”. 

Here at Bioenvironmental Engineering, sensitivity is factor we use to determine the possibility of health effects on a human when exposed to contaminants, as well as to rationalize and develop protective measures.  Sensitizers are chemicals or material that, when exposed repeatedly over a long period of time, cause adverse health effects in individuals that had no previous issues with that chemical or material.  When it comes to mold spores, you are constantly being exposed to varying quantities throughout your life.  Due to this, it’s not uncommon for anyone to experience allergies when mold is present later on in life. 

In the end, if you are having allergy like symptoms and think mold is the cause, talk to your doctor (Primary Care Manager) about it.  If you’ve never had allergies before but suddenly you experience nasal stuffiness, eye irritation, wheezing, or skin irritation when you are exposed to mold, then you may have developed a sensitivity to mold.  Allergy medication will definitely help relieve symptoms, but remember to address the water source and remove all visible mold as soon as possible.  Otherwise, your allergy symptoms will persist.  Remember, mold is not as dangerous to you as you would think and the solution to the remedy is to eliminate the problem, cut off any moisture issues before it gets worse. 

If you have any questions or concerns about mold please feel free to contact the Bioenvironmental Engineering Office at (402) 294-6319.  You can also check out and for more information.