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Is Your House Safe? Are You Sure?

By Julie Burton

Hindsight is 20/20.

We bought our "dream home" six years ago, and were thrilled to be there. I had my fourth child while living there, and we were moving through life just fine until we realized that something just wasn't right. My third child (who was six months old when we moved in), was hospitalized with the croup twice within 1 year, and was constantly battling colds and coughs. We thought he was just one of those kids who got sick a lot. But our perception changed when we had a builder come over to talk with us about making a few changes to the house. He saw some rotting around a window that concerned him, and recommended that we have some moisture testing done.

And that would be the start: the moment when a dream changes course, and turns into a nightmare. Our nightmare involved moisture testing companies, inspection companies, insurance companies, engineers, builders, city planners, architects, lawyers, and countless hours of discussions (usually turning into arguments) with my husband. The stress level in our home was almost intolerable.

The culprit: MOLD

It was February of 2006, and my son woke up with yet another croupy cough. He was really sick. I made a call to the owner of a rental house we had looked at as a last resort. We had been working on plans to remediate our mold problems, and wanted to try to stay there if we could. But that day, hearing my son cough that raspy cough, and work hard to breathe, I snapped. Within 48 hours, with the help of friends and family, I had our house packed up and we were out of there--All six of us.

Then I got pneumonia.

Then I got mad.

I started digging and finding, and digging more and finding more....information. Information that told us that our wonderful house was not so wonderful, and that there had been a series of water intrusion problems for several years on many different fronts, that were not disclosed to us. The entrance to the attic was in my son's room. The attic was infested with mold. It was hidden. It was invisible to us. It hurt my family. I felt like we had been "had."

The short ending to a much longer and complicated story, is that we sold our "moldy" house at a huge discount to a builder who tore it down to the studs and rebuilt it (and still hasn't sold it), and we settled our lawsuit with the previous homeowners. We bought another house and moved AGAIN. My son's health is much improved since leaving the house, but he still has some residual effects of the mold exposure.

So, the lesson is that before you sign on the dotted line to buy your "dream house," make sure that you have it thoroughly inspected with special attention to water intrusion and potential mold growth.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency provides the following information on hidden mold:

In some cases, indoor mold growth may not be obvious. It is possible that mold may be growing on hidden surfaces, such as the back side of dry wall, wallpaper, or paneling, the top of ceiling tiles, the underside of carpets and pads, etc. Possible locations of hidden mold can include pipe chases and utility tunnels (with leaking or condensing pipes), walls behind furniture (where condensation forms), condensate drain pans inside air handling units, porous thermal or acoustic liners inside ductwork, or roof materials above ceiling tiles (due to roof leaks or insufficient insulation).

Some building materials, such as dry wall with vinyl wallpaper over it or wood paneling, may act as vapor barriers, trapping moisture underneath their surfaces and thereby providing a moist environment where mold can grow. You may suspect hidden mold if a building smells moldy, but you cannot see the source, or if you know there has been water damage and building occupants are reporting health problems.

Furthermore, the EPA lists 10 things you should know about mold:
1. Potential health effects and symptoms associated with mold exposures include allergic reactions, asthma, and other respiratory complaints.
2. There is no practical way to eliminate all mold and mold spores in the indoor environment; the way to control indoor mold growth is to control moisture.
3. If mold is a problem in your home or school, you must clean up the mold and eliminate sources of moisture.
4. Fix the source of the water problem or leak to prevent mold growth.
5. Reduce indoor humidity (to 30-60% ) to decrease mold growth by: venting bathrooms, dryers, and other moisture-generating sources to the outside; using air conditioners and de-humidifiers; increasing ventilation; and using exhaust fans whenever cooking, dishwashing, and cleaning.
6. Clean and dry any damp or wet building materials and furnishings within 24-48 hours to prevent mold growth.
7. Clean mold off hard surfaces with water and detergent, and dry completely. Absorbent materials such as ceiling tiles that are moldy may need to be replaced.
8. Prevent condensation: Reduce the potential for condensation on cold surfaces (i.e., windows, piping, exterior walls, roof, or floors) by adding insulation.
9. In areas where there is a perpetual moisture problem, do not install carpeting (i.e., by drinking fountains, by classroom sinks, or on concrete floors with leaks or frequent condensation).
10. Molds can be found almost anywhere; they can grow on virtually any substance, providing moisture is present. There are molds that can grow on wood, paper, carpet, and foods.
(Go to www.epa.gov/mold for more information.)

If you are concerned about mold in your existing home or a home you are considering buying, the following Minnesota companies can provide you with a moisture intrusion assessment:

Certified Moisture Testing

Mold Solutions

Private Eye

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