For many victims of natural disasters, the cleanup in the aftermath is a scene of thick mud, scattered debris, splintered wood, and mangled metal. Most often, however, there’s a dirty little secret with far less dramatic imagery, but perhaps even more dangerous, MOLD. If you’re dealing with soaked carpet, wet furniture, and damp drywall, odds are, you’ve also got a mold problem. In as quickly as a few days, mold can take up residence in your home and, while there may clues such as a stale, musty odor, it can sneak around your radar undetected until symptoms start showing up by way of the harmful effects on your health.
How exactly does mold affect your health?
If you’re prone to allergies, mold can irritate your lungs and nasal passageways leading to coughing, wheezing, shortness of breath, throat pain, and a stuffy nose. Even if you don’t typically experience a sensitivity to allergens, though, you can develop these symptoms following exposure to mold. After Hurricane Katrina, these respiratory issues were so common, healthcare professionals in New Orleans dubbed them the “Katrina Cough.” Its effects aren’t limited to the respiratory system. Eye and skin irritation can also develop as a result of coming in contact with mold.
These symptoms are relatively mild and not life threatening, though some people may be at risk for more serious health conditions after mold exposure. Those with asthma may experience an attack after breathing in mold spores. This is particularly concerning in children with asthma who, in one post-Katrina study group based in New Orleans, were found to have mold sensitivities at three times the national average. But even if you don’t have asthma, long term exposure to mold has been shown to develop asthma in otherwise healthy children. Children aren’t the only ones at an increased risk. Anyone with a weakened immune system may develop a dangerous respiratory infection after being in a moldy environment.
How can you know if you’ve got a mold problem?
According to the CDC, if you’ve experienced flooding and were unable to completely dry out the affected area (including furniture) within 24-48 hours, you should assume there is mold growing there. You may not yet be able to see or smell it, but it is safest to proceed as though it is there.
How can you safely clean up a mold infestation?
After a disaster, your first step should be to contact your homeowner’s insurance company. Even with flood protection, most policies give you a small deadline in which to clean and dry the area. If you wait and mold grows, your insurance may not cover the cost of cleanup and repair. You should document the damage well with pictures and video, not just of your home, but your possessions, as well. FEMA does offer grants for those not covered with flood insurance, though the full cost of making your home livable again may not be covered. They have detailed instructions on how to file a flood insurance claim in the aftermath of a hurricane.
After the proper steps have been taken to document the damage, you can assess where to go from there. If the affected area is smaller than ten square feet, it may be possible for you to clean it yourself. If it’s bigger than that, you may need to consider calling in a professional. If you suspect the water was contaminated or contained sewage, it is definitely best to hire a professional. The CDC does offer recommendations in safely cleaning water damaged areas:
- Always wear protective gear when entering the area. This includes gloves, safety goggles, N-95 mask, and proper skin coverage.
- Open all doors and windows to facilitate good air flow throughout the area while you’re working. Don’t forget to open all interior doors, including those to closets, to circulate fresh air throughout all areas of the home.
- Use a wet vac to clean up as much water as possible from the house.
- If parts of your home were submerged, it may be necessary to pull up carpet and padding and tear out drywall, insulation, and ceiling tile to be thrown away and replaced as mold sets up quickly in these items.
- Remove wet furniture and other household items. Anything that has been wet for 48 hours and can’t be cleaned and dried thoroughly should be thrown away.
- If you have power, run air conditioners and dehumidifiers to remove excess moisture. Fans can be helpful, but keep in mind that they can actually blow mold spores throughout the house and spread them around.
- Running an air purifier can kill airborne mold spores and improve the air quality inside the house.
- Scrub any visible mold off of hard surfaces with a household cleaner or bleach solution, making sure to work in a well-ventilated area. Bleach solutions should be properly diluted (1 cup of bleach per every gallon of water) and never mixed with ammonia as the chemical reaction creates toxic fumes.
- Hold off on painting or caulking the area until you are absolutely sure the mold is gone.
- After leaving, you should shower and change your clothes right away to avoid carrying mold spores with you.
Some mold clean up jobs are best left to the professionals. If the damage is extensive, spread over a large area, or exacerbated with dangerous contamination, your insurance provider may refer you to a mold removal specialist. If you decide to find a contractor on your own, an important question to ask candidates is whether or not they have experience in mold cleanup and don’t hesitate to ask for references. The CDC recommends that you hire a professional who has been certified by the National Environmental Health Association (NEHA). After clean up, there should be no signs of water damage or mold growth. Seeing or smelling mold means the job is not yet done and should not be allowed to go untreated. If you develop allergy-like symptoms, it could be a sign that there is still mold present in your home.
It is important to understand that, while mold may seem low on the list of the concerns in the wake of a devastating event, it can be a dangerous situation with serious and damaging effects to your health. If not handled properly, the results can be long-lasting and life-threatening. It may take extra time and work, but it will have been time and effort well-spent in the end.