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The Mold Rush

What you should know about the toxic mold scare.



If nobody has tried to scare you with tales of toxic mold, odds are somebody will, and soon. You'll get a letter or a telemarketing call or an eyeball-to-eyeball warning that there's mold in the air, mold in your house, mold on your cats and dogs.

When one of these warning frenzies breaks out, I feel a duty to be your deception detector. Here's the skinny: Mold is old. It has been around about as long as rocks. It's a pretty safe bet that there's no more mold in the world now than there was last year or last century or during the pre-dinosaur period.

So why all the mold warnings all of a sudden? Well, don't you know it's because people have figured out ways to make money off mold. They want to sell you mold testing and mold cleanup.

I began noticing all this mold hubbub some months back, when I started getting calls, letters, and e-mails urging me to get my little home-inspection company into the mold-testing business. It hurts me to say it, but my humble profession is fairly well-infested with shysters, backsliding reprobates, and ne'er-do-wells.

A few of these knuckleheads are running around selling mold tests. With precious few exceptions, their training consists of going to a seminar, hearing some motivational speaking, then heading out the door with some Q-tips and petri dishes. When they find mold -- and they will, since it's every-damn-where -- they'll hook you up with their, ah, preferred partner, the mold cleanup company. Sounds like a racket, doesn't it? That's because it is.

Now don't get me wrong. There is toxic mold in the world. Right now, the dark villain of the mold world is stachybotris. It can make mycotoxins. Mycotoxins can make people sick.

Stachybotris made the Ballard family, of Dripping Springs, Texas, sick. News reports say that the Ballards coughed up blood and suffered respiratory damage and memory loss. All this because of a king-hell stachybotris infestation in their 11,500-square-foot, multimillion-dollar copy of Scarlett O'Hara's Tara. The mold made them so sick that a jury awarded them $32 million, which will come out of the hide of their insurance company, Farmers Insurance Group. The Ballard house is so mold-infested that it can't be fixed. It's going to be decontaminated, leveled, and rebuilt, at a cost of about $6.2 million.

Now you might be wondering: How did all this mold grow in a Texas mansion? Well, a leaky pipe caused it. The water from the leak soaked the wood floors in the house, and mold started growing.

Here's the part that amazes me: According to The Dallas Morning News, the Ballards' lawsuit "alleged that Farmers refused to authorize timely repairs to the home that would have prevented spread of the black mold."

Hmmm. Yet another situation where the outcome would've been better if somebody -- the Ballards, the jury, or the judge -- had checked with me. I would've pointed out that a family who can afford to build their own ersatz Tara ought to just go ahead and call a plumber at the first sign of a leak. That works way better than sitting around the house watching toxic black slime mold grow to the size of Tarzan vines and wondering when the insurance company's plumber is going to show up.

The Ballards' sad situation isn't typical. First of all, it's rare for a house to get seriously loaded with mold. Second, mold isn't making a whole lot of people sick. You can figure this out with just a little common sense. When was the last time you heard somebody say, "Poor old Aunt Fanny. She got into some mold and just up and died"? Finally, decent home maintenance and cleaning ought to take care of just about any mold problem.

The simple lessons for us regular homeowners are: 1) Mold grows in wet places. 2) If your house smells like Disney's Pirates of the Caribbean, something's wet. Find the water source, and get rid of it. 3) In general, keep your house dry. If a pipe or a window or a foundation wall leaks, get it fixed. Promptly. 4) If you see an isolated spot of mold, you can, and should, kill it with diluted bleach. 5) If the mold grows huge, it's your own stinkin' fault.

As far as mold testing is concerned, I say you don't need it unless your physician says you need it. If you've got mold in your house, and it's not bad enough to send you to the doctor, then it's benign, isn't it? Just like the pet dander, the dust mites, and all the other cooties in your house.

If you do need mold testing, you need an environmental engineer or an industrial hygienist to do it. You also need to know that there is no known safe or unsafe level of mold.

You don't need a home inspector or a duct-and-carpet-cleaning company checking your house for mold. Neither is qualified to make any judgments about microbiology, and both are probably running a lame scam to separate you from your money.

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