Sometimes we joke about the green fuzz that may be growing on food in our refrigerators. However, the negative impact of mold and toxins on people's health and well-being is serious business. Health problems from exposure to molds in indoor environments can result from an allergy, infection, mucous membrane and sensory irritation and toxicity—alone or in combination. Mold growth in buildings (in contrast to mold contamination from the outside) always occurs because of unaddressed moisture problems. When excess mold growth occurs, exposure of individuals and remediation of the moisture problem must be addressed.
For people who are sensitive to molds, exposure can cause nasal stuffiness, eye irritation or wheezing. People that have serious allergies to molds may have more severe reactions, including fever and shortness of breath. These symptoms can, in turn, negatively impact heart and lung functions—which is exactly what happened to my friend, Polly (who is an otherwise very healthy and fit 42-year-old). She has been a science teacher for 20 years and had to leave her job—and move out of her house—because molds and other non-biological environmental irritants in her school and home were causing her life-threatening conditions.
Recently Polly shared the following story with me. "I had always had minor allergies, but over the last three years I was exposed to two buildings with high mold levels. In addition, being exposed to new construction flooded my body with volatiles from paints, adhesives, new cabinets, carpets, etc. I reached my environmental threshold and my respiratory system basically collapsed. I found myself seeing five different doctors, each one treating a variety of respiratory ailments. The problems became so severe I had to leave my job and my home. I never dreamed that indoor air quality problems could be so life-altering. Unfortunately, I've discovered there are many people like me, all trying to recover from mold and chemical exposure in buildings."
Polly and I talked about the work that has to be done once mold is discovered in a home or building. Measuring mold levels is a very expensive undertaking. Once a house is hit with a high mold concentration the solutions are usually very complicated. The mold levels in one building she worked in were so high that the environmental consultant could not even count the growth on the growth plate. Solving the problem was going to require removing the entire heating infrastructure from the basement and filling the basement with stone and concrete—essentially sealing it off. Preventing mold growth is essential for the health of people and the health of the building. For Polly, the combination of mold and environmental irritants was simply too much for her system.
The American Lung Association has conducted research that has proven that indoor air quality is far worse than outdoor air quality. Polly asked me, "Why don't more people know about this? Biological and chemical irritants proved to be an almost deadly combination for me. People don't understand what is in their air. You can't see mold spores, paint volatiles, etc., but anything that can be done to prevent our buildings from being saturated with these irritants is essential."
Polly stated that, "As interior designers, I think it would be great if you could not only make wise material choices and take preventive steps, but also educate your clients about keeping their indoor air quality safe. I never thought my respiratory system would completely fall apart. This could happen to anyone and is happening to more people all the time."
What can interior design professionals do to address excess mold growth? The first step is to understand how and where mold occurs. Molds are microscopic fungi that live on plant or animal matter. Molds can be found year-round both indoors and outdoors. They can be found indoors in basements and bathrooms where there is high humidity. Some areas that have high mold exposures are antique shops, greenhouses, saunas, health club shower rooms, construction areas, flower shops and summer cottages. Mold grows on fabric, carpet, leather, wood, gypsum wallboard, grout and insulation. It is possible for people to become exposed to molds and their products, either by direct contact on surfaces, or through the air.
Keeping humidity levels below 50 percent inside homes and ventilating showers and cooking areas can slow mold growth. Mold growth can be removed with commercial products or a weak bleach solution (one cup of bleach in one gallon of water). Suggesting that your client (if a residence) use an air conditioner or a dehumidifier during humid months will help keep mold growth down. If you are designing a commercial space, close consultation with the HVAC consultant or mechanical engineer should ensure that mold issues are addressed. However, make it a point to ask the mechanical consultant about specific steps that he or she will be taking to address indoor air quality issues. Additional recommendations that you can make as an interior design professional—whether working on a residential or commercial project—include:
- Suggest that mold inhibitors be added to paints before application.
- Do not specify carpet in bathrooms or basements.
- Specify an adequately-sized exhaust fan in bathrooms and areas with high humidity.
- Specify water-resistant gypsum wallboard (green board) in bathrooms and areas with high humidity.
- Request that gypsum wallboard be delivered to a site as near to the time it will be used as possible. When the wallboard is delivered make sure it is placed under cover immediately, properly protected and not exposed to outside elements.
- If you are working on a renovation, make sure that previously soaked carpets and upholstery are removed. (Previously soaked gypsum wallboard and suspended acoustical tile ceiling panels often are growing fields for molds.)
Remember that mold and mildew can grow on many different types of objects, including building materials, if such objects are exposed to moisture and other improper conditions. The only ingredients necessary to grow mold and mildew are moisture, warm temperatures, high humidity, an oxygen supply and varying degrees of light. These conditions already exist at most building sites.
As an interior design professional, it is your job to interview clients and determine any health issues they may have, such as allergies, asthma or even sensitivity to odors (called Multiple Chemical Sensitivity or MCS). Asking questions, being aware of steps you can take to keep mold at bay, and insisting that contractors and other professionals do what they can to mediate mold growth will help keep your clients healthy—and that is no joking matter.
Barbara Pallat is a member of the board of directors of the National Council for Interior Design Qualification (NCIDQ). NCIDQ is located at 1200 18th St. N.W., Ste. 1001, Washington, DC 20036; (202) 721-0220.