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Mold emerges weeks after floods recede

May 6, 2010

By Richard Salit
Journal Staff Writer
, http://www.projo.com
The Providence Journal / Kathy Borchers

Jeremy Taft has taken down the plaster to fight mold in his West Warwick, Rhode Island, residence. Not long after the raging waters of the Pawtuxet River flooded his basement and continued rising to a third of the way up his first-floor windows, something began growing inside Jeremy Taft’s duplex in West Warwick.

Three weeks later, when he was finally permitted to return to his River Street rental property, he could see it as plain as day — there on the walls. And when he tore the drywall off the studs, there it was — inside, too.

Mold. Splotches of it. Some black. Some white. Drywall in a Portsmouth residence shows evidence of mold contamination after being underwater. “I’ve got everything in here — red, too,” said Taft as he walked around his nearly gutted home one recent day, pointing out speckled patches of mold here and there.

A month since historic rains and flooding damaged property across Rhode Island, a microscopic organism valued for its ability to break down organic matter outdoors is making an unwelcome—and unhealthy — entrance indoors into residences throughout the state.

“It’s a nasty problem,” Robert Archila, a FEMA hazard-mitigation adviser specialist, said while touring Taft’s duplex. He added, “The longer you wait, the worse it gets.”

Mold is not only unpleasant, it can make people feel ill. Robert Vanderslice, of the Health Department’s homes and environment team, said that reactions to mold vary. Some people experience common allergy symptoms such as coughing, congestion, sneezing and itchy eyes. But those with respiratory problems can suffer asthma attacks and people with weakened immune systems may develop serious infections.

“We’re all exposed to mold. Normally, we deal with it just fine,” Vanderslice said. “But it’s a problem when it starts growing inside [buildings].”

Federal and state officials fear that some property owners may not have taken the necessary steps to prevent mold infestation. And they have heard of instances of some taking steps to deal with it only to see it make a comeback.

Mary Margaret Walker, a FEMA spokeswoman who organized a news conference at Taft’s house to raise awareness of mold, said that close to 7,000 Rhode Islanders have sought assistance at the agency’s Disaster Recovery Centers, some located at home-improvement stores. Many come with questions about what to do about mold.

“They are not sure what to do,” Walker said. “Also, with warmer weather arriving, we are hearing concerns about mold coming back. We want to make sure that what’s done is effective.”

“We’re definitely seeing an increase in volume for mold calls,” said Eric Anderson, owner of the Smithfield-based mold-remediation company Enviro-Clean.

Mold (called mildew in its early stages) has a hearty appetite for fabrics, carpets and wood products, including drywall, ceiling tiles and wallpaper. Mold colonies can grow on damp surfaces in as little as 24 hours, and they reproduce and spread by sending tiny, lightweight spores into the air.

Even just a few inches of water can create a perfect breeding ground for mold, which thrives when given water, organic matter and warm temperatures. Drywall and insulation sop up the water like a sponge and tend to remain damp inside walls, where air can’t dry the material out.

“You could be sitting on a time bomb when it comes to mold and mildew,” said Archila.

That was the problem at David Schuller’s house in Portsmouth, where despite having no flooding for the previous 10 years, in March , he had to arm himself with wet vacuums and pumps while waging an eight-day battle with water in his partly finished basement. Everything was so wet — and warnings about mold issues so pervasive — that he hired a professional clean-up company.

“I couldn’t take a chance,” Schuller said.

On Monday, a crew from Enviro-Clean arrived in two trucks, and three workers donned white protective suits and breathing masks. They set up equipment in the basement to capture spores, including an air scrubber with replaceable filters and a negative air machine, which sucks air into a long, clear, flexible plastic tube that runs up a bulkhead and discharges air outside. They also put up plastic sheeting to prevent spores from traveling upstairs.

Then the demolition began. Workers removed the drop-ceiling and wood paneling, as well as the first two feet of drywall behind the paneling.

“This is where he ran into a problem, right here,” Dennis Edwards said, his voice muffled by his mask.

He pointed at a section of drywall that co-worker Raymundo Asencio was removing. Small spots of green were visible on the outside of the drywall, but when Asencio flipped it around, the other side was much worse, with large splotches of green mold tainting the interior wallboard.

“That’s mold all the way down,” he said. “It’s pretty bad.”

He said the crew would vacuum up the dust and debris and spray everything down with an anti-microbial solution.

“We get right down to the problem,” he said. “There is a strong chance that people who don’t treat their property will end up getting mold in their house.”

Flood victims unaware of potentially blossoming mold problems can preserve their right to future damage claims by applying for federal assistance now online at www.fema.gov or by calling 1-800-621_FEMA.)

KEY POINTSTips for eliminating mold

Wear gloves and goggles to avoid contact with mold or strong chemicals.

Put on a mask, preferably an N-95 respirator, to limit exposure to airborne mold.

Throw away wet, porous materials such as ceiling tiles, drywall, wood byproducts and rugs and check wall interiors for hidden mold.

Wash hard surfaces with a stiff brush and non-ammonia detergent or soap or bleach solution.

Ventilate to allow noxious fumes and mold spores to escape outdoors.

Keep it dry with fans, windows and dehumidifiers to discourage mold growth.

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