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Holy Mouldy

27/09/2011 - 08:59
condition, damp, health, mould, property

When I was 18 I moved into a share house in Carlton, Victoria which was owned by Melbourne University. The mould problem was so bad that there were mushrooms growing in the living room carpet. (Unsurprisingly, the property was sold in the '90's for over a million). We speak to a lot of renters about their problems with mould. It's hard to prevent and hard to treat in poorly ventilated rental properties. It's hell for those of us who get allergies or asthma, my allergies are at the level where I get desensitisation injections every couple of years to ensure that I'm able to breathe and not feel like I constantly have the flu, and yes, one of my allergies is mould.

What is mould?
Mould quite simply is a type of fungi. There are thousands of known species of mould, they come in a range of colours and shapes. They can be black, white, green, or grey, some are powdery, others shiny. Some moulds are highly visible and emit a strong odour whilst others are barely seen. Different types of mould have different properties, for example, Conidia can lie dormant for decades, Aspergillus can survive in a dormant state for up to 22 years and Penicillium can survive for up to 10 years. Every species of mould has slightly different preferred levels of RH, temperature and PH, mould reproduces and spreads by releasing airborne spores which land on other surfaces and grow.

What is the harm?
Mould itself is not harmful in all capacities, blue cheese and mushrooms are enjoyed in many parts of the world. However people who have allergies or breathing diseases or disorders, such as asthma are extremely sensitive to the effects of mould spores, individuals who suffer from compromised immune systems are particularly prone to infections caused by black mould.

What causes mould?
To grow, mould needs a damp warm environment, typically found in poorly ventilated areas of the home such as bathrooms and laundries where condensation builds. Condensation is caused when warm moist air meets a cold surface such as a wall or window. The air cools and some of the moisture changes to drops of water. If the area stays damp, mould will grow. You may also find mould in less accessible areas such as inbetween walls, underneath carpets and wallpaper and in the ceiling.

What are my rights?
In Australia there are no minimum standards in rental properties so there's no impetus for landlords to provide adequate insulation and wet area ventilation. I have personally viewed many rental properties whilst searching for places to live and found them covered with mould, particularly in the bathrooms.

In all states of Australia each State's respective residential tenancies acts detail that Landlords have a duty to make sure that the properties they rent out are in reasonably clean condition (ACT 1995) and that they are kept in good repair (VIC 1997) a reasonable state (SA  1995) clean and good repair (QLD, 2008). However the legislation fails to define the notions of 'clean', 'reasonable state' and 'good repair'. If your health is significantly affected by mould then it is reasonable to expect that efforts are made by the landlord to minimise the growth of mould, such as providing a ventilation outlet in the bathroom. Obviously such requests should be made in writing. All states do have a provision to request urgent emergency repairs for conditions such as a fault or damage likely to injure a person, damage property or unduly inconvenience a tenant but whether a landlord will consider the growth of mould an urgent repair is anyone's guess.

This compares poorly to other countries such as the UK and US where mould is treated as a significant health problem. In California, the Department of Health Services require landlords to disclose to current and prospective tenants the presence of any known or suspected mould. Landlords in New York must follow the Department of Health's guidelines for indoor air quality and in San Francisco, tenants (and local health inspectors) can sue landlords under private and public nuisance laws if they fail to clean up serious problems.

"I live in Queensland near the beach. Mould is a huge problem, the bathroom has no ventilation fan and no window."

How can I prevent and treat mould?
Obviously if you live in a rental property with significant structural damage and poor ventilation it will be difficult to prevent mould. Further there is no practical way to eliminate all mould and mould spores in the indoor environment, the way to control indoor mould growth is to control moisture, minimise dust (wet dust and vacuum regularly) and maintain regular air flow.

"I keep windows open when there is low humidity and especially just dry heat and get the circulation going. But I admit to exit mould though it doesn't stop it coming back and not good on all surfaces. I just try to get dry heat and remove dust. I can't live with a lot of mould as I'm flat out allergic."

Mould & mildew caused by structural faults or leaks should be remedied by the owner, as they are not only causing health problems but greater structural damage. If water is entering the house from the outside, these areas should be repaired as a priority. I've read several articles aimed at tenants which recommend maintaining a constant air temperature by leaving the heater on at all times during winter. This is not only extremely untenable due to the sheer expense of such an act but it is also extremely inefficient. It also fails to treat the source of the dampness causing the mould in the first place.

Ways you can prevent mould:

  • Ensure if possible that bathroom has adequate ventilation. (open the window, put exhaust fan on)
  • Wash towels, bath mats and floor mats regularly in damp areas
  • Put thick insulated curtains on the windows to reduce condensation entering the house.
  • Drying wet clothing in mouldy rooms can exacerbate mould
  • Turn off certain appliances (such as humidifiers or kerosene heaters) if you notice moisture on windows and other surfaces.
  • Open up all the doors and windows on sunny days when you are home
  • Move furniture from wall corners to promote air and heat circulation
  • If an area is a particularly problem, consider using a dehumidifier if you can afford it to reduce the moisture.
  • You can buy a container or moisture absorber for under $10 at the supermarket (it works a bit like kitty litter)
  • Air the clothes from your wardrobe when you can
  • Check the weather before you wash your clothes and air dry on the clothes line rather than using a clothes dryer
  • Keep your clothes mould-free by reusing the desiccant pouches found in vitamin tablets bottles and new shoes

If your clothing, shoes or towels become mouldy
Wash in hot water (check labels on clothes obviously) and mid cycle add 1 cup of Borax (sodium borate) and one cup of vinegar and leave to soak for 1 hour before continuing with the cycle. Dry in sun.

Ways to treat household mould
Much of the literature recommends bleach in hot water at a 1:4 ratio. However other literature suggests that it can also promote the growth of mould. If you choose to use bleach, it can impact upon your skin, lungs and eyes so it's a good idea to use a mask and gloves if you are sensitive. A combination of de-ionised water and ethanol has also been touted as a good treatment, with Glen 20 probably the closest thing that's available to buy retail. Again this may impact upon skin and sinus. Natural treatments are the ideal option if you are sensitive to chemicals. Spray a mix of borax and white vinegar on affected areas and wipe off. Repeat regularly.

In the shower, wash down with borax and do not rinse. The borax residue will fight mould growth. You can also try adding a combination of tea tree oil and oil of cloves to your spray bottle. Or you could try 1/4 teaspoon of Oil of Cloves per litre of water, put it in a spray bottle, lightly mist on and leave overnight and wipe off. These actions need to be repeated to ensure to assist in preventing the mould from re-occurring.

"I don't know any green alternatives apart from laminating everything. Instead I have 'space bagged' most of my clothes and the ones I wear I keep in the study."

And yes, you can paint over mould but it doesn't actually kill it and you can still experience adverse side effects to mould even when it is dead.

If you have contents insurance and your goods have experienced significant damage, it may also be worth speaking to your insurance company to see if you are eligible for replacement goods or the awarding or damages.

Good resources

Images taken from our bedroom(!), here and here.

What are your experiences and tips?