The Truth About Toxic Mold (and How to Get Rid of It)


Don’t let the mold panic set in just yet — it might not be as bad as you think.

Mold is everywhere. It grows on the sides of houses, it blackens surfaces like brick and concrete, and it thrives in the soil of your yard and garden.

Indoors, mold lives in sink drains, shower grout, houseplant potting mix, kitchen sponges and anywhere else that moisture has a chance to settle. Are you hyperventilating yet?

A little bit of mold is nothing to worry about, as long as you can identify the cause and promptly clean it up with a solution of bleach and water.

But before we go any further, let’s get this out of the way: Any mold, regardless of color, can make you feel sick, especially if you suffer from allergies or asthma. To be on the safe side, always wear a mask and rubber gloves when dealing with mold, and make sure that the space is well-ventilated.

Let’s get the facts straight

Also known as black mold, the infamous Stachybotrys chartarum is not toxic, but toxigenic, because it is capable of producing mycotoxins. Technicalities aside, this uncommon mold species is especially feared for its supposedly dangerous effects.

You may have read an article about how toxic mold is “secretly making your family sick” or watched local news reporters announce that black mold was found in a restaurant inspection, making it feel as if the plague arrived overnight and could be headed to your place next.

Some alternative health websites even call it “toxic mold syndrome” and warn of terrifying symptoms like memory loss or idiopathic pulmonary hemorrhage.

Officials at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), however, say that “These case reports are rare, and a causal link between the presence of the toxigenic mold and these conditions has not been proven. … All molds should be treated the same with respect to potential health risks and removal.”

Stachybotrys chartarum is unusual among household molds, because it requires constant moisture to survive. So if your house is oozing moisture from a roof leak, broken pipe or outright poltergeist, black mold is the least of your worries. Time to call a professional and put an end to the drip before termites or wood rot threaten to put an end to your home’s structure.

Mold is often a symptom of a bigger problem, be it as minor as a dripping faucet or as major as, well, a missing roof.

If you suspect that the slowly spreading black stain on your wall is the infamous black mold, don’t bother wasting your time identifying the stuff. Scam artists abound, and the Environmental Protection Agency even says that “In most cases, if visible mold is present, sampling is unnecessary.”

There are no established standards for judging what is an acceptable amount of mold, and even the non-toxigenic types can cause allergic reactions and make your life miserable. Remove it.

How to prevent and remove mold

Mold needs three things to survive: Moisture, a growing surface and food (dirty stuff).

The easiest way to prevent mold is to make sure that it never gets any moisture to begin with. Keep your house clean, dry and well-ventilated, especially in the bathroom wherever water collects, such as on tile grout or shower curtains. If your bathroom has gnats or a damp odor, look no further than your clogged sink drains — and be sure to wear some rubber gloves.

To clean and remove mold on hard surfaces, the CDC recommends using a solution of no more than one cup of bleach to one gallon of water.

To remove mold on exterior surfaces, use a pressure washer, and make sure that everything is properly sealed.

If mold is found on soft and porous surfaces, such as drywall, carpeting or furniture, it’s best to dispose of the affected material before the mold spreads further or exacerbates your allergies.

Flood-damaged homes with heavy mold infestations should be handled by professionals whenever possible. The Federal Emergency Management Agencywarns that “Infants, children, immune-compromised patients, pregnant women, individuals with existing respiratory conditions (allergies, multiple chemical sensitivity and asthma) and the elderly appear to be at higher risks for adverse health effects from mold.”

In addition, flood-damaged houses are often contaminated with chemicals and human waste, which are far more dangerous than the mold itself.

How to Get Lingering Odors Out of Your New Home

When homeowners sell and move out, they sometimes leave behind lingering bad odors. If you’ve just moved in to find an odor you didn’t notice before, don’t panic. There are plenty of ways to eliminate smells.

Easy odor removal

Light odors from a refrigerator that wasn’t properly cleaned or a trash bag that hung around too long are easy to combat. First, remove the offending source if it’s still around. (Be sure to check the back of the pantry and cabinets for hidden leftover foodstuffs.) After you’ve cleaned the area, neutralize the odor with these common items:

Baking soda: Open a container and place it in the area where the smell originated.

Coffee grounds: Put used coffee grounds in a shallow bowl and place it around your house. The coffee grounds will absorb smells.

White vinegar: Bowls of white vinegar can act as an odor neutralizer.

Apple cider vinegar: If the sink has an odor, it is likely coming from the drain. Pouring apple cider vinegar down the drain will eliminate the smell.

Lemon: Chopping up a lemon and putting it through the garbage disposal will remove odors from the disposal and drain.

Smoke and nicotine

If the previous homeowner was a heavy smoker, the nicotine may have left stains as well as scent. Nicotine streaks’ smell can linger long after the last cigarette was stubbed out. Try combating the odor first by washing the walls and windows. Wait a day or two before giving it the all clear, as the smell may return. If stains are stubborn, consider a heavy-duty cleaner like trisodium phosphate.

For persistent odors, you might want to use an odor-blocking primer and sealant, like Kilz, to repaint your walls. Dry-clean curtains and other upholstery around the house. If your house came furnished, you may want to consider tossing out some of that furniture, especially the upholstered pieces.

Pet smells

If lots of pet hair was left behind, you probably want to consider buying a vacuum or an attachment for picking up pet hair. Before you vacuum, sprinkle a layer of baking soda on the carpet and let it stand for a few minutes. It will help neutralize odors.

If you have pets of your own, brush your pup every day for about five minutes to cut down on both loose hair and pet smells.

Not so fresh? Clean the ducts

If your house smells musty, check the air ducts and look for evidence of mold. If you can’t determine if it’s mold, you can have a sample analyzed by a microbiology testing center for about $50, according to the Environmental Protection Agency. The extra precaution could be worth it, since a duct cleaning could cost between $450 and $1,000, according to the EPA.

If you don’t think your ducts need a cleaning, replace the filters.

Rotten egg smell

Unless someone actually left rotten eggs or garbage around, the smell of rotten eggs likely indicates a gas leak. Leave your home and call a professional as soon as possible.

Last resorts for odor removal

If you just can’t get the smell out, you’ll have to take more drastic action.

  • Remove and clean or tear up and replace the carpets.
  • Repaint walls in rooms where the odor is strongest.
  • Hire a professional cleaning crew.

If you’re considering a cleaning device like an ozone machine, rent the product rather than buying one yourself. Since you’ll get only one use out of it—and many devices don’t work as well as we’d like them to—it makes more sense to rent than own.