Mold poses challenge for flood cleanupby Sea Stachura, Minnesota Public Radio
The Minnesota Department of Health says where there is water, there's mold. And most of the 1,500 homes affected by the last month's flash floods are still drying out. State officials say mold contamination is a health concern, but it's up to homeowners to deal with it.
Rushford, Minn. — It's a balmy afternoon in Rushford, the kind where you might expect an ice cream truck. But things are different now.
Instead of the chimes, you hear this from the vehicle creeping up the street: "Red Cross, cold water and snacks. All Red Cross assistance is free. Just step up to the truck."
Rushford still has no businesses open, and no potable water. Houses gutted to the studs stand next to homes still leaking watery mud from their doorways.
The smell of mold hangs in the air. According to experts, mold can cause upper respiratory infections, asthma, allergies and skin rashes. It also rots wood and other materials. Five people in the Rushford area have reported respiratory problems, potentially related to mold.
The Minnesota Department of Health distributed flyers and held meetings on how to decontaminate a house. Mix a quarter cup of bleach with a gallon of water and scrub thoroughly, the department advised. Let wood and sheet rock dry completely. But these are just suggestions. There's no officials check on a homeowner's decontamination efforts.
Joyce Lee is prying the slats from one wall with a crowbar. Water filled her basement and rose more than three feet in the main floor. Lee shows what she and her husband have done so far. They've removed a foot of the drywall around the base of all the interior walls. The studs stick out like exposed ribs.
"Cut all the way around here, pulled all the insulation out about six feet so it would dry out. Sprayed with Clorox. We've used tons of Clorox, scrubbed all the floors with Clorox," she says.
When water floods a house, the building becomes a sponge. According to the MDH, walls will wick moisture about a foot above the highest water mark. In Lee's house, that would be just over four feet. But Lee and her husband decided against removing all of that drywall.
"He's trying to save as much as we can not to disturb our good windows. So we go up inside there and pull the insulation down, all the wet insulation, and then when we hit dry we quit," she explains.
Lee says she knows of homeowners around her who aren't bothering to remove any more than the carpet.
You can smell the mold in the house, though. Department of Health mold specialist Dan Tranter says Lee and her husband may be taking a bit of a risk.
"It might be OK as well. So if they can monitor the area, look behind the sheet rock periodically, check for stains or discoloration or peeling, or if they start smelling odors, then the problem has returned and they need to go back in there are replace the sheet rock," he says.
That would be fairly difficult. Macalester College microbiology professor Steve Sundby says fungi can be hard to detect, and not all mold gives off an odor.
"Certainly the easiest way to detect it would be if they are actively growing and you see the hyphae stage, which is normally what we would call mold," Sundby says. "The spore stage would be much harder to detect, especially if they're dispersed around."
Sundby says spores can be inhaled and grow inside the lungs. But if mold doesn't have moisture, it can't grow.
According to the Department of Health, detecting mold in a home is the responsibility of the building inspector.
But officials in cities throughout the flood affected region say their building inspectors aren't focusing on mold. They're making sure the structure is sound and the electrical system is safe. Any visual signs of mold may be noted in the report, but it wouldn't stop an inspector from issuing an occupancy permit.
Rushford City Administrator Windy Block says he's considering requiring a specific inspection for mold. The flood partially submerged more than 300 homes in Rushford.
"It does no one any good to long-term build something back, only to have it fail three years down the road. And my concern is we don't want homes that have been flooded, not properly taken care of at this time, and then left for some future generation to deal with that will have issues," Block says.
If Rushford does require a mold inspection, the city could face another hurdle -- the Minnesota Department of Health says the state has no standard for what is an acceptable mold level. Officials say that's because each person's reaction to mold varies widely.
- Morning Edition, 09/10/2007, 7:53 a.m.