Tracy Sutton is no expert on mold, but she knows it’s a bad thing to have growing in her house on North Burghley Avenue in Ventnor Heights.
The mold appeared a few days after Hurricane Sandy. Mold follows moisture. During the storm, tidal saltwater filled up the crawl space under her home and powerful winds pushed rain down the walls of her attic.
A few days later, in a problem being seen throughout New Jersey shore areas, the growth became evident.
“We have two different types. We’ve got black mold and a white powder, an airborne type. It spreads quickly, and we have to get it out of here,” Sutton said.
As of Monday, Sutton was still waiting to find out if flood insurance would cover the costs. She was dealing with the Federal Emergency Management Agency while getting quotes from companies that specialize in removing mold. Her boyfriend, Brad Williams, spent three hours Sunday in the crawl space moving a sump pump around to get the water out.
FEMA spokesman Scott Sanders could not give an easy answer to the mold question. He said it partly depends on other insurance policies a homeowner may have.
“FEMA will not duplicate these benefits. It’s not as easy as saying ‘Yes, you’re covered.’ Every situation is different depending on damages and what insurance you have,” Sanders said.
The first step, he noted, is to register with FEMA by calling 800-621-FEMA.
The problem with mold is more than the damage to a home. Mold is a serious health threat to those with asthma, allergies, respiratory issues, HIV and chronic lung disease, as well as cancer patients on chemotherapy and those who have had organ transplants, according to the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Even for the healthy, mold can lead to shortness of breath, wheezing, irritated skin and eyes, stuffy noses and other symptoms.
Moisture and a base
All that mold needs to grow is moisture and an organic base, such as wood, said Joseph Eldridge, who directs the Consumer, Environmental and Occupational Health Service at the New Jersey Department of Health. He said the first step is identifying the problem.
“You don’t need high-tech tests. If you see it or smell it, you have it somewhere. We know where the moisture came from, so we don’t have to look for a source,” Eldridge said.
The second step is removing the moisture. This includes waterlogged belongings, but Eldridge said it can include parts of a building’s construction, such as insulation and wallboard. Even if only the bottom of the wallboard is wet, he urges residents to replace all of it. Wallboard wicks up water and is notoriously hard to dry out. Wet upholstery, furniture and carpet should be removed. Anything that can’t be dried out and cleaned should be tossed.
There are companies that specialize in mold remediation, but Eldridge said homeowners can often do the work themselves. He said they should wear gloves and a good respirator. Home improvement stores sell respirators, including some made just for mold, he said. The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services recommends an N95 mask, but recommends hiring a professional if more than 10 square feet of surface needs cleaning.
Director Kevin Thomas, of the Cape May County Health Department, said the whole house should be cleaned, but he cautions not to forget the crawl space.
“You have to dry out your crawl space. Pump out standing water, open vents and blow a fan in,” Thomas said.
Dehumidifiers — or air conditioners, because they remove water from the air — can help dry out a house and keep it cooler, so mold is less likely to grow. Mold requires moisture but thrives in heat.
Officials do not recommend specific companies that do mold removal, but they do warn to watch out for scam artists after a storm. “Make sure you get three or four references,” Thomas advised.
Eldridge said there is no state or federal accreditation process for mold-remediation companies. They are not licensed or certified by the state, he said. There are training programs on mold remediation, and the public should make sure their contractors have taken them, he said.
Servpro, a national company with operations in Ocean View, Dennis Township, does mold remediation, cleans water and smoke damage after fires, and deals with biohazards and other nasty jobs. Barbara Jones of Servpro cautions that flood waters often pick up human sewage and bacteria from dog feces and other contaminants on the streets.
With the ground saturated, the company can dry out a crawl space but another rain could quickly bring back the moisture, she said.
Diluted bleach is not enough to get rid of the mold, Jones said. It may kill the mold on the surface, but airborne spores quickly repopulate, similar to cleaning mold from a shower only to see it back a few days later.
Some property owners addressed mold problems in their homes long before Sandy hit. Ed Maher, who lives near a creek in Cape May Court House, had groundwater seepage into his crawl space and learned a lot about mold before using sump pumps, drain pipes and vapor barriers to solve the problem. He also treated the wood, mostly floor joists, with a borate solution that kills molds and termites. It remains in the wood, so the mold doesn’t return.
Maher learned that removing water isn’t always enough, because in summer, humid outside air hits colder air under the house and actually creates a dew point and condensation.
“I bet there’s not a house in Cape May Court House without mold. You have to keep (air) humidity under 55 percent. You don’t want to go above that. Meters available at hardware stores measure the moisture content of the wood itself. If wood is above 10 percent moisture level, it’s not good,” Maher said.
Jones, however, noted that some measures help with everyday conditions, but may not work in a massive flooding event.
“There was a lot of water. Crawl spaces are not meant for this much water,” Jones said.
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