How serious should I be taking the black mold that is growing in my Pacific Northwest apartment?
December 21, 2012 7:57 AM   Subscribe

How seriously should I be taking the black mold that is growing in my Pacific Northwest apartment?

I moved into a rental apartment in September 2012, in Portland, Oregon. The property manager, when she was showing me around when I signed the lease, told me to keep an eye on one of the walls in the bedroom because it had gotten wet in past years due to an exterior leak, but that they fixed that leak last year and didn't think it would be a problem.

A few weeks ago, I noticed the wall in question was wet, and I sent her an email. The wall was damp all over. The next morning, I woke up and there was black fuzz growing all over two of the walls. I assume this was mold. I of course told her, she asked me a bunch of stuff about the temperature of the room and wanted to heat it, removing a bunch of other irrelevant details here I cleaned the walls with TSP. A couple of days later, the mold came back and I cleaned it with bleach. I've since heard mixed things about cleaning mold with bleach. Now I've got dehumidifier running in there which pulls astonishing amounts of water from the air. But I just saw there's more black mold growing in the bathroom.

The building was built in 1914. The outside is stucco and the inside walls appear to be lath and plaster. The apartment does not appear to have proper ventilation: there is a hole through the cabinets that's been repaired that looks like it was the exhaust hood for the stove, but now it's closed up and the stove is moved (no hood, but there is a window nearby). There is no vent or fan in the bathroom, but again, there is a window.

The walls on which the mold grows are the exterior walls of the apartment. With the (forced hot air from a gas furnace in the unit) heat on, these walls are consistently around 10 degrees F cooler than the interior walls (i check them with an infrared pyrometer), and they are covered with semigloss paint (although the paint was apparently formulated with some sort of fungicide).

In short, I think the apartment is nearly airtight, but poorly insulated. So I believe that all sorts of water vapor from general living like breathing, sweating, taking showers, cooking, etc. builds up and has no where to go, and then it encounters the poorly insulated exterior wall surface and condenses there, creating a perfect mold-growing environment.

So my mitigation strategy is "reduce the humidity" so that it drops below the level required to condense on the wall at the temperature it is likely to stay. The only other possibility I can think of is raising the temperature of the wall above the dew point, and that seems either impractical (wall heater?) or expensive and wasteful (heating the air in the room more so that it heats the wall more and makes up for the lackluster insulation).

Now, I just moved to the Pacific Northwest. The property manager gave me some sort of mold disclosure form or something, I don't really remember, but when I saw this mold I figured, "hey, it's the Pacific Northwest. It's wet and dark all the time here. Mold is just going to be part of the deal, like flying cockroaches in the South or bed bugs in New York." I mean, most of the year, it is insanely humid, and it's relatively cool, so everything is wet, always, but it's not so cold that mold can't grow. How are you not going to have mold everywhere? I figure millions of people have lived in the Pacific Northwest since forever, quite happily, and they seem to have done just fine with their mold.

However, other people I have mentioned this to are like "OH MY GOD YOU HAVE TO MOVE! YOU HAVE TO MOVE IMMEDIATELY! TOXIC MOLD YOU ARE GOING TO GET MOLD POISONING!" When I tell people I've cleaned the mold up, they say that I've only cleaned the surface mold and there is actually mold living everywhere and I can never remove it, and that it's going to start growing in my sinuses and it's going to produce mycotoxins and so on. They also say, "Even if it's only a 10% chance, you don't own the place, just break your lease and move it's not worth the risk!" I tend to think that everyone up there who says this has mold in their dwelling and just doesn't know it, and that they are overreacting. I just don't see how you could completely eradicate mold in this environment.

Mold seems to be one of those things it's tough to read about on the internet. There are a lot of paranoiac-seeming sites and I don't know enough about the subject to distinguish the reasonable from the insane. A lot of people are selling mold-related services.

There is one complicating factor that is making me take my friends' arguments more seriously: I have what seems to be a cold I cannot get rid of. I got one a few weeks after I moved in, and it never really seemed to totally go away, and then last week it came back with a vengeance and now I can't kick it. I was thinking this was just bad luck, or something in the weather of the region wasn't agreeing with me since even before I got this apartment I got sick a lot (I had strep throat in July, for instance). I am not normally a person who gets sick frequently.
Now I'm worried that this black mold was just the first mold I can see, and that somehow this mold is making me sick, or perhaps I am allergic to it (I don't have any allergies that I know of). I have gotten sick with insane frequency in the six or so months I've been here, but some of that predates this specific apartment.

So, long story short: is my apartment going to poison me with it's insidious ineradicable toxic mold? Do I really have to move? Or is mold just something everyone has to stay on top of in a climate where it is sort of drizzly basically all the time?
posted by anonymous to Home & Garden (25 answers total) 6 users marked this as a favorite
Get the physical mold, and the air in that room, tested by a professional. The property manager should pay for this (for the owner's sake if nothing else) but if she balks, get it tested.

There are no standards for airborne mold spores but this sounds like a not-good situation.

Wise Steps
in Salem are the best in the state. Spendy but depending on your resources, possibly a good investment for future dealings with the management.
posted by Danf at 8:03 AM on December 21, 2012

Even without the mold I wouldn't live somewhere that was "nearly airtight, but poorly insulated" and lacks "proper ventilation" - it just sounds like a miserable environment. You're a tenant (albeit a tenant with exceptional knowledge of how dwellings work mechanically) - this is simply not your responsibility to fix or put up with. There's no way that a standard mold-disclosure form adequately discloses a fundamental structural failure that only becomes obvious to the casual observer in the winter.

I think you should consult a local tenants' organization to figure out how to minimize or eliminate your lease-breaking costs and plan to relocate as soon as possible.
posted by Inspector.Gadget at 8:04 AM on December 21, 2012 [1 favorite]

If there were mold in my living place (I'm in Seattle, which is like Portland in weather) and there was black mold, I'd move out immediately. (White mold is gross too, but not nearly as bad, from what I understand.) You can't "wipe it away" because you're just spreading the spores everywhere, and mold is known to cause all sorts of health issues, both in the short term and with long lasting effects.
posted by ethidda at 8:04 AM on December 21, 2012

Memail me if you want. I am not an expert, but I have a lot of experience dealing with mold in institutional situations.
posted by Danf at 8:05 AM on December 21, 2012

Well, it's enough of a problem that the Washington State Dept of Health has a primer on the subject.
posted by TheNewWazoo at 8:07 AM on December 21, 2012

I've lived in the Pacific Northwest my entire adult life, and I would not live in an apartment with that kind of mold problem. I've lived in like 8 different apartments in Seattle and 3 different houses in Portland and in only one of the Seattle apartments did we have a mold problem, and it wasn't half as bad as that. Move. Totally.
posted by rabbitrabbit at 8:07 AM on December 21, 2012 [2 favorites]

...and Oregon includes it with asbestos and radon in a tenants' rights document.
posted by TheNewWazoo at 8:11 AM on December 21, 2012

I've lived in a flat that got black mold in the bath (no bathroom window) and on walls, and I've had friends who lived in a very damp house. Aside from any health effects, your things and you are going to noticeably smell. You won't notice it, as you're there all the time, but I could definitely smell the damp when I met my friend out of the home.
posted by mippy at 8:16 AM on December 21, 2012

There are bazillions of different types of mold. Some are harmful. Some are not. I second the suggestion of getting it checked by a professional if at all possible. Don't settle for any of the do-it-yourself mold kits offered by hardware stores, either; they are terribly unreliable. (Worked for a construction expert once; I'm not an expert myself, but I learned this much, at least.)

Regardless, though -- the fact that this situation exists and hasn't been addressed by your landlord isn't a good sign for the landlord in general.
posted by scaryblackdeath at 8:23 AM on December 21, 2012 [1 favorite]

Reddit recently had an insightful post on mold remediation. Probably nothing you haven't already read, but the warning about the laxity of professional services bears repeating.
posted by Kandarp Von Bontee at 8:38 AM on December 21, 2012

I once lived in an incredible house with two roommates where (for $600/month) I had the entire finished basement to myself, including a bathroom with a jacuzzi tub. The only drawback was that it was not very well insulated. Occasionally I would notice mold - not a lot, just mild streaks under the sink. I didn't immediately connect that with the headaches I seemed to have when I woke up each morning, or the sore throat. Then when I started to feel dizzy, I went to see my doctor (who is one of the best internal medicine practitioners in his area).

He told me to forget the apartment and the deposit and great value and just get out of there immediately. You see, mold is one of those problems that has an exponential growth curve. You start out with maybe just the occasional headache and think - oh, that's not so bad. But as the mold colonizes more and more of your body over time, it releases greater amount of mycotoxins into your blood, causing permanent neurological damage. Here are the progressive symptoms of mold exposure for you to reference during your upcoming biological adventure.

I think that you should be very alarmed by this. Symptoms will start out mild, but once they get bad, it may already be too late. Why else do you think they made you sign a disclosure form? It is to limit their liability in case something horrible happens to you, which it probably will.

You are correct that every apartment has mold, and people get along with it just fine. However, it is also true that everybody breathes in a certain amount of carbon monoxide each day. That does not logically imply that it is healthy to live in a house with a carbon monoxide atmosphere. Do you see what I am saying?
posted by wolfdreams01 at 8:51 AM on December 21, 2012 [2 favorites]

Just to stop you from completely freaking out, it's probably not black mold. If you live in Portland, it's probably very damp, and it sounds like that corner of the apartment is damp too.

Do you keep the heat on? If you don't keep the room warm, it makes it easier for mold to grow during the winter. I experienced this in a rental property one winter - to save money I kept the heat off in a back room, and over a rainy November and December the wall got covered in mould. It didn't help that the land we were living on was fairly soggy.
posted by KokuRyu at 9:06 AM on December 21, 2012

I'm pretty laid back about mold (see my refrigerator! ba-dum-pish), but I've got to say, that's a lot of it. And honestly, it would also concern me about the structural soundness of the building, both because of moisture in the walls and because of the general laxity of the construction.

I think it's a great suggestion to get the room tested, ideally by someone who can give you some comparison data to typical places in the area (i.e. not by someone who's making their living off of inducing panic in people even if they have a low or normal amount of mold).
posted by Lady Li at 9:21 AM on December 21, 2012

If it's stachybotrys atra, you really do need to get that taken care of by a professional. That shit can be really bad for you. How to know if it's S. Atra? Get it tested. . . by a professional.
posted by KathrynT at 9:24 AM on December 21, 2012 [1 favorite]

My ex and I broke our lease on an apartment in Seattle due to black mold growing on our walls. Our landlord was unable/unwilling to resolve the problem in a reasonable time frame and it ruined several of our belongings as well as making us sick for a few months after we left. I wouldn't mess around with that stuff again.
posted by asciident at 9:33 AM on December 21, 2012 [2 favorites]

I should have also mentioned -- we both grew up in the PNW (in Oregon). Living with black mold is not something to which we were accustomed.
posted by asciident at 9:36 AM on December 21, 2012

That much mold in your home makes it non-habitable. Your landlord is required to provide a habitable space. The health risks are genuine; people are generally somewhat allergic to mold & mildew, and chronic exposure can make it much worse. Your chronic cold may very well be a response to mold spores.

Running a dehumidifier is expensive, and your landlord should fix the wetness issue. Get a copy of the mold disclosure form. Talk to the tenant's rights organization in your area; you can find them in the paper phone book. Talk to the landlord about getting it fixed right away, or providing alternate space. I used to be a landlord. Be polite, calm and assume good intent; it will be much easier. If your landlord doesn't respond promptly and thoroughly, then get a lot more aggressive. This is serious and should be addressed right away.
posted by theora55 at 10:12 AM on December 21, 2012 [1 favorite]

I'd move ASAP.

I had what seemed like a routine cold lingering on for months and months while living in Southern CA. Extremely severe coughs. Eventually landed me in urgent care where I was tested for strep, etc., but all results were negative. And I didn't get any better. Then I happened to move away from that older, musky damp ground level unit, and I recovered miraculously quickly.
posted by hedonic.muse at 10:33 AM on December 21, 2012

Not all kinds of mold are going to ruin your life, but my friend's daughter has been sick for 18 years after living in a house with black mold for a while and it completely ruined her life because she was too ill to hold a job. Now she's been in the hospital a while and her father is woried she will die before him. They've tried and tried to find other causes of her illnesses but haven't found anything except they know it started with the harmful mold in that house, and it still appears to be in her system.

Some people recover after leaving a moldy place, but some types of mold are incredibly difficult to get rid of once it's in your body, and mold can compromise the immune system and make you weak to other infections. Damage done to various cells can set off a cascade of problems and it's difficult to predict what will happen.

I would take this extremely seriously and get it checked out. You absolutely should leave if it's anything harmful.
posted by Nattie at 12:03 PM on December 21, 2012

Mold spores are notoriously difficult to kill. Bleach doesn't do it. I work in the pharmaceutical industry and we use peroxyacetic acid to kill spores. It's the kind of acid that burns right through your skin. Mold spores are not a DIY kind of job.
posted by kamikazegopher at 12:12 PM on December 21, 2012

I am a little surprised at the tenor of the responses here. The CDC's information page about molds states that the major hazard of mold inhalation is allergic hay-fever-like reactions among susceptible people, which could well be what you're experiencing. But the culprit could also be bacteria, dust mites, or rodents, which can also be abundant in moist indoor environments (Mayo Clinic).

Importantly, clinically-significant fungal infection of the sinuses is still relatively uncommon, and invasive fungal infections (potentially affecting other organs, like the brain) are much rarer in adults who are not immunocompromised (HIV+, diabetic, on immunosuppressants, etc), especially in the USA. I would see a doctor about your cold (three weeks sounds long to me) but I would definitely not be concerned about developing an invasive infection unless you have one of the risk factors above.

The CDC page I linked above also has guidelines on how to fix mold problems: basically, clean with soap and water or with a bleach solution, but with the caveat that porous things like drywall may have to be replaced. Between that and the doctor's visit, I think that's a sensible place to start.
posted by en forme de poire at 1:14 PM on December 21, 2012 [1 favorite]

I've lived in the Northwest for over 15 years, total, including in some mighty sketchy apartments, and I've never had a mold problem like that and I've never signed a mold disclosure form. I don't have solutions but I do want you to know that no, we're not all living with mold all the time, no big deal.
posted by The corpse in the library at 3:36 PM on December 21, 2012

Dude. The people freaking out are right.

Day 1: Wall is damp
Day 2: Two walls covered in black fuzz?!?

That you call it "fuzz" and not "specks," and that it appeared "all over" two walls, overnight, makes me suspect you have some serious water and mold behind the wall. Think about it: if the mold spores were coming from inside the house, then you'd likely have seen small mold colonies, maybe of different mold species, growing slowly. That fungicidal paint would block them from getting to the drywall behind it (the food), so they might not grow at all.

Instead, what I bet you have is wet insulation, holding water near the back (unpainted) side of the drywall, which provides delicious food for mold spreading back there. They told you there had been a leak before, so that's the most likely situation.

Look, yes, it rains in Seattle. But one of the biggest goals of house construction is to prevent water intrusion -- particularly in wet climates. You shouldn't live in a house that doesn't accomplish this goal, just like you would patch your tent or get a new one if yours sprung a leak.

Some molds are worse than others, but almost no molds are super healthy to breathe in large quantities for like 10 hours a day.

AND you're renting from a management company that seems more concerned with assiduously covering its legal bases than in maintaining its property. Fuzz all over two walls, and they know there was previously a leak back there? They should be trying to move you to another place so they can fully repair your unit before the water causes more problems. They should leave off the drywall until they verify the repair was successful, not move sometime new in right away. Instead, they're telling you to turn up the heat to slow its spread?

The US EPA has documents about mold cleanup. They say it can be a DIY job if the mold is under 10 square feet. Two full walls covered floor to ceiling would be maybe 125 square feet. At that scale, the EPA wants you to use better personal protection gear, and (iirc) set up plastic sheeting held closed with negative air pressure... all that stuff.

You're a renter. You do not have to waste your time and money, or risk your health, on this. This does not have to be your problem. I'd negotiate an immediate move-out date and that I wouldn't take this to to whatever renters' rights board exists if they paid my moving costs and returned my deposit in full.
posted by slidell at 7:34 PM on December 21, 2012 [4 favorites]

I live in the Pacific Northwest. The mold disclosure is normal. The situation you describe is not. I think you should probably move -- sorry! Send me a Memail if you'd like my Portland apartment-hunting tip.
posted by feets at 1:50 AM on December 22, 2012

IF you have young children in the home it can cause very seriously problems. Any kind of mold over time will evolve into black mold which is the worse possible kind. It can cause headaches and breathing problems in adults. You should research the health risks yourself. And it's generally very expensive to remove. The best bet would be to have a certified independent contractor do it. I am close friends with someone certified in mold removal. And I've extracted as much information as I can about the business. Any moisture or water has to be taken care of immediately. A humidifier is the right thing to do but it's progressed too far at this point.

The correct way to remove it is to close off the area, remove the ceiling and sheet rock using masks and negative area pressure (to vacuum all of the spores), spray the affected area, and renovate it. Most will offer free estimates.
posted by Nicholas Geary at 1:39 AM on January 19, 2013

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