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Irene: Flood victims wage war on spores

Irene: Flood victims wage war on spores

Armed with moisture readers, Mike Reed visits flood-damaged homes every day and checks for mold.
Irene: Flood victims wage war on spores
Mike Reed, a volunteer from the Reformed Church, measures the moisture level with a hygrometer in the basement of a house on Fair Street in Schoharie on Friday, October 28, 2011.
Photographer: Patrick Dodson

Armed with moisture readers, Mike Reed visits flood-damaged homes every day and checks for mold.

“I’m not finding as much mold now that it’s cooling off,” Reed said.

After flooding, mold is a potential problem because it can grow on any surface where moisture is present. When relative humidity becomes elevated indoors, building materials and furnishings absorb the moisture, providing places for mold to grow.

Reed said that residents who treated their homes properly for mold immediately after the flooding caused by Tropical Storm Irene have had little trouble with it since.

“It’s not a question of ‘Is there mold?’ but how the mold was handled,” he said.

Pattersonville resident Carol Landolfo said mold-related health concerns are an issue in Rotterdam Junction, Pattersonville and other nearby communities. The issue, she said, isn’t the growth of mold in houses that are inhabited and have been treated for mold but the presence of mold in houses that were abandoned after the flood. “Those houses have mold spores, and the spores are getting into the air that we’re breathing,” she said.

Landolfo said she has asthma and is also allergic to mold and the mold spores in the air are making her sick.

“I’ve ended up with sinus infections, and I’ve also gotten bronchial pneumonia,” she said.

Many of her neighbors are also suffering.

“Too many of us have the same exact symptoms for it to be a normal cold or a coincidence,” Landolfo said.

David Carpenter, director of the Institute for Health and the Environment at the University at Albany, said that the principal concern when it comes to mold is that the spores will trigger asthma. Mold doesn’t cause asthma, he said, but it will aggravate the condition in people who already have it.

Other health problems can result from mold, but these problems are much rarer and, in some cases, unproven, Carpenter said. For instance, people who have chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, a progressive disease that makes it hard to breathe, are at risk for opportunistic infection when exposed to mold, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. It’s also been suggested that mold can cause skin allergies, but that hasn’t been proven, Carpenter said.

Carpenter said that cold weather won’t kill mold, but it will slow its growth. Getting rid of wet wallboard quickly is key to fighting the spread of mold.

“It’s very difficult to get rid of mold,” he said. “The chemicals that kill mold can be even more dangerous than the mold.”

According to the CDC, some people are sensitive to mold, and these people might experience symptoms such as nasal stuffiness, eye irritation, wheezing or skin irritation when exposed to mold.

Peter Constantakes, a spokesman for the New York State Department of Health, said the agency hasn’t seen an increase in reports of mold.

“We haven’t seen anything out of the ordinary,” he said. One possible reason, he said, is that people were made aware of the potential mold problem after the storm.

“The health care community knows to look for it,” he said.

According to the CDC, in most cases mold can be removed from hard surfaces by thoroughly cleaning with commercial products, soap and water or a bleach solution of no more than one cup of bleach in one gallon of water.

Keith Graham, who heads the citizen-led group Rural Area Recovery Effort, which is focused on rebuilding southern Schoharie County, said mold is “definitely a problem.

“One family had flooding in their basement, and they got in and cleared it out, but there was water in the floor, and it created mold under the carpet,” he said. “In the majority of cases, a lot of people don’t understand the necessity and magnitude of trying to get their homes dried out.

“There’s a lack of understanding and education about mold,” Graham said.

Many flood-damaged houses are still damp and unlivable, Reed said.

“The homes are slowly drying out,” said Reed, a Schoharie resident whose home is on a hill and wasn’t damaged in the flooding that devastated his community. “The speed with which they’re drying up is a function of sealing them up, dehydration and heat.”

But for many people, reinstalling a heating system remains a challenge, he said. And before new drywall can be put in, a house must be dry, he said. Ideally, homes should be heated and dehumidified simultaneously to dry out the home and also keep mold at bay, Reed said.

Mold tends to grow well at room temperature and thrives in more tropical conditions.

A volunteer who has been working constantly since Irene, Reed said that anyone who wants his help and advice can ask for it. He’s often at the Schoharie Reformed Church on Main Street, where the volunteer effort for the Schoharie school district is based.

“I’m trying to give folks some guidance,” said Reed, who has experience in the construction business.

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