Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Green Cleaning: Dealing With Mold

I just finished up a big research project on negative respiratory health outcomes related to mold and moisture in homes and how lack of inspection of rental housing is contributing to the poor health of lower income populations. And then I realized that not once had I actually looked around our house for mold.

See, the presence of mold or continuous moisture inside a home is pretty consistently associated with poor respiratory health outcomes like asthma, strong allergic reactions, sinusitis, bronchitis, common cold, as well as other issues like fatigue and problems concentrating. If we don't look around our homes, clean up mold when we find it, and make sure our landlords (if we are renting) are responsible for any larger maintenance issues, we run the risk of damaging our bodies. You would think I would have gone and looked around our house sooner, especially since I had a sinus infection a couple weeks ago followed by a persistent cough, but no, I was "too busy." Then yesterday I pulled up a set of shades we normally leave down in the bedroom, and I found this reminder to re-prioritize when it comes to health:
Eegad- I promise we're not slobs! We just weren't paying attention when we should have been.

Clearly, it was time to intervene. We only clean with vinegar, baking soda and other non-toxic cleaners in our house, and one of the ways that you can exacerbate respiratory problems is by using chemical cleaners. Fortunately, there are lots of good green cleaning methods for getting rid of mold. Plain white vinegar purportedly kills 82% of all mold, and tea tree oil is a strong disinfectant that is really good for getting rid of mold and keeping it from returning. That said, it is important to note that just cleaning up the mold doesn't necessarily get rid of the problem. Mold doesn't grow unless there is a moisture problem going on, and if you don't deal with the moisture problem, it will just come right back. Ususally it's a pretty simple fix, and often a seasonal problem. In our house, the place with the worst mold was this windowsill in the bedroom where we usually didn't open the shades during the day. That trapped all the condensation (from us breathing all night) between the shades and the window, leaving it nowhere to go. By opening those shades every day, the problem should mostly be solved. I did find minor mold growth on the living room windowsills, which get a lot of circulation, but moisture just gets trapped in the house regardless during the winter. It's a good reminder to open the windows for half an hour on the occasional dry sunny day to air things out.

Remember that mold isn't always obvious. Look in the places you don't normally pay attention:
  • On top of/on the underside of windowsills that are above or below your eye line. 
  • Behind furniture that sits up against a wall 
  • In crevices that might retain moisture (I found some in our bathroom in the two-inch gap between the sink cabinet and the bathtub)
  • In gaps between the lip of your kitchen sink and the backsplash- water collects here easily. 
  • Behind blinds or curtains
  • Inside cupboards that contain plumbing
  • Under loose or peeling wallpaper
I did some reading on the safest, most effective ways of cleaning up mold, and went to work. I started by wiping off as much mold as I could with a rag soaked in pure white vinegar, using an old toothbrush to get hard-to-reach corners and cracks.

I started off using a rag cut from an old towel, but found I liked using flannel cloths better. Remember leave as little moisture as possible on the surfaces you are cleaning. I cracked all the windows as I cleaned them, to allow the vinegar to dry quickly on the sills.

You can use the method I did, or else put the vinegar in a spray bottle, spray it onto the moldy surfaces, and wipe it clean with a dry rag, then spray lightly again and let it dry.

The second solution I used was a dilution of tea tree oil, made with 2 teaspoons of tea tree oil and 2 cups of water. Again, you can spray this onto moldy surfaces to dry, or do what I did, and soak a flannel rag in it, ring it out, then wipe everything down and let it dry.

Please remember to wear a face mask or a handkerchief tied over your nose and mouth while you clean up mold. You are loosening up mold spores, and you don't want to breath them in.  It's also a good idea to wear gloves- vinegar can really dry out your skin.

Remember that taking measures to prevent mold growth is more efficient than cleaning it up after the fact (now I really sound like a public health advocate!). Here are things you can do to prevent moisture from accumulating in your home:
  • Open all your blinds and curtains in the morning and leave them open all day
  • Leave doors between rooms open during the day to allow air to circulate
  • If you notice windows fogging up or condensation on the walls (this happens when I use the oven a lot), crack a couple windows to get some air circulating, and/or give the windows a wipe with a cloth to speed their drying. 
  • Check your house regularly for water leaks, excess moisture, or standing water. Places to look are your bathroom, basement, laundry, and around and under your kitchen sink.
  • If condensation is a constant problem in your home, think about installing a fan or two, or a more efficient heating system, or just use an electric space heater. If you rent, talk to your landlord and see what can be done. 
  • Air out your house regularly. We live all summer with most of the windows open day and night, but in the winter I often forget to open the windows occasionally and get some fresh air in. Try to do this on dry days, though! 
I hope this is helpful- it's an aspect of household health that often gets overlooked, but I've just been reminded by my research how important it is to prevent mold growth. Cleaning up mold is a time-consuming and nit-picky job, but it's worth it to live in a healthy home.

No comments: