GAINESVILLE, Fla. – Sept. 29, 2008 – You can’t tell a storm’s spit by its punch, the old maxim goes. Florida is used to stronger weather systems than tropical storm Fay, but its seven-day deluge made it the fourth wettest storm to ever hit the state.
One month later, most of the flooding has receded, but an expert from the University of Florida’s (UF) Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences warns that new problems could be rising in the form of toxic molds and mildews.
“Moisture is the No. 1 thing that molds need to grow, and this storm certainly gave us plenty of that,” says James Kimbrough, a mycologist in UF’s department of plant pathology.
Tropical storm Fay dropped as much as 26 inches on some parts of the state, the most rain delivered at once in nearly a decade, according to Dennis Decker of the National Weather Service office in Melbourne, Fla.
“Your house may not get washed away,” Kimbrough says. “But moisture could sneak into places you can’t see or don’t typically look. Those are the places most mold and mildew is best at growing.”
A well-known mold and mildew expert, Kimbrough receives daily requests to identify molds and mildews associated with the recent rains. Sometimes the moisture damage is obvious, such as one recent case where mushrooms were growing out of a living room floor.
However, black mold often grows prolifically on the inside of walls before it becomes visible. Loose drywall tape, light wall stains or even the appearance of unusual amounts of dust on duct vents could be the earliest signs of a massive spread of mold.
Black mold can result in what physicians have dubbed “sick building syndrome.” It includes symptoms such as scratchy throats, watery eyes, rashes and breathing problems. It can even result in chronic fatigue, pneumonia and symptoms resembling irritable bowel syndrome.
“Of course, the best tactic is not to get sick before you notice the problem,” Kimbrough says. Warped wood, black growth on bathroom tiles, cracked or peeling paint, a roof leak or constant condensation on pipes, windows or walls are all warning signs.
Air conditioning units can make problems worse. If controls are malfunctioning or poorly set, they can rapidly cool surfaces in the home, which then form condensation that promotes mold growth.
Kimbrough also suggests using high-quality air conditioning filters and changing them regularly.
“This keeps the mold spores from circulating around the building,” he said. “They don’t get a chance to spread around and grow other places—and they don’t get a chance to land in your lungs.”
Excessive buildup on air-conditioning filters is also a prime sign that mold problems may be in the works. Vinyl wallpaper and floor coverings should also be watched closely for signs of mold.
“Mold is something that humans live with, especially in Florida,” Kimbrough says. “And so it’s fine to expect a little mold and mildew here and there that can be cleaned away. But big growths can cause big problems. It’s like dealing with cockroaches. Just spraying one that you happen to see is fine, but it could mean that there are hundreds you don’t see.”
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