Skeletal hands down, Halloween is the favorite holiday among the spooks, specters and creepy-crawlies in our Urban Home. The home office is decorated in high-goth style with mortuary and cemetery collectibles and arcane medical equipment, while silhouetted along the window, the famous collection of haunted houses acts as a beacon for weary travelers both earthbound and noncorporeal. A cool October weekend finds us unwinding orange twinkle lights for twisting around window frames, and unpacking vintage Halloween decorations with which to haunt window sills and tabletops. Scary tales from the homekeeper’s library are stacked by comfy chairs, for dipping into by lamplight.
On this night when the veil between the worlds is at its thinnest, spirits travel freely between their realm and ours. The ease of passage through the portal is the basis for many screams on this spookiest of nights. Occultists confirm that, as a rule, we needn’t fear spectral entities, for even on this holy night they cannot connect with us unless we are open to the contact. That doesn’t mean they won’t try, and if their message is urgent, they may resort to whatever tricks they can manifest from the crypt: a gust of chilly air, a whiff of decaying perfume, an overturned glass, an image in a mirror, a word from a planchette, a whisper in an ear, a shiver down a spine.
From ghosts and goblins to trick or treaters, you could make the argument that the essence of Halloween is dealing with unwanted guests. You could make the same argument regarding homekeeping. After shelter itself, the fundamental goal of homekeeping is creating and maintaining a livable environment. This includes safety and cleanliness, and if the lights in the window beckon spirits on their travels on the holy night of Halloween or kids in costumes on more direct missions concerning candy and pranks, more mundane entities may be drawn to your home via temptations as simple and elemental to the homestead as structure and water.
Homekeeping writers often shy away from the question of dealing with household pests because it’s not a sexy enough area of content to generate a high number of hits on a website or to sell pages in a magazine. Also it’s just plain icky. That said, few areas of content in this discipline generate a more focused and determined web search than a homekeeper who is in a panic about the subject. Some of the volumes in our homekeeper’s library devote some pages to the issue, usually concerning pest control. There are guides in print and online for dealing with insects and vermin, bedbugs being the unwelcome visitor to most recently infest their fair share of the free press.
One set of home visitors who are notable both for their insistence on arriving and their reluctance to leave is mold and mildew. From the telltale black and brown spotting that is the bane of anyone trying to disinfect a shower stall to the rare but vexing toxic black mold that is a genuine medical and structural threat, few substances generate a more universal ick than these common, unavoidable fungi. It is every homekeeper’s responsibility to learn how to manage the presence of these unwelcome visitors. In this season of the creepy and the crawly, here is a guide to two of the most insidious homefront invaders.
MOLD AND MILDEW
As with previous cleaning guides at Urban Home Blog, this guide is not meant to be a comprehensive checklist nor a compensated endorsement. This guide is based on my research and experience as a lifestyle writer and a homekeeper. For invaluable assistance with this guide, I am grateful to the United States Environmental Protection Agency and the University of Wisconsin, Department of Biology.
Definition. Mold and mildew are fungi, a kingdom that also includes mushrooms and yeasts. Fungi are neither plant nor animal but their own distinct kingdom. Mold and mildew are microorganisms comprised of enzymes for digestion and spores for reproduction. Molds belong to the general fungal divisions Zygomycota, Ascomycota and Deuteromycota. Mildew is a specific type of Ascomycota. A grouping of mold or mildew microorganisms is identified as a colony.
Appearance and Odor. To the homekeeper, the primary distinctions between mold and mildew are the differentiations in color and texture between the two. Household mold is black, green, red, blue or brown or a combination of these, with a fuzzy or slimy texture and a noticeable physicality. Mildew is gray, white, silver or a combination of these, with a powdery or downy texture and a splotchy or patchy appearance.
Mold and mildew colonies release a characteristic musty odor as part of routine self maintenance. That odor is the result of gasses known as volatile organic compounds (VOCs), which cause physical reactions in people, animals and plants who are sensitive to them. It is fair to state that when the musty odor is noticeable, that is confirmation that the colony is thriving. Some rare molds produce mycotoxins that can produce severe reactions; see below to learn some basic information about these molds and their toxins.
Habitat. Mold and mildew are attracted to moisture and thrive in damp locations. Mold and mildew are not dependent upon light to exist, and because the colony spreads by spores, growth can occur in any direction. The colony will inhabit as much of the host as conditions allow. Unless it is controlled by outside forces, there is really nothing to prevent a colony of mold or mildew from spreading infinitely.
In the home, mold is attracted primarily to architectural elements such as walls, ceilings, floors, moldings and infrastructure while mildew is attracted primarily to bathroom surfaces, paper and fabric. In the refrigerator, mold usually attaches to cheese, meat, or produce while mildew primarily attaches to produce. In the garden, mold finds hosts from bark to rocks to the ground cover while mildew finds hosts among leaves and flowers. In the home, the most common locations we notice mold and mildew are the bathroom, the kitchen, the basement and the garbage cans. Unfortunately, it is the locations where we can’t or don’t notice mold and mildew that they can do the worst destruction: in walls, under flooring, in HVAC systems, and in unfinished attics, basements and crawlspaces.
Chemical Management of Common Household Mold and Mildew. Caught early and managed effectively, simple colonies of mold and mildew can be controlled but mold and mildew cannot entirely be eradicated. This is because mold feeds and therefore advances by a process known as filament absorption. The spores extend themselves into a feeding ground. In the household, this includes such porous materials as wood, drywall and grout. Mold cannot penetrate solid substances such as glass, tile or granite, but can traverse short distances across the surfaces of solid substances.
It is important to understand this because when we remove mold and mildew we are only removing that part of the colony that we can affect on the surface. Though it is tempting to use this as an excuse to avoid what is an unpleasant task to begin with, this actually makes it more urgent to remove as much of a mold or mildew colony as we can get to. Aside from the benefits of disposing of the reachable area of the colony, surface cleaning and disinfecting create an inhospitable environment that will minimize the presence of mold and mildew in the home and is the most effective way to minimize their impact on the home environment.
Though in our urban home we try to practice green homekeeping whenever possible, we do believe that for some situations, only strong disinfecting chemicals are effective. Most home economists and biologists agree that it is almost impossible to effectively manage common household mold and mildew without respectfully and safely using strong chemicals. It should be noted that green housekeepers suggest three substances to manage mold and mildew: tea tree oil, grapefruit seed extract and vinegar. Many cleaning guides also suggest borax, ammonia, hydrogen peroxide or baking soda.
Several cleansers and disinfectants are manufactured specifically to combat mold and mildew, and many others contain as part of their formulations ingredients that combat mold and mildew. When distinguishing among these, it is important to choose one with bleach, which will be so identified on the front label and with the name sodium hypoclorite in the ingredient panel, active in the formulation at a level of at least 1.8%. Two consumer products to consider are Clorox Clean-up with Bleach and MoldStat, both of whose efficacy is enhanced by being used in conjunction with a bleach-infused cleaning “eraser” such as Mr Clean Magic Eraser.
Removal of Basic Colonies of Common Household Mold and Mildew. Outside of comprehensive or toxic infestations, which will require professional management (see below), the best approach to manage basic colonies of mold and mildew is a three-way attack. First, remove as much of the current infestation as possible. Second, create an inhospitable surface both where the infestation had become noticeable and in any area where it may try to spread. Third, maintain the inhospitality as part of routine homekeeping.
Here are instructions for removing a simple colony of mold or mildew from accessible and cleansible household surfaces such as a wood, drywall, tile and grouting, laminate and pipes. For fabric surfaces such as rugs, curtains or upholstery, contact a cleansing professional certified in mold remediation.
Equipment and Technique
Cleaning solution containing at least 1.8% bleach
Rubber or latex household gloves
Allergen-blocking face mask
Plastic bucket lined with a plastic trash bag
A spray bottle filled with clean water
1. Ventilate the area that requires cleaning.
2. Suit up with gloves and an allergen-blocking face mask. If the colony inhabits an overhead area, consider clear eye goggles and a hair covering as well.
3. Use the scraper to remove as much of the colony as you can reach without harming the surface area that is hosting the colony. Position the bucket to catch the scrapings, being sure that they land inside the trash bag so that you can properly dispose of them. Dispose of the scraper in the bucket.
4. Once you have physically removed of as much of the colony as you can, spray the entire area with the cleanser. Be careful to follow the instructions for safe usage, which should include indications of safety of surface contact and which should be available on both the product label and the manufacturer’s website.
5. While waiting the amount of time specified on the label/website for the cleanser to stay on the surface being cleaned, use the cleansing eraser to scrub any areas that evidence smaller traces of the colony, as well as the area where you removed the heaviest growth. Dispose of the cleaning eraser in the bucket.
6. After the amount of time specified on the label/website for the cleanser to stay on the surface being cleaned, use the spray bottle to wash the area clean of residue.
7. Ventilate/heat the area well so that the surfaces dry quickly.
8. Remove the gloves and mask and dispose of them in the bucket. Seal the trash bag containing the scrapings, eraser, gloves and mask and seal the bag in a second bag. Properly dispose of the double-bagged refuse. Disinfect and thoroughly dry the bucket before re-using it.
9. For damp home environments such as bathrooms and basements, use a dehumidifier or a moisture absorber to reduce the attractiveness of the habitat to the colony.
Management of Toxic Molds. Some molds are harmful to human and animal health. These include toxic black mold, but this is not the only harmful mold. Only a mycologist or a toxicologist can identify if a household mold is a toxic one, and only a medical doctor can treat the effects if any on individuals who have come into contact with toxic mold. For information on managing actual or suspected colonies of toxic molds, click here, and for information regarding exposure to toxic molds, click here.
Benefits. Scary stories sometimes conclude with happy endings, so it should be noted that mold and mildew are not harmful de facto. Harm, when it happens to home structures or the beings that dwell within the home, is an effect of the natural state of being of these fungi. When we impact the colony, we are doing harm to this life form with a conscious intention that the life form itself does not reciprocate.
Many fungi are beneficial. The most immediate examples are the kitchen fungi mushrooms and yeasts. Just as without mushrooms our pizza would be naked and without yeast we wouldn’t have bread, without mold we wouldn’t have cheese. In addition, just as there are molds that are harmful to human health, mold also gives us an important medicine – Penicillium, which you and I know as the antibiotic penicillin. Finally, appropriate to the spirit of the season with which we began this column, it is important to note that without these microorganisms – the study of which is admittedly not for the squeamish – biological waste from plant matter to human corpses would not decompose.