How to Find a Home or Apartment Free of Mold and Other Toxins
Is it possible to find a home, apartment, or condo that’s free of mold and other toxins? The short answer is probably not. The longer answer is that you may be able to find (or build) a home or apartment that is less toxic than the one you currently live in.
Homes and apartments (and schools and workplaces) are generally built to provide shelter from inclement weather, predators, intruders, insects, and other external threats to our health, safety, and comfort. Unfortunately, builders and manufacturers of building materials generally pay much less attention to the threats from within, such as toxic chemicals in building materials, accumulation of dust and other irritants in HVAC systems, and certain common practices that make buildings more susceptible to water damage and mold.
At the same time, energy-efficient construction standards have tightened up buildings, trapping the toxins released by mold and building materials (any many other products) inside, where we spend more and more of our time — over 90 percent of our time by one estimate provided by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).
As a result, more and more people are getting sick from the buildings in which they live, work, and learn. Whether you call it sick building syndrome (SBS), chronic inflammatory response syndrome (CIRS), toxic mold syndrome (TMS), or something else, the problem is very real, and the symptoms are all similar:
- Asthma/shortness of breath
- Body aches
- Cough or sore throat
- Difficulty concentrating (brain fog)
- Eye irritation (red eyes)
- Gastrointestinal issues
- Impaired thinking or memory
- Increased thirst
- Increased urinary frequency
- Joint pain
- Muscle cramps
- Muscle pain
- Night sweats
- Numbness and/or tingling
- Poor sleep
- Sinus congestion, sneezing, or runny nose
Choosing a Less Toxic House or Apartment
When you are looking for a place to live, try to find a house, condo, or apartment that is less likely to have problems with mold and other toxins. You’re probably not a trained home inspector or a building biologist, but there are a several issues you can look for and spot on your own — some of which even a certified home inspector may not look for. As you inspect a prospective new living space, pay special attention to the following areas:
Before you even step foot inside the property, inspect the roof. If the roof leaks, water can enter, providing the moisture that mold needs to grow. Inspect the roof (as carefully as possible without compromising your safety) for the following issues:
- Torn, missing, or worn shingles or shingles with curled up corners or edges
- More than two layers of shingles
- Obvious patches or caulking that indicate a roof repair
- A roof sloping toward an adjacent wall (directing water toward the wall instead of away from it)
- Areas on the roof where water can pool, gather and remain stagnant
- Missing or loose flashing or caulking around chimneys or vents protruding from the roof
If you notice any areas of concern and are still interested in the property, have a reputable roofing contractor inspect the roof.
Note that the greater the roof overhang the better. A roof overhang is the portion of the roof that extends beyond the outside walls of the structure. Think of it as a big umbrella that keeps you dry even in a windy downpour.
Gutters should help direct water away from the home, condo, or apartment. Here are some gutter and downspout problems to look for and be aware of:
- Missing gutters or downspouts
- Gutters packed with leaves or saplings
- Gutters pulling away from the fascia
- Ruts around the house or worn concrete where water has overflowed the gutters and caused erosion
- Downspouts that don’t divert water at least four to six feet away from the foundation
- Water in the basement or crawlspace or signs of water leakage or damage on basement walls
You can repair and replace roofs, gutters, and downspouts, but any of these issues may have already resulted in water entering the building through the roof, walls, or foundation.
Check the ground around the outside of the structure to be sure it slopes down away from the structure and not toward it. Water draining down toward a structure is almost certain to find its way into the structure, especially if it has a basement or crawlspace.
The slope should be a minimum of six inches every ten feet and even steeper for new construction, because the ground around the foundation has been disturbed and will settle over the course of several years.
The foundation should rise at least six inches above the ground before the point where the framing or exterior walls begin. In most cases, this means you should be able to see about six inches of the foundation. This helps prevent water seeping from the ground through the seam formed where the framing of the house rests on the foundation. It also prevents termite and ant infestations.
Check the outside walls of the structure for any damage or stains (signs of water damage). What you’re looking for varies depending on the materials used. For example, for brick and stone, make sure the mortar between the bricks or stones is in good condition. For aluminum or vinyl siding, make sure all the siding is in place and nothing is cracked, bowed, or pulling away from walls. Also look carefully for any gaps where the backing board or insulation shows through — if you can see the backing board (the wood paneling the siding is nailed to) or the insulation, the wood is likely to be soaking up moisture from the surrounding air.
Heating, Air Conditioning, and Ventilation (HVAC) System
Some homes, condo, and apartments have radiant heat — hot water flows from the furnace through pipes embedded in the floors and walls or into free-standing radiators. This type of heating is great, because air doesn’t flow through ducts dispersing dust, mold spores, and other toxins and irritants. The only problem is that these systems can leak, so in buildings with radiant heat, inspect even more closely for signs of leaks, including stained or patched ceilings, floors, or walls.
If the HVAC system is the forced-air variety, the home has ductwork to distribute hot and cold air throughout the building. You can check the cleanliness of the ductwork by looking in the registers (openings in the floors, walls, or ceilings usually covered by grates). You can usually remove a grate by lifting it or removing a couple screws, and then wipe inside with a cloth, napkin, or tissue to check for dust and debris. Also ask to see the furnace filter; if it’s packed with dust, the ductwork probably is, too.
Pro Tip: Note that the furnace fan is often left running when builders are finishing the inside walls. Drywalling involves covering the seams between drywall with a special tape and silica paste and then sanding after it dries. This creates a fine silica dust that irritates the respiratory system. If you notice silica dust or other construction debris in or around the ductwork in a newly constructed house or apartment, it’s a sign of careless builders, so strongly consider walking away.
Most important of all, have the HVAC system inspected by a certified HVAC specialist and not merely by a home inspector. This is especially important for gas furnaces to ensure that the furnace is properly vented to prevent carbon monoxide from being released into the home. The inspection may cost a couple hundred dollars, but it can potentially save your life, not to mention thousands of dollars in repairs if the furnace or installation is defective. Likewise, if the property has a gas water heater, be sure it is properly vented to the outside of the building.
Check to be sure that every bathroom and the kitchen has an exhaust fan that directs air outside the structure and not into an attic, basement, crawlspace, or interior wall. Exhaust fans are essential in bathrooms to prevent excess moisture that creates a breeding ground for toxic mold.
Pro Tip: Leave the exhaust fan on for at least 30 minutes after taking a bath or shower. The more you do to remove moisture from your bathroom, the more you’re doing to prevent mold from forming and growing in that space.
Make sure all exhaust fan and dryer ductwork are in good repair. Solid ducts with short, straight runs are best, although flexible ducts are often used. Be sure the exhaust outlets don’t feed the humid air into intake vents, such as soffit vents (on the underside of the roof that extends beyond the exterior walls of the structure). If an exhaust vent is under a soffit vent, the humid air from the exhaust may rise and enter the soffit vent, providing an ideal place for mold to grow in an attic.
If your living structure has a crawl space (as opposed to a basement or slab foundation), make sure the crawl space doesn’t have an exposed dirt floor. Any dirt floor should be covered with a thick plastic sheet that serves as a vapor barrier with any seems carefully sealed and the entire vapor barrier sealed to the crawl space walls.
Inspect the attic for any signs of mold or signs that the roof is leaking or has leaked in the past. Look for stains or dampness on decking (the wood the roof is nailed to) and rafters or damp insulation. It’s often much easier to spot problems with the roof by inspecting the attic.
Walls, Ceilings, and Floors
Carefully inspect all walls and (especially) ceilings for discoloration or patches that could be a sign of past leaks and possibly hidden problems. A stained ceiling could be a sign of a leaky roof or pipe.
Inspect floors and flooring for stains and warping, which could be sign of water damage. When possible, lift any rugs and inspect the floor.
Sinks, Baths, and Showers
Carefully inspect in and around all sinks, baths, and showers for mold or any signs of leaks. Open any cabinets below sinks and inspect inside the cabinets. Try to rock the toilet back and forth — if it moves, that could be a sign of a leak or past leak beneath the toilet that is causing the wood underneath the toilet to rot and is another place where mold is likely to grow.
Building materials can be a major source of toxins in a house or apartment. In fact, there are more than 360 toxic chemicals associated with building materials, including neurotoxins, carcinogens, and hormone disrupters. These chemicals are in everything, including flooring, adhesives, insulation, backing board, pipes, and paints. Over time, these materials off-gas, releasing volatile organic compounds (VOCs) and other dangerous chemicals into the air.
Unfortunately, most of us don’t know enough about building materials to know the composition of the materials used to build living spaces, and even if we did, the materials are often hidden beneath floors, carpet, paint, siding, roofing, and drywall. The only way you can really tell whether the building materials are toxic is if the home was newly constructed or recently renovated and it has that new-house smell — that’s the smell of toxins.
One final tip on this topic: If you’re going to build your own home, consider consulting a building biologist or using a builder who specializes in building healthy homes. As awareness and demand for healthy homes increase, more and more builders are beginning to use healthier construction materials and follow best practices for constructing healthy living spaces. These homes certainly cost more but think of it this way — you can pay the builder and live healthier or pay the doctor to treat you and your sick family members when the toxins make them ill.
Keep in mind that the structure itself is only one of the many sources of toxins we live with on a daily basis. Everything you bring into your living space is a potential source of toxins. To find out more about reducing your exposure to toxins, check out our six-part series “Living Healthy in a Toxic Environment.”
For more about mold, we recommend the book Mold Illness: Surviving and Thriving — A Recovery Manual for Patients and Families Impacted by CIRS (by Paula Vetter, Laurie Rossi, and Cindy Edwards, with a foreword by Dr. Ritchie C. Shoemaker) and the documentary Moldy (by Bulletproof Films).
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Disclaimer: The information in this blog post about finding a mold-free house, condo, or apartment is provided for general informational purposes only and may not reflect current medical thinking or practices. No information contained in this post should be construed as medical advice from the medical staff at Restoration Healthcare, Inc., nor is this post intended to be a substitute for medical counsel on any subject matter. No reader of this post should act or refrain from acting on the basis of any information included in, or accessible through, this post without seeking the appropriate medical advice on the particular facts and circumstances at issue from a licensed medical professional in the recipient’s state, country or other appropriate licensing jurisdiction.