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Age of mold contamination in buildings:
This article discusses how we assess the activity or inactivity of mold contamination in a building, what difference that means (or does not) in risk to building occupants, and how we can find evidence suggesting that a given mold contamination case is new, old, or includes both old and new fungal growth.
We also provide a MASTER INDEX to this topic, or you can try the page top or bottom SEARCH BOX as a quick way to find information you need.
Determining Whether or Not a Mold Test Sample Shows Active Mold Growth
Reader Question: how do we determine whether or not mold in a building is active vs. inactive?
Would you please let me know how an individual (or lab) would test for whether a mold found on attic sheathing is active vs. inactive?
Research on-line has told me the test for active vs inactive is whether it smears when you rub it. Is there a more technical test that can be done? Should a lab be able to tell me this when I supply a sample? - M.O.
The question of how we determine whether or not mold in a test sample is "active" is a bit misleading, although some surface test samples of mold do indeed give compelling evidence of recent active fungal growth. Our site photograph of moldy roof sheathing (above left) is an example. Is this mold growth "active" or "inactive", and does activity make much difference in risk to building occupants?
At MOLD AGE, HOW OLD is the MOLD? we discuss visual clues that help determine the age of mold contamination in buildings or on building surfaces. There we explain what dried, desiccated, "old" mold growth may look like on a surface, in a test sample, and under the microscope. Among other factors, we distinguish between
Dry desiccated fungal material is consistent with prior, currently inactive fungal growth on the surface which was sampled. Very desiccated sample materials are almost certainly not indicators of active current fungal growth.
Fresh, hydrated fungal hyphae or fungal fruiting bodies (conidiophores or other sporulating bodies) are consistent with ongoing, current fungal growth. Some fungal bodies such as thick woody structures grow much more slowly and if present, almost certainly have been developing over a long time.
Often we can confirm recent fungal growth in a tape sample by the presence of certain growth structures, hyphal buds, or even the state of a conidiophore.
Our photo of Epicoccum sp. fungal spores and hyphae (above left) collected from a building surface shows intact, fragile hydrated complete spores still connected to hyphae - this mold growth is recent and might indeed be considered "active mold growth" as would the intact, hydrated, and budding Aureobasidium pullulans spores shown in our second lab photo (above right).
This burst of Pleospora spores is clearly active. Similarly, for certain species that produce long fragile spore chains, the presence of long mold spore chains is certainly indicative of nearby active fungal growth, as these chains break up rapidly into individual spores when airborne.
Conversely, highly-dessicated, fractured, or damaged fungal material that lacks budding hyphae or sporulating intact conidiophores are almost certainly "inactive" mold growth in the spot where sampled.
Sources of Error in Estimating Whether or Not Mold Growth in a Building is Active
Watch out: "mold activity" or "mold inactivity" can be misleading conclusions about the risks associated with mold growth in buildings.
The moldy books in a college library (photo at left) were in the opinion of some people "an old inactive mold problem" but when workers began dehumidifying the area in preparation for a mold cleanup, visible clouds of Aspergillus sp. spores were released into the air by small air currents caused by simply walking down the aisle between stacks of books.
Mold test sample size: Because a sample represents a small area of a building and of time, and because other materials may be present that the sampler did not see, detect, or test, a single sample is an indicator, not a conclusion about a building's condition.
Multiple mold genera/species: Next, the conditions that produced fungal growth that was seen and tested mean that building conditions were ripe for mold growth, perhaps on other surfaces or in cavities or in less visible locations.
For example we may see one species of mold on an attic roof underside, say Cladosporium cladosporioides, perhaps even desiccated by the heat of sun beating on the roof, while the conditions that produced that growth also produced a non-visible but more troubling Aspergillus sp. contaminating growth in building insulation in the attic floor. So at a given time, some mold on building surfaces may be "inactive" while nearby another genera/species may be growing like mad, or releasing spores like mad, i.e. "active".
Dead toxic mold: Next, we suspect an underlying faulty premise that the salient question is whether or not a fungal growth is active or not in a building. In fact even currently inactive (no apparent recent fungal propagation) fungal presence on a surface can be a hazard since spores and fungal hyphal fragments may be toxic, pathogenic, or allergenic even in that state. That point remains true even if some misinformed "mold remediator" tries to "kill" the fungus with a fungicide or bleach.
Smearing mold?: Further, he claim that smearing mold with a finger determines whether or not it is active or not is nonsense. A mold growth on a surface could be very desiccated and may not have actively propagated for a long time but still can be "smeared" with a finger wipe. But we agree that if you cannot smear suspected-mold or better, if you cannot obtain particles on an adhesive tape sample, then the surface may have been previously cleaned, and what remains may be no more than a cosmetic stain.
Inoculation of mold: Finally, even if mold is "not actively growing" at the time that a sample is obtained from a surface (or in dust or air), the presence of a large amount of fungal material in a building can lead to rapid mold re growth and propagation when building conditions change to those more conducive to growth of the fungi already present.
All mold is everywhere all the time in the form of spores ready to inoculate a material or surface. So when building conditions are ripe for mold growth, it is likely to occur. Predominantly, it is the building conditions that determine whether or not we will have a building mold problem, not the presence or absence of mold in general.
. But the presence of a large reservoir of pre-existing (inactive) mold can speed both the recurrence and the extent of a future mold contamination. "Inactive" does not mean "non-viable".
Watch out however: using a swab or culture test for "viable mold" in buildings can give very misleading results since what grows in the culture is what likes the culture, not necessarily what is present or dominant in the building. See MOLD TESTING METHOD VALIDITY and in particular Mold Culture Plate Test Errors.
These reasons explain why in addition to testing to confirm the presence of mold growth, and to confirm that it is not simply cosmetic, in cases of possibly costly mold cleanup or diagnosing a possible building contribution to indoor air quality complaints, is important to have an expert perform a competent inspection of the building.
As we explain at MOLD AGE, HOW OLD is the MOLD?, especially in older buildings where there has been a recent sudden leak event associated with mold growth, it is often
possible to identify pre-existing mold as well as mold-producing conditions.
In unambiguous cases, the "new" mold associated
with the building leak event may, by luck, appear in a limited area of the building which maps the area wet by the recent leak,
and separated by distance or building area from other moldy areas which in turn are associated with other building leaks or conditions.
The physical separation of wet areas and wet conditions may be sufficient to make a clear assignment of mold causation in such cases.
In ambiguous cases, there is fresh, active fungal growth, probably associated with a recent leak or flooding event in the building, which
has grown entirely or partly overlapping pre-existing mold growth. In this case the assignment of cause and age of mold in the building can
be ambiguous. If an insurance claim is involved, insurance company policy details and internal claims adjustment guidelines will determine the
extent to which insurance coverage will address building remediation and repair for these overlapped-occurrence mold conditions.
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Question: where do I go to find out if my headaches and other problems are due to toxic molds in my home
(July 12, 2015) Jill White said:
I have been mislead by slumlord who kept promising me she would fix the leaking roof and floor plumbing, but now the damage is total
The new management came to say that instead of repairing the home it would be demolished. Are you belongings all tainted with mold/fungi?
Where can I go to get the blood/urine/lab work to find out if my headaches, dizziness, nasal problems, worsening allergies, increased inhaler usage, lack of energy, depression, ect- .is from toxic molds inside and outside my home. Help asap-court with new landlord soon
Outdoor mold is not likely to be a source of medical illness unless someone rubs mold growth in an eye or into an open cut. But high levels of a number of indoor mold contaminants can be a cause of a wide range of health complaints.
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Kansas State University, department of plant pathology, extension plant pathology web page on wheat rust fungus: see http://www.oznet.ksu.edu/path-ext/factSheets/Wheat/Wheat%20Leaf%20Rust.asp
"A Brief Guide to Mold, Moisture, and Your Home",
U.S. Environmental Protection Agency US EPA - includes basic advice for building owners, occupants, and mold cleanup operations. See http://www.epa.gov/mold/moldguide.htm
US EPA - Mold Remediation in Schools and Commercial Building [Copy on file at /sickhouse/EPA_Mold_Remediation_in_Schools.pdf ] - US EPA
US EPA - Una Breva Guia a Moho - Hongo [Copy on file as /sickhouse/EPA_Moho_Guia_sp.pdf - en Espanol
"A Brief Guide to Mold, Moisture, and Your Home", U.S. Environmental Protection Agency US EPA - includes basic advice for building owners, occupants, and mold cleanup operations. See http://www.epa.gov/mold/moldguide.htm
"Disease Prevention in Home Vegetable Gardens,"
Department of Plant Microbiology and Pathology,
Department of Horticulture, University of Missouri Extension - extension.missouri.edu/publications/DisplayPub.aspx?P=G6202
Fifth Kingdom, Bryce Kendrick, ISBN13: 9781585100224, is available from the InspectAPedia online bookstore - we recommend the CD-ROM version of this book. This 3rd/edition is a compact but comprehensive encyclopedia of all things mycological. Every aspect of the fungi, from aflatoxin to zppspores, with an accessible blend of verve and wit. The 24 chapters are filled with up-to-date information of classification, yeast, lichens, spore dispersal, allergies, ecology, genetics, plant pathology, predatory fungi, biological control, mutualistic symbioses with animals and plants, fungi as food, food spoilage and mycotoxins.
Carson, Dunlop & Associates Ltd., 120 Carlton Street Suite 407, Toronto ON M5A 4K2. Tel: (416) 964-9415 1-800-268-7070 Email: email@example.com. The firm provides professional home inspection services & home inspection education & publications. Alan Carson is a past president of ASHI, the American Society of Home Inspectors. Thanks to Alan Carson and Bob Dunlop, for permission for InspectAPedia to use text excerpts from The Home Reference Book & illustrations from The Illustrated Home. Carson Dunlop Associates' provides extensive home inspection education and report writing material.
The Illustrated Home illustrates construction details and building components, a reference for owners & inspectors. Special Offer: For a 5% discount on any number of copies of the Illustrated Home purchased as a single order Enter INSPECTAILL in the order payment page "Promo/Redemption" space.
TECHNICAL REFERENCE GUIDE to manufacturer's model and serial number information for heating and cooling equipment, useful for determining the age of heating boilers, furnaces, water heaters is provided by Carson Dunlop, Associates, Toronto - Carson Dunlop Weldon & Associates Special Offer: Carson Dunlop Associates offers InspectAPedia readers in the U.S.A. a 5% discount on any number of copies of the Technical Reference Guide purchased as a single order. Just enter INSPECTATRG in the order payment page "Promo/Redemption" space.
The Home Reference Book - the Encyclopedia of Homes, Carson Dunlop & Associates, Toronto, Ontario, 25th Ed., 2012, is a bound volume of more than 450 illustrated pages that assist home inspectors and home owners in the inspection and detection of problems on buildings. The text is intended as a reference guide to help building owners operate and maintain their home effectively. Field inspection worksheets are included at the back of the volume.
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Special Offer: Carson Dunlop Associates offers InspectAPedia readers in the U.S.A. a 5% discount on these courses: Enter INSPECTAHITP in the order payment page "Promo/Redemption" space. InspectAPedia.com editor Daniel Friedman is a contributing author.
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