Mold Exposure Hazardous to Chemically Sensitive

Deanne, a volunteer for the Chemical Injury Resource Association (CIRA) helpline has counseled over 300 CIRA helpline callers annually. So […]

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Deanne, a volunteer for the Chemical Injury Resource Association (CIRA) helpline has counseled over 300 CIRA helpline callers annually. So she was more prepared than the average homeowner when she had to deal with a mold removal process in her own home.

After being diagnosed as chemically hypersensitive in 2001, and upon the advice of her doctor to avoid exposure to chemicals, Deanne decided to stay in her house. She thought it was a safe place to be. Unfortunately, she was trapped, much like the mold that encased the inside of her basement walls. She says, “… what I had done was to trade the chemical exposures in [retail] stores for the exposures of mold in my home.”

Deanne’s Story: Coping with Extreme Mold in Her Home

Health effects of exposure to extremely moldy conditions can vary depending upon an individual’s immune system and how much exposure occurs. Prolonged exposure to molds has the potential to damage the immune system. It also can cause allergies, skin, neurological, and endocrine diseases, birth defects, cancer, gastrointestinal, pulmonary, renal, hepatic, and general metabolic disorders. In Deanne’s case, she was affected neurologically. Her symptoms mimicked those of a brain injury: rage, crying, irritability, confusion and disorientation.

In early 2002, when the spring thaws created moisture spots on the ceiling, Deanne realized there was a problem. She knew from talking to CIRA helpline callers that this meant the conditions were right for mold growth in the house.

Trial and Error: Learning How to Safely Renovate a Moldy Home

Once a home evaluation was done, Deanne interviewed several general contractors. None of them seemed to understand enough about chemical sensitivities and non-toxic alternative solutions. Deanne said, “…the contractors would come in and quote $100,000 and tell me, ‘You’re going to have to move out of your home for 3-4 months.’” They didn’t realize that a chemically sensitive person can’t tolerate living in a hotel, or even in a friend or relative’s home that isn’t environmentally safe.

To assure her safety while the basement was fixed, Deanne and her husband took control of the project with the help of a handyman. The timing of the removal of building materials and household possessions as well as the re-installation process was critical. Gutting and remodeling needed to be done when the heat or air-conditioning didn’t have to be on, so that contaminated air was not blown throughout the house.

Gutting a home involves not only the removal of personal possessions, but also includes removing all the sheet rock and plaster walls and ceilings, as well as the wood lath behind the plaster or sheet rock, and the non-structural wood studs and joists, wood flooring, sub-flooring, cabinetry and trims, vinyl flooring, windows, and duct work. Gutting might also require removing water-damaged air handlers, electrical wiring and outlets, fixtures and other equipment, such as computers, microwaves, window A/C units, and other electronics/appliances containing fans that had been housed in the moldy rooms. TV’s, stereo equipment and other electronics without fans may be saved with proper cleaning. For more information, go to

The areas worked on were sealed off to prevent the mold from spreading throughout the home during the abatement process. Each basement room was enclosed individually as it was gutted. Contaminated materials were bagged for disposal and then thrown out the window of the room. Fans were put in the window, to create a negative air pressure by pulling out the moldy air.

In Deanne’s case, her basement was re-built twice because six months after the initial work was done, condensation collected behind the vapor barrier and the walls were again saturated with water. Although the walls weren’t moldy yet, it was Deanne’s sign the mold growth cycle would just start over again.

The second time around, the remodeling didn’t result in a typical Minnesota finished basement. To create a finished look on the block walls, they traded insulation from the ground level and down for a skim coat of mortar mix (Portland cement, lime and sand) to give the walls a stucco look. Four feet and up, the walls were sheetrock because they wouldn’t condensate like a block wall. A ceramic tile floor was laid to prevent the ambient moisture from coming up from the clay soil and cement slab.

Through her work on the helpline, Deanne had already researched other materials, such as paints, caulks, and stains. Before actually using them in the basement, her selected materials went through a rigorous series of steps involving personal exposure to the products for tolerability.

Sharing Knowledge and Experiences
So Others May Benefit

Deanne feels safe housing is so critical for the chemically sensitive individual to have in order to heal that she jumped at the chance to be involved with the Environmentally Safe Housing Initiative (ESHI). Describing the helpline callers who are looking for housing as “desperate,” she says, “In traditional housing, I worked with people that had looked at hundreds of units and not found anything that was either tolerable from an anti-microbial or chemical standpoint from the previous tenants.”

“Those who have known health impairments should have awareness or knowledge that exposure (to mold) is damaging to everyone whether they can feel the effects of it or not. Everyone can benefit from a non-toxic safe home.”

The members of ESHI feel the same way and they invite you to join them in creating safe housing. Contact them through Paul Halvorson at Third Way Network at 612-332-1311, ext 22. For support if you are chemically injured, contact the CIRA helpline at 651-647-0944.

Mary Tellers, a member of ESHI, has dealt with environmental illness for over 20 years. She has done copy-editing and proofreading for Access Press since April 2005.

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