When a toxic mold issue arises in a home, sometimes the contamination is extreme, requiring the occupants to vacate the premises. The question then becomes, “Can I bring my possessions with me?”
We are leaving our toxic home. Do we have to leave everything?
There is no single answer to this question. The types of mold and the extent of the problem will be determining factors. The levels of sickness and genetic disposition may also play a role in your decision-making.
Not every situation requires drastic action. Unfortunately, there is no one-size-fits-all answer to this question.
Your possessions are an issue due to the nature of mold, its mycotoxins, and other pathogenic microbes in a water-damaged building
The late toxicologist Dr. Jack Thrasher described the issue of cross-contamination this way:
The toxins produced by mold are free radicals, i.e. they have reactive oxygen radicals that bind to fabrics and can be released with time. Also, not only Stachybotrys but other dangerous molds release fine particles as well as larger particles, e.g. spores. The fine particles (less than 1 micron) permeate fabrics and are not readily removed. Also, the mold spores bind to fabrics and can lead to cross-contamination of the new environment.
Also, do not forget the presence of potentially pathogenic bacteria. They can be aerosolized and also contaminate furnishings and clothing.
Dr. Thrasher mentioned the smaller particles—smaller than mold spores. Let’s first consider the size of mold spores. According to Minnesota State University Moorhead’s Environmental Health & Safety webpage regarding mold (emphasis mine):
Most fungal spores range from 1 to 100 microns in size with many types between 2 and 20 microns. People with good vision may see 80-100 micron particles unaided, but below that range, magnification is necessary. To put things in perspective, you could place over 20 million five-micron spores on a postage stamp.
As for the smaller particles, a study conducted in 2005 and published in the journal Atmospheric Environment demonstrates that “fungal fragments” may be deeply inhaled and cause significant problems. The study focuses on fragments and spores of three different fungal species. All three were aerosolized by the fungal spore source strength tester. The conclusion:
Fungal fragments released from contaminated surfaces outnumber spores.
A second study published in the January 2009 edition of the Science of the Total Environment journal concludes:
The present study indicates that long-term mold damage in buildings may increase the contribution of submicrometer-sized fungal fragments to the overall mold exposure. The health impact of these particles may be even greater than that of spores, considering the strong association between numbers of fine particles and adverse health effects reported in other studies (Gold et al., 2000; Magari et al., 2001, 2002; Pekkanen et al., 2002).
Clearly there is more than meets the eye with toxic mold, and you are wise to ask questions about your possessions when confronted with a mold issue.
If the problem is small, washing items close to the source may be all that is needed. If your health is good and you leave a contaminated environment, cleaning your belongings may be an option. If you or your children are in poor health and must leave your environment, proceed with the utmost caution regarding your possessions.
When our family vacated our home in 2008, we were advised by Dr. Jack Thrasher and a mold specialist to treat our home like a fire. We left with the clothes on our backs and quickly replaced them. I’m grateful for the advice. While we may have been able to salvage some items, the extreme approach worked well for my sanity, since we were symptomatic even after we left. Had we brought some of our belongings, I might have obsessed about cross-contamination. (Read our story here.)
When the Situation is Extreme
If symptoms are severe, and the mold problem is systemic, the best choice may be to vacate the home, purchase air mattresses to sleep on, and start fresh with new clothing. Make your decisions about your belongings later. Once you’re settled and have established a fresh environment, you can consider them. Often the desire to bring things with you lessens with time.
This often means renting a storage facility for a period or storing your items in a family member’s garage. If you’re going to the trouble of moving away from a toxic environment, don’t apologize for being “extreme.”
You want to do this right the first time. You can always bring things in, but it’s tough to remove problematic items once they’re in a new environment.
A complete break from your belongings is often the best cross-contamination “test.” Once you’re established in your new environment, you can bring things in one at a time to see if they are a problem.
The following materials offer the best hope for thorough cleaning:
Pots and pans, dinnerware, and decorative items may be considered, as well as CDs and DVDs.
The computer fan has the potential to spew contaminants into a clean environment. Consider using your computer outside the new environment until a replacement can be purchased.
Refrigerators, washers, and dryers harbor dust in their coils and fans and are difficult to clean. Spores and spore fragments easily attach to washing machine parts.
Mattresses, pillows, and porous fabrics are difficult to clean. Since sleep plays a significant role in recovery, any items associated with it are best avoided.
Books and Papers
While these items are among the most needed or may hold the most sentimental value, both are extremely porous and virtually impossible to clean. Store them loosely in plastic bins until a decision can be made at a later date.
Even if an air purifier is relatively new, it likely harbors contaminants from your previous environment—even when the filter is changed.
The stuffing in upholstered furniture is virtually impossible to clean thoroughly.
Potential Cleaning Methods
When cleaning an item for transfer to a new environment, the key is to eliminate the dust that carries the history of the home. You may do this by rinsing or vacuuming. Be sure to use a vacuum with a HEPA (High-Efficiency Particulate Air or High-Efficiency Particulate Arrestance) filter.
When wiping down an item, it is best to avoid bleach. See more in the post Got Surface Mold? 10 Natural Solutions.
The following may be considered, but are not guaranteed to be effective. These suggestions are based on feedback from others who have survived toxic mold exposures.
- Ozone Box
These may be purchased online and do an adequate job containing the ozone. Place the item in the box and leave it overnight.
Some have found success by leaving items outside in direct sunlight for several hours or several days.
- Ionic Jewelry Cleaner
Ionic cleaners operate by generating ultrasonic waves to remove contaminants and may be useful for eyeglasses, jewelry, and other non-porous items.
- Effective Microorganisms (EMs)
EMs are a blend of various microbes that have been found to benefit the soil, humans and the environment. One of the microbes, phototrophic bacteria, survives heat that makes this probiotic blend unique. Learn more about EMs here.
How About Pets?
Pets are more like family members than possessions, but it’s important to keep in mind that our animals have the potential to cross-contaminate a new environment.
When a situation is extreme, it may be best to board them elsewhere until things settle.
If you decide to bring pets with you, be sure to wash them thoroughly and shave them if possible. Pay particular attention to paws. When purchasing shampoo, look for ketoconazole, a potent antifungal, on the list of ingredients.
Dr. Jack Thrasher discusses the issue of cross contamination in this interview on The Connecting Place.
Chris and I discuss the emotional implications of these decisions in this episode of The Connecting Place.
Regardless of the extent of your mold situation, it is always wise to proceed with caution when it comes to your possessions. Just as we respect lightning, icy roads, and hurricanes, it makes sense to respect microscopic contaminants that can wreak havoc with our health.