The Dangers of Mold and Mildew in Your Apartment

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The Dangers of Mold and Mildew in Your Apartment

Lisa Wright · Jul 14, 2022
Mold buildup underneath the surface of a standard apartment wall.

Mold and mildew are caused by fungi that are found both indoors and outdoors. We’re exposed to it through inhalation, ingestion, and touching moldy surfaces. While mold in your apartment usually won’t cause health problems, it can get bad if the spores land on a damp spot and start growing.

Here’s how to keep that unwanted mold out of your home:

Mold vs. Mildew

Although mold and mildew are similar in appearance, there are some important differences between the two.

Mold can be found everywhere — even in the air. However, visible mold is usually only seen in places where warm, humid temperatures meet a source of moisture, like roofs, ceilings, and potential leaks. Mold is often embedded in or on the surface in question, which makes it even trickier to get rid of. According to the EPA, mold lives on organic matter, so it’s possible to find it on surfaces like wood, leather, and even paper.

Mildew, on the other hand, is a surface fungus, rather than an embedded one (think what you see on your shower walls, or even around your windows). And while mold can be difficult (or even impossible) to get rid of, mildew can usually be cleaned or wiped away with a good cleaning and a little elbow grease, though it may come back and need to be cleaned again later.

Still stumped? Try looking at the fungus in your home. iI it’s slimy, fuzzy, or green/black in appearance, it’s likely mold, whereas mildew is generally more white, gray, or yellowish in color and often has a more powdery look.

Mold Health Hazards

Woman grabs her throat and uses her inhale during an asthma attack.

Molds produce allergens (substances causing allergic reactions) and act as irritants. They’re not inherently toxic, but in certain cases they produce toxic substances known as mycotoxins. Exposure to mycotoxins can cause headaches, irritation, nausea, and loss of appetite. In some cases, you may also experience non-specific symptoms like fatigue or inability to concentrate, but it’s hard to tell if they’re actually caused by mold or other agents.

If you’re one of the many people who are sensitive to mold, inhaling spores or touching a growth is enough to trigger an allergic reaction. Your symptoms could include sneezing, runny nose, nasal stuffiness, wheezing, red eyes, and/or a skin rash. You may experience these symptoms immediately, or they may be delayed.

Whether you’re allergic to it or not, mold exposure still has the potential to irritate your eyes, nose, throat, lungs, and skin. Inhaling mold rarely produces symptoms other than the allergic or irritant type. Still, if you have a serious mold allergy, you may have a more severe reaction such as fever and shortness of breath. If you have asthma, molds can also cause you to have an asthma attack. Such conditions require prior exposure to the mold to make you sensitized, and symptoms may persist long after you’re no longer exposed to the source. In addition, certain chronic lung illnesses (e.g. obstructive lung disease) may cause you to develop a mold infection in your lungs.

The type of mold, form of exposure, and how susceptible you are to its effects all determine what kind of reaction you have to it. Evidence linking mold exposure to severe adverse health effects is mostly documented in reports about occupational disease, where inhalation exposures were unusually high or ongoing. This type of exposure is unlikely to happen in your apartment, since high-level exposures don’t typically occur in residential settings. Even so, if you’re chronically exposed to lower levels of mold, you may be affected in ways you don’t even notice.

Tackling Mold and Mildew

As mentioned above, mildew can often be combatted with cleanser and some scrubbing. You should also try to keep the affected area clean and free of moisture as much as possible to deter new growth.

Mold, on the other hand, is a bit more complicated. If you’re only dealing with a small amount, it’s possible to clean the area with white vinegar. This works to kill approximately 80 percent of mold species. Do not attempt to use bleach on mold. Even though you may see surface results, bleach does not effect the mold’s deeper growth. Additionally, bleach could make the growth even worse by acting as a food source for the deeper mold below the surface.

If your mystery fungus is, in fact, mold instead of mildew, it’s best to contact your landlord or property manager ASAP. Mold can be a sign of water issues or leaks, and it’s important to discover its source in order to eradicate the problem (and the potential health concerns that may come with it). 

Play It Safe

Woman takes extra precautions of wearing a hazmat suit and face mask while scrubbing mildew off her walls.

Despite ongoing research into the effects of mold, it’s not currently possible to establish “safe” or “unsafe” levels of exposure for the general public. The reason for this is that there’s variation in our individual susceptibility and a lack of standardized sampling methods. Recent studies have also been ambiguous with respect to concluding whether you’re at higher risk of developing allergies or asthma in the presence of indoor mold. To be on the safe side, always keep your apartment as free of moisture as possible. Clean any visible mold as soon as you spot it, and report leaks to your landlord immediately, before the growth gets out of control.

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