The Hidden Toxin The Health Effects Of Mold Are Increasingly A Legal Issue In Real Estate

There are more than a million species of the microscopic fungi that we call mold. They perform a basic biological function of breaking down organic materials and are necessary for the Earth’s ecological balance.


However, they can cause serious health concerns when they permeate one’s home. Ranging from a scratchy throat or stuffy nose to emphysema or cancer, mold in one’s environment can contribute to a myriad of ailments, some of which may be life-threatening.

Mold contamination is rapidly approaching a level of distinction comparable with lead paint and asbestos, so it is critical that it is avoided or eliminated in one’s current home or any home purchased in the future.

A Growing Concern

Mold is not a new phenomenon, so why is it becoming so prevalent an issue lately? The very nature of the homes in which we live contributes to the problem. How many times do we see mold growing on the outside walls and roofs of houses that are well-shaded from the sun’s drying rays?

In addition, we have all been in the musty-smelling basements and attics of older homes. We can logically assume this is due to dirt floor basements and excess moisture in the homes. So one would thus assume that newly constructed homes would be mold-free, but this supposition is false.

In fact, we have ourselves to blame. The very government regulations and specifications required for energy efficiency in new homes mean that they are sometimes being built too tight, preventing the escape of excess moisture. Care must be taken during construction to ensure sufficient ventilation throughout the home’s lifetime.
Mold is a relatively simple organism that requires little to thrive. Oxygen, warm temperatures, food, and moisture are all that is necessary. Favorite foods include sheetrock, wood, carpets, furniture, and clothing — basically everything in our homes.

Molds are also very robust. A single mold spore, with favorable conditions, can release trillions of additional spores within a few days. While physical contact can in a sense ‘infect’ a susceptible person, most exposure is though the airborne spores that mold constantly gives off as a means to reproduce. Some molds release toxins from the substrate on which they grow, causing them to be especially dangerous. There has been a documented case of a highly toxic gas being emitted from mold spores growing on wallpaper.

Identifying mold as the cause of a home’s inhabitant’s illness is difficult to diagnose and nearly impossible to predict. Just as every individual has a unique susceptibility to sunburn, everyone also has a unique tolerance to mold spores. Children and the elderly are more likely to be adversely affected.

Additional factors affecting vulnerability are respiratory problems, allergies, heart problems, and a compromised immune system. Additionally, reactions are affected by length of exposure and the amount of the mold present. All of this makes rating or predicting a home’s ‘sickness factor’ impossible. One absolute fact, however, is that any mold detected in a home must be dealt with swiftly before it gets into the walls, clothing, and furniture, where it can rampantly breed.
Legal Matters

Cleanup of mold infestation can be complex and expensive, so it usually involves an insurance claim. As more and more insurance companies seek better-risk members, such a claim can be sufficient reason to drop the covered party.

A little-known trick that insurance companies play is rating consumers within a Comprehensive Loss Underwriting Exchange (CLUE). Originally intended to assist in fraud prevention, this rating now becomes a red flag on the record of anyone who has filed a claim in the past five years. It can make finding new coverage difficult and cause premiums to skyrocket.

When purchasing a new home, it is no longer enough to make sure that there is enough closet space and the neighborhood is pleasant. Potential homeowners must now look for leaky pipes and wet basements, and be wary of even a slight musty smell in any of the rooms, attic, or basement — all signs that there might be a mold problem.

Upon detection of mold, the buyer can negotiate with the seller for cleanup or simply walk away and never look back. Mold does not just disappear, and it only gets worse with time. It is recommended that all potential homebuyers look for the presence of mold.

Another significant impact of the prevalence of the mold problem is that rental property owners are being held liable. Landlords are responsible for providing a safe and healthy place for their tenants to live, and this includes a mold-free environment. They must eradicate mold in their properties or risk facing serious legal action from their renters.

In summary, mold is a simple organism that is extremely hearty and robust. It feeds on most of the organic materials commonly found in homes, and it needs moisture to survive. Causing health problems in an alarming number of unsuspecting victims, it is approaching a level of distinction comparable with lead paint and asbestos, and it must be eliminated promptly when detected.

For those who have a choice of purchasing a home with a mold problem, it is wise to consider other options, as mold does has a tendency to reproduce rampantly — and it does not go away on its own.

Donna L. Wexler, Esq. is a member of the Real Estate Department at Bacon & Wilson, P.C. in Springfield. She handles all types of commercial and residential closings for buyers, sellers, and lenders. Additional specialties include domestic relations, estate planning, estate administration, commercial loans, and landlord-tenant disputes; (413) 781-0560.