Mold After Flooding Could Pose Health Risk, Cause Respiratory Symptoms

10/30/2012 02:41pm ET
NEW YORK, NY - OCTOBER 30: Jolito Ortiz helps sweep water out of his friend's apartment while cleaning up after flooding caused by Hurricane Sandy on October 30, 2012, in the Lower East Side of New York City. The storm has claimed at least 33 lives in the United States, and has caused massive flooding accross much of the Atlantic seaboard. US President Barack Obama has declared the situation a 'major disaster' for large areas of the US East Coast including New York City. (Photo by Andrew Burton/Getty Images)

Superstorm Sandy has left buildings and boardwalks ravaged, subways and streets flooded and hundreds of thousands of people throughout the northeast evacuated from their homes due to flood dangers. But once the water has gone down and people are able to return to their homes, those who have experienced flooding in their residences should be aware of another potential health danger -- mold.

Mold's ideal growth environment is a flooded home, since it's moist inside and there's "organic" material (such as ceiling tile or carpet padding made from natural fibers), which allows for the germination of mold spores, according to the New York State Department of Health.

During a flood cleanup, the indoor air quality in your home or office may appear to be the least of your problems. However, failure to remove contaminated materials and to reduce moisture and humidity can present serious long-term health risks. Standing water and wet materials are a breeding ground for microorganisms, such as viruses, bacteria, and mold.

According to the Federal Emergency Management Agency, mold can begin to grow within 48 hours from when flooding first occurs.

The health risks come from actually breathing in these mold spores, which can provoke negative symptoms in people, the Mayo Clinic reported.

Breathing in mold can lead to symptoms including sinus infections and congestion, coughing and breathing problems, and irritation of the eyes or skin, the New York State Department of Health reported. And the Environmental Protection Agency reported that people who already have lung disease may also be in danger of developing mold infection in the lungs.

The New York State Department of Health also reported that people who are immunocompromised -- like those undergoing chemotherapy treatments, or people with HIV/AIDS -- may also be particularly at risk for negative health effects from mold.

Mold may also provoke asthma symptoms in people with the respiratory condition, according to a 2004 report from the Institute of Medicine of the National Academies.

"We were able to find sufficient evidence that certain respiratory problems, including symptoms in asthmatics who are sensitive to mold, are associated with exposure to mold and damp conditions," Noreen Clark, dean of the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor's School of Public Health, who was the chair of the committee that wrote the report, said in a statement.

"Even though the available evidence does not link mold or other factors associated with building moisture to all the serious health problems that some attribute to them, excessive indoor dampness is a widespread problem that warrants action at the local, state, and national levels," Clark added in the statement.

If you're looking for evidence of mold in your home, it usually manifests as a slimy or furry patch of growth that may also smell kind of musty, the New York State Department of Health reported. To remove the mold, first make sure to get rid of the source of moisture -- if there's still leaking or puddling, make sure to get the water out. Then, throw away the item that the mold is growing on (like the carpeting or ceiling tile), and make sure all things that are wet are dried completely.

If the mold is growing on a hard surface, make sure to use gloves and a dust mask to scrub the mold away with a rag dipped in a detergent. However, for more severe mold cases, it may be necessary to call in a professional, the New York State Department of Health said.