NEW YORK (CNN/Money) - When you think of threats to your health and your home, the last thing you might think of is mold.
But, in fact, mold caused by flooding or slow water leaks is a problem more and more homeowners face. Ed McMahon filed a $20 million suit against his insurer and mold remediator a couple of years ago, saying the mold sickened him, his wife and staff and killed his dog, Muffin.
While consumers say they want coverage for mold claims, insurance companies argue that if insurers are going to be asked to pay claims for something that is not covered in a typical homeowners policy, the price of home insurance will inevitably rise.
A silver lining? Mold can be preventable. So, what should you do if you see a mold problem developing? Here are today's five tips:
For many people the thought of having mold in their home is terrifying. However, make sure you really understand what mold is before you jump to conclusions.
Mold is not a plant or an animal. It is a type of fungus and a fact of life. According to the Center for Disease Control (CDC), there is always a little mold everywhere and one cannot avoid being exposed to it. It grows year round and is found both inside and outside. Mold has existed for at least 400 million years and doesn't need much to grow. All it takes is moisture, warmth and food.
If you are concerned, make sure to check out areas in your home where humidity and moisture levels are high. This includes bathrooms, kitchens, basements, and in walls where water from leaky pipes can accumulate.
The National Association of Home Builders says that in just 48 hours, a moist environment combined with the right room-temperature conditions can lead to mold growth. While you cannot keep mold spores completely out of your home, regular cleaning can often prevent severe problems before they arise. Log onto the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency's Web site for more details at epa.gov.
If you have mold, determining who should clean it up depends on several factors.
One consideration is the size of the mold problem. A little bit of mold in your shower is nothing to worry about. Frequent maintenance with bleach and water can do the trick. If the mold problem covers less than 10 square feet, chances are you can handle the cleanup yourself.
When handling or cleaning moldy materials wear gloves, goggles, and dress in long sleeves. If you want to limit your exposure to mold, you may want to consider wearing a respirator. They are available at many hardware stores for about $12 to $25. Also make sure the room is properly ventilated. Open a window, and get some fresh air.
If the problem extends beyond 10 square feet, consult the EPA's guide: Mold Remediation in Schools and Commercial Buildings. Although it focuses on larger buildings, the advice applies to other areas as well. For a free copy call 1-800-438-4318.
If you are developing a more severe mold problem you will most likely not only be able to see it, but also smell it. Have you ever walked into a room with a musty odor? Chances are you smell mold. Keep in mind, sometimes you will not be able to see the mold because it may be hidden on the back of the wallpaper, tile, drywall or even underneath the carpet.
If you detect mold on the surface or on some of your items, the items may be discolored or looked smudged and blotched. When hiring a professional to do the cleanup, make certain you are dealing with someone who is trained in this type of cleanup. Visit the Web site for the Certified Mold Inspectors & Contractors Institute at certifiedmoldinspectors.com. Here you can find certified inspectors and remediators in your area.
You'll want to be very careful when hiring someone to do the job. Currently there are no federal or state regulations, and mold companies aren't required to be licensed or certified. Therefore, there is a chance you'll get stuck with an inexperienced remediator who ends up botching the job. And remediation can be very costly, ranging from a couple of hundred dollars to more than $100,000. Also make sure to check references and a company's complaint record with the Better Business Bureau.
One other point: non-porous items such as glass and hard plastics that are still in good condition after the mold has been removed can be reused after a thorough cleaning. But items such as carpeting, clothing and insulation should be thrown out.
As we mentioned earlier, moisture control is the key to controlling mold. Take time to check for water damage in your home, especially in your basement.
The CDC also recommends keeping the humidity level in your house below 50 percent. Use an air conditioner during humid months. Make sure to check the ventilation in the kitchen and the bathroom. Open a window or turn on a fan when showering. Do not carpet bathrooms and consider using mold inhibitors that can be added to paints.
If you see moisture building up, act quickly and dry the area. If you have any water leaks, whether it is coming in through the roof, or from a pipe or the ground, patch it up immediately.
Another thing to keep in mind: The recent trend in housing construction has been for "tight" houses that allow little air circulation. While they can be more energy efficient, they also encourage mold, because water that gets trapped inside walls may not be able to escape. In other words, the house doesn't "breathe."
While it is possible to have your home tested for mold, the CDC says reliable testing can be expensive. It also says that standards for judging what is and what is not an acceptable or a tolerable quantity of mold have yet to be established. Also, if you do have your home tested, chances are you won't get back the results for a couple of weeks. During that time the problem could get even worse.
Your best bet is to clean the area immediately if you think you see or smell mold. If you are determined to hire a technician to test the area, check with your local health department for references.
Mold does have the potential to cause health problems. The most common reactions to mold are allergic ones.
These include hay-fever like symptoms such as sneezing, runny nose, itchy eyes and a possible skin rash. Just like in the spring when only some people experience reactions to the increase of pollen in the air, the same holds true for mold. Some people have little or no reaction while others have a more severe one. Molds can also cause asthma attacks in people with asthma.
Among the other alleged illnesses which can develop as a result of mold: dizziness, headaches, fatigue, cancer, memory loss and pulmonary hemorrhage. However, the CDC says a link between toxic mold and these conditions has not been proven and that the research on mold and health risks continues. If you are concerned contact your doctor or the local health department.
From the insurance perspective, damage from mold, like rust, rot and mildew is excluded from the typical homeowners policy.
The Insurance Information Institute says mold is covered under the homeowners policy, only if it is the result of a covered danger. For example, the costs of cleaning up mold caused by water from a burst pipe are covered. But mold that develops from, say, humidity or flooding is a maintenance issue that the property owner is responsible for.
The insurance industry argues that in order to keep homeowners insurance affordable and available to the masses this coverage wound up being excluded. If the policyholder does want mold coverage there is going to be an additional premium for it.
One thing to keep in mind is that there have been fewer claims recently. But critics say that is simply because insurers no longer cover the damage, so if it's not covered people do not put in claims.
Gerri Willis is a personal finance editor for CNN Business News. Willis also is co-host of CNNfn's The FlipSide, weekdays from 11 a.m. to 12:30 p.m. (ET). E-mail comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.