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September 12, 2005 - Mold Grows Like a Weed in New Orleans

Mold spores once harmless in dormancy have found a virtual fantasy world in everything from walls to carpets to clothing.  New orleans, fueling the mold with its moisture and temperature, has become inundated with blackened wood and grayed walls.  Mold will be the next hurdle residents of New Orleans will face, having already escaped destruction from the toxic soup of chemicals, sewage, and bacteria.

"These are the most successful organisms on the Earth. . . . They have this amazing ability to [survive]," said Michael Rinaldi, director of the Fungus Testing Laboratory and professor of pathology and medicine at the University of Texas Health Science Center at San Antonio. "Many of those houses are useless, they are going to have to be rebuilt."

Mold is a type of fungus that can weaken buildings, make people sick, and streak walls and baseboards with black, green, and grey discolorations that can be nearly impossible to scrub clean. While debate continues over how dangerous household molds may be, people with allergies, asthma, or weakened immune systems can suffer severe respiratory problems when they breathe in spores. Some fungal organisms feed on wood for their growth, leaving a soft, structurally unsound beam behind.

Residents in hot and humid New Orleans have long lived with the creep of mold and fungus everywhere from bathrooms to barroom walls, keeping it at bay with dehumidifiers, air conditioners and bleach. But day-to-day humidity levels are not nearly as hospitable to mold growth as the last two weeks have been. Moisture has crept into unique crevices of homes, schools, and businesses since Katrina struck the Gulf Coast on Aug. 29. Most air conditioners and dehumidifiers haven't been turned on since the deluge because of the lack of electricity. The walls are untouched by bleach because no one can get to them and the mold grows unobstructed.

After floods, federal agencies often urge homeowners to strip homes of wet carpets and furniture and dry the building out within 48 hours to stop mold infestation but there are no guidelines for what to do with a house that has been partly submerged for weeks.

Mold had already begun to spawn in Sandy Guild's spacious Gulfport, Miss., home when she returned to it just days after the storm. In each spot, the mold started out gray then turned black and spread like a weed, she said. Guild's husband is an architect and she knows about the dangers of mold, so she and her family worked furiously to rip out all the sheetrock and insulation on the flooded first floor of the house, leaving only the studs. She bleached her kitchen cabinets.

"I had to get it out," said Guild, who owns a gift shop. "It was going up the walls and up the doors. I feel sorry for a lot of people who don't even have sheetrock out [by now]; they are going to be in trouble."

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