Speed Is Key When Battling Mold

Stave off health concerns, insurance hikes with these mold-free, maintenance tips.

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In the aftermath of recent hurricanes, most of Florida has to mop up and dry out in a state of discomfort -- during summer, in the subtropics and often without power, which means no air conditioning. It's wet, hot, steamy and dirty. Combined, it's the perfect environment for mold to grow.

Homeowners who have filed insurance claims from the hurricanes might not know that there's a good chance their policies don't cover mold damage.

Molds are fungi. There are tens of thousands of species. The most common household forms are cladosporium, penicillium, alternaria and aspergillus. Some people are sensitive to molds and can experience allergy-like symptoms such as a stuffy nose, irritated eyes and wheezing. Severe reactions, according to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention, can include fever and shortness of breath.

On a homeowner's insurance policy, mold damage is covered only if it is the result of a covered peril. As that relates to the hurricanes, a typical homeowner's policy would cover mold damage if mold grew because the storm damaged a roof or blew out windows and rain drenched the ceiling and walls, according to the Insurance Information Institute. However, if mold is the result of flooding or storm surge, it's excluded. That type of damage is generally covered under a federal flood insurance policy.

In recent years, mold has found a prominent place in the news because the number and dollar amount of insurance claims and lawsuits involving mold in buildings have skyrocketed. As a result, many insurers in several states limit the amount of coverage available for mold cleanup or won't cover mold damage at all.

The exclusion itself is nothing new, says Eric Goldberg, assistant general counsel for the American Insurance Association. Damage from mold, fungus, dry rot and termites typically isn't covered because it's considered to be the result of a failure to maintain the home. The limits were put in place after the explosion of claims and lawsuits. In nearly every state, Goldberg says, insurance companies filed with insurance regulators for a dollar sub-limit on mold remediation.

It's important to understand what the sub-limit addresses, Goldberg says. If you have wet drywall, insulation, carpet, furniture and the like that needs to be replaced, that's water damage, not mold damage. If the insurer needs to pay for something extra because of mold, such as installing a vapor barrier, or if someone had to put on a biohazard suit to do cleanup, that's where the sub-limit kicks in, he says.

Mold needs five things to grow, says Jeff Bishop, technical adviser for the Institute of Inspection, Cleaning and Restoration Certification. The first is food, and your house is full of it in things like lumber, the paper on the drywall and the paper covering insulation. It also needs moisture, the right temperature, stagnant air and time.

"The longer you wait, the worse it gets," he says.

That was bad news for hurricane victims who lost power for days or even weeks, or couldn't return to their homes until they got an OK from disaster officials.

In determining whether to pay a mold remediation claim, insurers will look at whether the homeowner performed the appropriate cleanup to minimize damage, assuming it was safe to go back in the house, says Kathi Giaramita, a water-damage restoration and mold expert at Memphis-based ServiceMaster Clean.

If there's standing water, homeowners should try to remove it, along with anything that's sitting on a wet surface, such as furniture, area rugs, book cases or cardboard boxes.

"If they sit wet, the damage will be much worse to correct," Giaramita says.

Some items will be easier to clean than others, Bishop says. If clothing can be washed, it can be restored, he says.

"Anything you can run through a dishwasher, you don't have to worry about," he says. "The heat in a dishwasher completely kills germs and bacteria."

Mold can even grow on concrete block houses built on concrete slabs if there is a layer of dust. To prevent mold growth, Bishop says to spray it off with detergent, dry it and "get some air movement on it."

Just because you smell mold doesn't mean you've been exposed to deadly toxins, Giaramita says.

"Unless you or someone in your family has an allergy, there is no reason to fear going back in your home," she says. "If you go into the house and your eyes are itching and you're sneezing, that's a pretty good sign to stay with a friend or in a hotel. You don't need to be afraid you'll catch a fatal disease."

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