The wettest fall in history and Columbia’s warmest December on record are producing one of the most fearsome headaches a homeowner can have: marching colonies of growing mold.
Even South Carolina homes that were not directly affected by the October flood are in danger of long-term, unhealthy and potentially costly damage associated with microscopic mold fungi, say local mold remediation experts, many of whom report high volumes of service calls.
“We’re getting calls over and above anything even close to what we normally see,” said William Henson, who owns Servpro of Richland County. “I’ve been doing this for 30 years and this is so far beyond anything that I’ve ever seen, it’s almost like I’m new to the business.”
Mold service calls that used to average two per week to Henson’s Rabon Road business, which has the Servpro franchise rights to Richland County, have recently jumped to 20 per day, he said. “We’re getting a lot of calls from people who weren’t even involved in the flood.”
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A Columbia-area Service Master dealer said mold calls that typically averaged about two per month have jumped to five to 10 calls per week lately. The dealer noted those service calls are just as likely to be from businesses or homes that made it through the October flood dry as a bone.
Some homeowners say mold began to “sporadically pop up” in their attics and crawl spaces beneath their homes in the days after the flood.
Mold sometimes appears as a tiny black spot, though it can come in several different colors, and often is too tiny to be detected by the naked eye. A musty smell often accompanies the presence of mold, and experts say the smell can be an indication that microbial growth is already underway, even though the growth is not visible.
Unchecked mold growth leads to poor indoor air quality, experts say, and breathing mold is unhealthy.
Growing mold is an indication of continuing moisture infiltration, Servpro’s Henson and other remediators said. Moisture, of course, leads to deterioration and rot, which can weaken and damage a structure’s support. Larger splotches of mold indicate greater areas of moisture.
Indoor moisture can come from several sources, from leaks in the plumbing to poor ventilation, which raises humidity levels and contributes to condensation. That can trigger mold growth. Air humidifiers and normal home activities including cooking and washing can also create moisture inside.
Outdoors, experts say mold spores are always present in the atmosphere, except during winter. While the October flood, which dumped more than a foot of rain in some areas of the Midlands, is in part to blame for advancing mold in homes, the experts say, the extremes in weather since the flood share the blame.
“In my opinion, there’s been so much rain and the ground is full of water – it can’t dry out,” said Henson. “So, the undersides of a house stays wetted down. Initially, we were getting a lot of calls from people that they had mold in their crawl spaces,” Henson said.
When moisture in the air gets above 64 percent, mold can grow merely from the air’s moisture, he said. In December, the humidity and temperatures were high and the ground was wet both from the flood and the near-constant rainfall.
So in November, when Columbia resident Ashley Essig went into one of her daughter’s bedrooms to change the bedsheets and noticed black spots on the wall, she said she knew right away it was mold.
“I thought, ‘why does she have mold growing on the wall?’” Essig remembered.
During the flood, rainwater had cascaded down the street off the hill in front of the Essig’s home off Two Notch Road, northeast of downtown, but their home was never flooded. “We didn’t have flood waters, but we definitely had water – a lot of water – under our house,” she said. “It did move on, but it never dried. Our back yard (the direction the flood waters moved in) was sloshy and still is even.”
One friend advised her to get a humidity reader to see if that would shed any light on the mold issue.
“It said 84 percent humidity,” said Essig, noting the indoor winter humidity levels should only be between 40 to 60 percent. She has since learned that mold grows in any humidity above 60 percent.
The Essigs bought small de-humidifiers for the home, but they did nothing for the problem, she said. Luckily, the wood on the underside of their home was dry, with no signs of mold, but the ground in the crawl space remained wet.
Facebook friends advised Essig to call the professionals. Most were so busy she couldn’t immediately get help, but Henson at Servpro came to the house right away, Essig said. Meanwhile, it started to register with Essig why she, her husband and all four kids had been suffering with walking pneumonia.
“We all were very sick,” she said.
While away for the Christmas holidays, the Essigs pondered getting out of their home of 11 years for good, she said. But after getting a mold specialist there in early January, they learned their problem was not as bad as Essig had feared. After cleaning the mold with a solution she purchased, the family will put a liner on the underside of the home to prevent future water infiltration, and things should be fine, she said.
Mold Test USA, which bills itself as the largest mold inspection and testing company in the United States, said calls for its services tripled in the local area since the flood.
“The increase in calls are mainly due to after effect of the flood, (which is) then compounded when people turn on their (heating and air-conditioning) units and the mold spores are dispersed throughout the structure, which tends to spring up a moldy, mildew smell,” said Brandon Castle, Mold Test USA office manager and recruiting director in Columbia.
No official statistics are available for how much more prevalent mold is now than prior to the October flood and the wet weather in November and December.
Few can dispute the conditions for increased mold production have been ripe in the Palmetto State for much of 2015, though.
“Obviously, Columbia broke the all-time warmest December on record, and that’s significant,” said Hope Mizzell, state climatologist. “And the (new) numbers were so much higher than the previous record.”
Roddie Burris: 803-771-8398
Average maximum temperature
Previous record: 68.7 (1956)
Average minimum temperature
Previous record: 45.8
Rainfall, Oct. 1-Dec. 31
2015: 26.38 inches
Previous record: 20.36 inches
Average: 9.06 inches
Source: State Climatologist Hope Mizzell
For more information
The state Department of Health and Environmental Control compiled an information guide regarding mold in homes and workplaces after the October flood. It’s available at scdhec.gov/homeandenvironment/disasterpreparedness/hurricanes/mold/index.htm.