FAQ: What you need to know about mold and cockroaches in the home

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Series: Harm at Home

Young children in South Los Angeles continue to live in conditions that harm their health and well-being. In the second of two parts, KPCC examines why many children suffer from asthma and other respiratory illnesses triggered by mold, roaches and other hazards in their homes, sending the kids to emergency rooms and causing them to lose valuable school time.

Read more in this series and let us know your thoughts on Twitter using the hashtag #IamSouthLA.

Dampness and mold in the home have been linked with health problems such as asthma, allergies and other respiratory illnesses, particularly for children, and can worsen symptoms for those who already have such conditions. Moisture and mold can also attract cockroaches and other pests, which can make matters worse.

Here are some tips and resources that can help you prevent mold and pests from getting out of control.

1. How can mold and pests affect my health?

Some people can be sensitive to mold, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. For them, mold can cause symptoms that range from nasal stuffiness to more severe reactions like wheezing. Indoor mold has also been linked to asthma symptoms and other respiratory illnesses.

The California Department of Public Health says molds produce unhealthy allergens. The tiny spores they release into the air can trigger the allergic reactions and asthma attacks when touched or inhaled. Even people who are not allergic can react with irritation to the skin, eyes, nose and throat. Mold can also cause people without asthma to develop it, and can contribute to respiratory infections such as acute bronchitis, according to the public health department.

Cockroaches and their droppings can trigger asthma and asthma attacks in those with the condition, the U.S. Environment Protection Agency says. Proteins in roach feces and saliva can also cause allergic reactions in some people.

2. How can I catch early signs of mold in my home?

Mold can take hold and grow almost anywhere — on ceiling tiles and wallpaper, in paint, insulation, drywall, carpet, upholstery and a litany of other places, according to the CDC. 

It can look like spots, comes in various colors and may appear fuzzy and smell musty. Molds thrive in moist environments, so the key to finding them is to look for signs of moisture or leaks. Be conscious of that musty odor.

The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development offers the following tips for identifying mold growth:

  • Search for moisture in areas that have a damp or moldy smell, especially in basements, kitchens and bathrooms.
  • Look for water stains or colored, fuzzy growth on and around ceilings, walls, floors, windowsills and pipes.
  • If you smell a musty odor, search behind and underneath materials such as carpeting, furniture or stored items.
  • Inspect kitchens, bathrooms and basements for standing water, water stains and patches of out-of-place color.

3. How do I get rid of mold, and is it safe to do it myself?

Molds are present just about everywhere — both indoors and outdoors, in the air, in dust. You can't eliminate them completely, but you can control their growth.

It's generally safe to clean mold yourself, and the CDC recommends doing so as soon as you discover it. For bigger jobs — more than 10 square feet of growth — the Environmental Protection Agency recommends following its guide to mold remediation in schools and commercial buildings.

For hard surfaces, you can use a simple detergent and water to scrub mold away. Porous surfaces, such as ceiling tiles or carpet, may need to be thrown away.

Different agencies give conflicting advice about the use of harsh cleaning products. The CDC suggests using a product designed to kill mold, while the EPA recommends against using such products, including bleach, for routine cleanups, because some mold spores will likely remain. Whatever you use, make sure to wear rubber gloves and goggles, preferably without ventilation holes, and consider a mask or respirator to help avoid inhaling the spores, according to the EPA.

Once an area is clean, you need to target the source of the moisture. Here are some tips and reminders from the EPA:

  • Dry surfaces completely after you're done cleaning
  • Fix all water problems, including plumbing leaks, as soon as possible.
  • Don't paint or caulk moldy surfaces — it will likely just peel or flake away later.

If in doubt, call a professional. Just make sure he or she has experience with mold. The EPA suggests checking references and asking the professional to follow the recommendations in the commercial building tips mentioned above.

The EPA also recommends seeking professional help if the dampness was caused by contaminated water, such as sewage, or if mold growth is found inside ducts or on other heating, ventilation and air conditioning components.

4. How do I prevent mold growth in the first place?

Because you can't eliminate molds from your home altogether, the key is to control moisture.

The CDC recommends keeping indoor humidity below 50 percent. You can buy a humidity meter at a home improvement store. Keep the air circulating — use a fan or open windows — and make sure all vents from kitchen exhaust fans and clothes dryers lead outside.

Promptly fix any leaks in the roof, walls or plumbing.

If you plan to do any indoor painting, you can add a mold inhibitor — available at home improvement stores — directly to the paint, according to the CDC.

Dry floor mats regularly, and remove any carpeting that has been soaked through and can't be dried quickly.

5. What can I do about cockroaches?

The feces and body parts of dead cockroaches and other pests can settle into dust and make their way into the air you breathe. 

To get rid of them, there are various insecticides and pesticides on the market. For those uncomfortable with these products' toxicity, there are other options. The EPA has a helpful guide to non-chemical and chemical pest controls.

To keep pests at bay naturally, the EPA offers the following tips:

  • Keep counters, sinks, tables and floors clean and free of clutter.
  • Clean dishes, crumbs and spills right away.
  • Store food in airtight containers.
  • Seal cracks or openings around or inside cabinets.

6. What if the problem exists in someone else's unit or extends to the whole building? How do I get my landlord to make repairs?

Cockroaches in particular can be a problem even after you've eliminated them from your own unit. If the nest remains or they've managed to take hold in another apartment unit, they can return to yours.

California rental codes and regulations include provisions that require a property be kept in a "habitable" condition.

According to the California Department of Consumer Affairs, tenants have the option to withhold rent when certain conditions impact that habitability. In one case cited by the department, the problems that were considered serious enough to justify withholding included the "continued presence of rats, mice, and cockroaches."

The case for mold is less clear. The Health Department says it is not aware of any code or regulation that explicitly mentions mold as a habitability issue for California rental property.

Either way, it's best to consult an attorney, legal aid organization or tenants' association before taking action against a landlord.

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