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"Though the experts said mold and indoor dampness were associated with respiratory problems and symptoms of asthma in certain susceptible people, they found no evidence of a link between mold and conditions like brain or neurological damage, reproductive problems and cancer. They based their conclusions on a review of hundreds of scientific papers and reports but warned that the research was limited and that more studies were needed." "Panel Finds Mold in Buildings Is No Threat to Most People," The New York Times, May 26, 2004

The Chicken Littles of the world suffered a set-back last week when a lengthy study by the federal government showed that for most people household mold is about as dangerous as spoiled ketchup.

For several years, worries about mold -- the successor to overblown and unfounded asbestos and radon fears -- has been making its way through the media and legal circuits, producing both fees and trepidation along the way. Now buyers and sellers with common sense need merely turn to the Institute of Medicine, a part of the federal government which "strives to provide advice that is unbiased, based on evidence, and grounded in science."

The IOM tells us what we already know: Mold is everywhere and has been with us since humankind first moved indoors.

"Mold spores are regularly found in indoor air and on surfaces and materials -- no indoor space is free of them," says the IOM in a new report, Damp Indoor Spaces and Health.

Given that every cubic foot of indoor space has mold, it follows that all of us would be wildly sick if mold -- by itself -- was a general health hazard. This just isn't the case.

The better approach is to think of mold in the same way we regard bee stings and allergies to peanuts, serious medical threats to a few but worries of little if any consequence to the rest of us.

Mold plainly produces allergic reactions in some people, and some reactions can be severe. But most people, most of the time, have few if any difficulties.

Here's what the study found:

  • There is "evidence of an association" between household mold and upper respiratory (nasal and throat) tract symptoms, cough, hypersensitivity pneumonitis in "susceptible persons," wheeze, and asthma symptoms in "sensitized persons."
  • There is "limited or suggestive evidence" of an association with "lower respiratory illness in otherwise healthy children."
  • There is "inadequate or insufficient evidence to determine whether an association exists" between household mold and dyspnea (shortness of breath), asthma development, airflow obstruction (in otherwise healthy persons), mucous membrane irritation syndrome, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, inhalation fevers (nonoccupational exposures), lower respiratory illness in otherwise healthy adults, acute idiopathic pulmonary hemorrhage in infants, skin symptoms, gastrointestinal tract problems, fatigue, neuropsychiatric symptoms, cancer, reproductive effects, rheumatologic and other immune diseases.

What's interesting is this: The symptoms -- or lack of symptoms -- associated with a damp house and a damp house with mold are virtually identical.

From a real estate perspective, the federal study suggests that the time has come to seek a better balance between buyers and sellers.

Buyers routinely demand appraisals, title exams, surveys, and home inspections. Sellers want to know if purchasers have the cash and credit to buy the property.

But in addition, why shouldn't sellers seek to limit future mold claims?

Sellers might want to consider a new real estate contingency: Buyers and all prospective residents of a home should be required to obtain medical tests within 10 days of making a purchase offer showing they are free and clear of any significant adverse reactions to household mold, spores and fungi.

The failure to take such tests would automatically end any seller liability for such conditions. And, if the test results are positive, seller liability would again be terminated because the buyers have a previous condition, know about the condition prior to closing, and are on notice regarding the problem. If the afflicted buyers withdraw from the sale, fair enough -- they should get their deposit back in full. As a matter of full disclosure, of course, the results of their tests would have to be revealed in any future home purchase or lease.

"It is impossible," admits the Environmental Protection Agency, "to get rid of all mold and mold spores indoors; some mold spores will be found floating through the air and in house dust."

However, mold requires moisture, so one way to at least limit mold is to check for leaks, seepage and dampness and to make repairs and clean-up as required. Mold may not be a problem for most of us, but proper housekeeping can make it less of a potential concern for everyone.

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