Finding mold in your home may not be cause for alarm, but homeowners should take steps to remove it and the moist conditions in which it thrives, experts said.
Most molds are not toxic and won't hurt homeowners, according to the Environmental Protection Agency.
Experts have several tips on how to identify a mold and how to get rid of it. Prices to test for mold can range from $65 to several thousand dollars.
In some cases, a homeowner's insurance policy will cover a portion of the remediation costs, which can run from a few thousand to several hundred thousand dollars.
The insurance industry is lobbying Maryland and other states to exclude those claims in the future.
Mold infestation cases across the country have raised awareness of the issue, which in turn is reflected in mounting insurance claims and health costs.
A growing number of mold specialists are entering the market. And insurance company leaders fear the cost of the claims will be too great for the industry to handle.
"The truth is that molds are a part of nature, and there's little you can do to avoid them," said Raul D. Villarreal, environmental services director for Air Tech International, a Silver Spring company that removes environmental hazards from homes and businesses.
In most cases, Villarreal said, homeowners can remove the mold themselves.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports that more than 1,000 kinds of indoor molds have been found in U.S. homes.
Of those, a small number are toxic. For example, Stachybotrys, which like all molds has spores and scatters like a dandelion, can be a health risk to certain individuals, including children.
The CDC has not determined a link between toxic mold and particular health problems.
The most common molds found in Maryland homes - Aspergillus, Cladosporium and Penicillium - are considered nontoxic molds.
But the EPA warns that some molds produce allergens, irritants and, in some cases, potentially toxic substances.
The key to a healthy indoor environment is to establish good household hygiene and a maintenance program to keep mold under control, experts said.
Dale Ross, president of Hometest, a national environmental testing company based in Waldorf, in Charles County, said the failure of some property owners to address moisture in their homes creates a breeding ground for mold.
For example, basement sump pumps can back up, he pointed out, leaving moisture that breeds molds.
"If there is leakage and the water problem is not corrected, then mold will grow," said Ross, a real estate broker for 30 years who changed careers five years ago.
Molds usually are not a problem indoors - unless mold spores land on a wet or damp spot and begin to grow.
A dark, moist environment with a food source provides an ideal breeding ground for the fungus.
Drywall, Ross points out, is a popular food source for mold - especially behind the wall, where the spores can thrive.
Homeowners likely will smell a musty odor or they may find patches of mold behind paneling, underneath linoleum tile, wallpaper or carpeting or anywhere there is moisture. They also may experience allergic reactions.
The CDC does not recommend routine testing for mold. And the insurance industry worries that homeowners are paying for unnecessary mold testing and remediation.
According to the EPA, inhaling or touching mold or mold spores may cause allergic reactions such as sneezing, runny nose, red eyes and skin rash. Allergic reactions to mold are common and can be immediate or delayed.
Especially susceptible are individuals with compromised immune systems, and children and pregnant women. Molds also can cause allergic asthma attacks.
"If you do think there is a problem, or if someone is coughing or getting sick in the house, you need to get the house tested," said Ross, the Hometest president.
Several companies have emerged during the past few years to remove molds. Experts said consumers should do their homework and interview contractors and inspectors about their experience.
Various manufacturers sell home-testing kits for about $65. Tests also are available at some hardware stores, as are cleaning solutions to remediate mold.
The tests require consumers to swab a sample of suspected mold, which is mailed to a company for results.
For more severe cases, experts advise homeowners to have a professional inspect the home as well take an air sample. An expert inspection can cost as little as $300.
Professional removal of molds can start at a few thousand dollars and escalate beyond that, depending on what needs to be done.
Ross said air samples help pinpoint the location of mold, particularly when it is hidden behind a wall or in the ventilation system.
"Many times mold will get into the ductwork," Ross said. "Even if you only see mold in specific areas, those spores could be transferring upstairs or to other rooms in the house."
Experts said tests would detail the levels of different mold spores inside a house.
If high spore counts are identified, another test will determine what kind of mold is in the home.
A certified industrial hygienist often is employed to outline a plan to remove it.
In most cases, if the size of the moldy area is less than about 10 square feet, the EPA said most homeowners can handle the job themselves using a mixture of bleach and water cleaning solutions and making sure areas are free from moisture.
But if the mold growth covers more than 10 square feet, the EPA and other federal agencies advise hiring a professional contractor experienced in mold removal.
If a mold damage arose from a water leak, residents should check to see if their homeowner's insurance policy covers it, experts said.
In Maryland, the insurance industry is lobbying the Maryland Insurance Administration for a mold exclusion, which would bar coverage of mold and mold-related damage to homes.
If successful, the entire cost of testing and removal would fall on the homeowners.
The Maryland Insurance Administration is expected to render its decision this month.
Should the industry succeed in adopting a mold exclusion, Villarreal says, he wouldn't blame them - especially considering the onslaught of lawsuits related to mold exposure and property damage.
"People will keep buying homes just as they always did," Villarreal said. "With the exception that buyers may request to have it tested for mold before settlement."