When Your Belongings Have Been Contaminated by Mold, Can You Save Them?
What Works, What Doesn’t Work, and When to Cut Your Losses
What happens when you are trying to perform the difficult task of remediating your belongings after they have had a significant mold exposure? Well, as it turns out, quite a lot. There are so many little things that can affect, hamper, and negate all of your well-intentioned efforts. It can be very frustrating and time consuming. The most maddening part can actually be the fact that, even with the best, most meticulous cleaning and remediation efforts, and the most effective mold-specific products, some items just cannot be saved. This is a sad, but important truth that many people must come to terms with for the sake of their health.
Now, I realize that the topic of contents remediation is vast. There are so many different kinds of materials and items that can be contaminated with mold; therefore, I am not able to address everything in one post. But, I can share with you how I addressed this issue for a reader who tried cleaning some of his belongings that were exposed to mycotoxin-producing molds in his former home.
This reader’s former housing situation was not a good one and made him sick with mold toxicity. He has since moved to a mold-free space and is doing everything he can to keep that new space clean and safe. He is also trying to recover his health at the same time—making his endeavors that much harder, because any exposure or misstep could send him back into a relapse and having to re-initiate the detox and recovery progress. Thus, getting his belongings properly and safely remediated is very important before he brings them inside his new home. Wisely, he has tested all items with mold test plates before and after his efforts, so that he knows if what he is doing is working and which things are safe to introduce into his new home.
The reason he wrote me, though, is not for advice on methods or products to use. His problems are with the very frustrating test results AFTER his efforts to clean the items. As you will see, he tried fogging them outside with EC3. For greater a greater understanding, here is some of our email communication to get you up to speed:
I recently TAP tested 4 items (furniture, shoes, DVD player, book) before and after thoroughly fogging them with EC3 concentrate. I cleaned them outside on a sheet on a sunny, calm day and placed them in my garage as soon as they were dry.
As you can see, there was virtually no change in mycotoxin levels among any of the samples.
Here are the BEFORE Photos of the TAP Tests for the book, DVD player, furniture, and shoes:
Here are the AFTER fogging with EC3 pictures of the same items:
Do you have any idea as to why the mycotoxin counts aren’t decreasing and what to do to remedy this? The only thing I can think of is to increase the fogger’s micron concentration since I had the fogger set on 1-2 for the duration of the cleaning.
Any help/advice is appreciated.
This is definitely a frustrating situation! Here he is trying to move into his new space and to bring some of his belongings with him, but he can’t seem to get them free of the mold spores. The good news, for both this reader and for you guys today, is that I have some possible solutions and some hypotheses about why his efforts are failing him. Below is my response to him with some additional notes and details to elucidate why his approach may be hindering his progress and ability to get these items clean—hint: fogging alone is not always the best technique for smaller objects and mold-contaminated belongings.
I am so sorry you are having trouble getting the mold counts down on your belongings. Cleaning individual items for mold is a difficult process, though, and cannot be taken lightly, because you certainly do not want to contaminate your new home by bringing any of those things inside until they are cultivating far below those numbers of mold colonies post cleaning.
Before we get started with figuring all of this out, I need to make one important clarification, you are not TAP testing for mycotoxins per se. You are TAP testing for the presence of mold spores. A TAP test onto a mold plate is only going to show you how many mold colonies are cultured before and after your cleanings. This is still very valuable information, though, and should not be discounted. It will tell you whether or not having those items inside your mold-free home is going to cause you to react or not. (Note: For more on TAP testing and on how to read your results, click HERE). If you are interested in testing specifically for mycotoxins, you would have to get a lab involved to analyze the molds cultured, so that they can determine whether or not any of those molds are mycotoxin producing. To do this, you would need to order Immunolytics Diagnostic Testing Plates, or contact RealTime Labs about the testing that they offer–this can get expensive. Now, could some of the molds on your test plates be mycotoxin-producing molds? Yes, of course they could be. Can we know that from looking at your TAP test results? No, unless someone with knowledge of mycology looks at them under a microscope and can properly identify them. Now, does this matter for your cleaning purposes? Maybe, but I think you already have some very good information that matters just as much—the fact that your AFTER plates still reveal problematic levels of mold. Thus, instead of asking why fogging with the EC3 does not seem to be removing mycotoxins (although EC3 is proven in independent lab tests to decrease spore counts by over 90% and to remove mycotoxins), you should instead be asking, “Why aren’t the mold spore counts going down on these items after cleaning them?”
To accurately answer this question, the first thing you need to look at (and I cannot tell this entirely from your email) is whether the method you are using to clean the items is the right one. In order to figure this out, each item must be considered individually and cleaned specifically for its material makeup and level of contamination. In other words, ask yourself, is the item porous (fabric, paper, leather, etc.), semi-porous (wood, plaster, etc.), or non-porous (metal, plastic, etc.)? Was it located where the majority of the mold was in your former home—direct contamination, or was it stored in a sealed bin or in another area of the home—potential contamination? Did it have visible mold on it? Did it smell musty prior to cleaning it? Can it be submerged or laundered?
Once you start digging into these questions, you can see that items cannot all be cleaned with the same methods. In other words, the method you use successfully on metal will not produce the same results on an upholstered item, because mold can penetrate the porous item, whereas it would just sit on the outside of the metal item. I hope this makes sense.
Another thing I see missing from your cleaning is physical spore removal, which is vital to successful remediation. Time and time again in scientific studies on remediation techniques, it has been proven that simply using a biocide or natural product alone for mold removal on contaminated objects or building materials is not sufficient. These things, unlike the air, must be cleaned first—wiping, washing, vacuuming, sanding, etc. Otherwise, the results are not great. For example, are you HEPA vacuuming all items before and after fogging? (HERE is my post on HEPA vacuums and why your average vacuum is not sufficient for mold). This is extremely important, because you can fog things to death (aka, creating dampness or saturation where the aerosol becomes liquid and penetrates), but at some point, you must also be physically removing the spores. This may be the problem with your technique, especially since you are fogging and leaving things outside where there are naturally occurring mold spores all around.
The cleaning process must be very meticulous. I caution people all of the time that you cannot just fog a mold-contaminated belonging and go. I wish it were that easy. You must first HEPA vacuum–front, back, inside, outside, open things up, etc., then fog, or better yet for belongings, spray and wipe everything down thoroughly with the EC3. Manually cleaning smaller items almost always works better. For example, here is an outline of the HEPA sandwich technique:
The fogger is best for and was actually designed for large spaces and large items or interiors, because, by design, the fogger aerosolizes the solution to uniformly fill and/or cover a space. The fog will produce excellent coverage of the EC3, and will stop or inhibit mold spores from forming or proliferating, but it may not penetrate enough to fully remove spores that have already taken root and are deeply entrenched in something porous. This is especially true for something like an upholstered chair. Think of this way, when you sit down on a stuffed chair, it essentially exhales air as you sit on it, and inhales air when you stand up. Each time it does that, it is either sucking or exhaling whatever dust, mold spores, etc. exist in the air around it, and on its surface. Thus, it is much more difficult to successfully clean an item like this, because it has more layers than just its surface. Many remediation companies actually place upholstered furnishings at the top of the list of things to discard, because successfully cleaning them is so difficult.
I also want to take a deeper look at where you are cleaning the items and where you are placing the items you have cleaned once they are dry. Post cleaning, how long are you leaving things outside to dry? What kinds of trees, bushes, awnings and ground cover does the outside space have? This could be problematic, because I cannot see the set-up or the setting and have no idea what exposures could be happening or what is settling on your things while outside. Also, if you are fogging items outside, it may be harder to ensure that the fog is falling directly onto the items and isn’t just dispersing into the open atmosphere. In addition, the garage itself could be problematic. Is it ventilated? Is it closed? What is the humidity in the garage? Does it have any water damage or musty smells? Are there contaminated items in the garage? Unless you are putting things in a sealed and controlled space, you can always be reintroducing mold spores to your “clean” belongings. They may just be outside spores, but they are there and must be taken into consideration with your TAP tests. Also, if a car is parked in the garage and there is any kind of exhaust, the exhaust dust may be affecting the viability of your test results. A potential solution for this issue that I can suggest is, if it is a garage that only you have access to, you could try thoroughly fogging the garage, and, if possible, running an air scrubber or purifier in it. Using a shop vac or HEPA vacuum to remove all excess dust in is also essential, because it is mold food. Then, you can clean the items again in that “safe” space. You could even test the air in the garage with your test plates. See what the ambient mold levels are there. If they are particularly high, I would consider not putting things out there, or would consider my idea about fogging and cleaning the garage first. In fact, when remediators are cleaning mold-contaminated items, they have to create a mold-free, separate environment in which to do it. If you are trying to do the cleaning yourself, in order to have good results, you may need to employ some of these same techniques and really get clinical about it.
Another thing to consider is what molds the items were exposed to while in your previous home. The more dangerous molds can be very difficult to remediate on some items—some are heavy, some are sticky, and many are NOT water soluble and can really adhere to some surfaces. (Note: Mycotoxins, secondary metabolites, are sticky chemicals and can adhere to dust to become airborne.) Therefore, some things just cannot be saved. This unfortunately may be the case. Also, how long were the items exposed in the moldy home? A long time of concentrated exposure sometimes equals harder to remediate successfully, because, just like your body, it may take more and varied efforts to get the mold out. So, as you can see, the nuances are many, and the science is just not totally there yet. Even the very best remediators in the business can’t save some things. It is a hard truth, but a very real one. This is precisely why we threw so many things out with our ordeal. They were exposed to some very dangerous molds, and we couldn’t and didn’t know how to clean them ourselves and have peace of mind. Thus, we got rid of a LOT. These days, I know so much more about mold and effective mold removal techniques, so I do lots of the cleaning myself, but the things I am remediating now also haven’t been in such a dangerous environment. My current cleaning is more of a mold-maintenance exercise that keeps our home mold free and us well. Like when I fog our home once a month, I am maintaining a mold-free environment, not remediating my home for mold.
Now to get more into the specific items that you were trying to clean. Of those listed, the shoes, DVD player and book will be very hard (maybe impossible) without meticulous efforts. To start, the DVD player cannot just be fogged. You must open it up, clean the insides, the fan, the components, etc. Please read my post on cleaning a laptop for detailed guidance and tips.
Even after doing those steps, though, it may not be able to be saved. For example, if the room is dry and cold, the mold can become dormant, but it is still there.
As far as the book is concerned, I have never been able to successfully remediate papers or books that were openly exposed to molds and mycotoxins. The material (paper) is too porous and too organic. It makes excellent food for mold and is hard to get totally dry after cleaning. You can try HEPA vacuuming the book inside and out and then wiping the cover, binding and exposed pages with EC3 Mold Solution. You may just have to cut your losses on that one, or seal it in a plastic or rubber container to address later.
For the shoes, are they leather? Are they washable? If they are leather, they may be hard to clean successfully. The best way I have found is to HEPA vacuum them inside and out. Then use my mold wipes, or use the EC3 sprayed directly onto a soft cloth to wipe every single inch and cranny of them down. Then, HEPA vacuum them again. If they are washable, it would be best to HEPA vacuum them inside and out. Then, wash them in your washing machine in the hottest water possible with non-scented detergent and 2 ounces of EC3 Mold Solution Concentrate or EC3 Laundry Additive. You can even HEPA vacuum them and allow them to soak in the EC3 solution in a clean bucket for an hour or more. Once the soak is complete, either run them through a normal wash cycle or scrub them down yourself with a mild detergent and hot water.
In conclusion, you have to acknowledge the fact that unless you are creating a perfect environment with negative pressure and no mold, after being cleaned, the items are still encountering some mold spores, and thus may be picking them up as they sit there. So, if you really want to get into the nitty gritty and find out about actual mycotoxins and if the molds on the items before are the same or different than the molds on the items after, you can do the diagnostic testing. That will also tell you about the presence and levels of mycotoxins.
I am hoping that you are not getting totally discouraged and that as you are reading through this email, you are finding the holes in your technique or procedure that, when fixed, may yield better results. This is not an easy, simple, or quick endeavor. You should feel good that you are even trying, because many remediation companies don’t even like addressing contents, because it is so time consuming and hard to do properly.
I know how hard it is to let go of things. Just please always consider your health and how important it is at this time that you maintain as mold-free an environment as possible for a while, so that you can get well and fully recover. If that means getting rid of more items than you would like, then you may decide to store them somewhere until you can successfully remediate them or get to the place that you can let them go.
Anyway, take care. Please send any questions or concerns and I will try my best to help more.
Have you tried remediating any of your belongings after a mold exposure? Did you use a particular technique or product that worked/didn’t work? Please share in the comments below. I want this to be a space where we can all learn from each other. You can also email me at firstname.lastname@example.org.