If you've ever dealt with mold in your home, you know the considerable challenges it poses: It's unsightly, it can grow on almost any surface, and it's hard to get rid of.
Mold and mildew (a variety of fungus with a particular affinity for fabric and paper) can release particles that may cause headaches and aggravate asthma, allergies, and sinus problems -- and even change your mood. The fungi spread easily via spores that blow through the air, and are also believed to produce mycotoxins that may lead to cancer, liver damage, and other serious problems. The fuzz -- which can be nearly any color -- isn't always easy to find; it sometimes hides inside walls, so your sense of smell may be your best diagnostic tool.
Happily, your home's heating and cooling systems help control mold. Because mold needs humidity to flourish, the dry heat your furnace generates in winter will make the environment inhospitable. In the summer, air-conditioning dries the air. The old standby chlorine bleach, commonly used to kill mold, isn't the best way to conquer the fungi -- it's harmful to people and to the environment. Soap and water will get rid of most mold, but prevention is still your best bet.
Wipe down your tub or shower enclosure with a squeegee or towel to prevent fungal growth, and don't forget to run the fan when you bathe. Don't use bleach products for routine cleaning -- wiping up moisture should be adequate for keeping mildew from forming.
Prevent mold by fixing leaky pipes, dripping faucets, roof leaks, and foundation cracks, and addressing any other problems that cause water to be somewhere it shouldn't. Mop up spilled water immediately. If you live in a damp climate, periodically check the walls behind furniture to make sure mold is not growing behind your couch or bed.
Air-conditioning and heating ducts can sometimes harbor mold; if you've seen moisture near a vent, or there's a moldy smell in the area, have your ductwork inspected. Tell your cleaning professionals to avoid using mildewcides, which can be harmful to your health.
In general, your household humidity level is too high if moisture collects on your windows. Use a dehumidifier (or two) to lower it to between 30 and 60 percent. (A good air-conditioning system can also pull humidity out of the air without overchilling.) Use less-poisonous methods of mold removal before turning to bleach or other toxic chemicals.
Machine wash moldy clothes, and try adding white vinegar to the rinse cycle. If you have mildew on a hard, nonporous surface, you should be able to get it up without too much fuss. Vinegar is a great all-purpose cleaner; use it straight for tough jobs, or dilute it with water. Tea-tree oil is a natural fungicide and can help disinfect surfaces -- mix 2 teaspoons with 2 cups water (see Tub and Tile Cleaners for more information). To whiten stained tiles or grout, use a mixture of 1/2 cup hydrogen peroxide to 1 cup water.All of these solutions can be sprayed onto a surface, allowed to dry, then wiped with a damp cloth.
For a more abrasive cleaner, apply a paste of borax and water and use a scrub brush. Always rinse well and dry. Start with the methods listed above, if appropriate for the surface (vinegar may pit marble). If these options don't work to your satisfaction and you opt for bleach, use the smallest amount possible in a well-ventilated area, and wear gloves. Never mix bleach with other cleaning products, such as ammonia, as that can create a dangerous chemical reaction
If you find water damage in a basement, attic, or living space, try to dry the area completely -- a fan or two will help -- within 48 hours. If you have a lot of water, get help: Professionals have powerful vacuums, fans, and dehumidifiers that can dry your home quickly, which is essential if you want to prevent fungal growth.
A professional might recommend using biocides, such as bleach solutions or other fungicides, to control mold that's on surfaces. (It's not safe to use these products on your own.) Make sure the pros take precautions to protect you and themselves, and leave home while the work is being done. Note that ceiling tiles, carpeting, wallboard, and other absorbent surfaces that get moldy are virtually impossible to clean: They need to be removed as soon as possible to prevent the mold from spreading.