Battle Mold: How I Defeated My Unwanted Houseguest

When an apartment flood strikes, Maile Pingel learns that water damage is only the beginning.

(Photo: Kristopha Hohn/Flickr)

Maile Pingel is a Los Angeles-based design historian.

Several weeks ago, I came home to find my husband in a panic and water pouring down like rain from our ceilings. Our upstairs neighbor’s bathroom had flooded, and our apartment was fast filling with water.

With the help of maintenance teams, we frantically moved furniture and covered everything we could with plastic sheeting. A fortunate pattern of cracking meant that most everything special was spared, but what took the greatest hit was the carpeting, which turned from a creamy shade of white to an indescribable shade of brown in seconds. In came security. In came the wet vac. In came the dehumidifier. And almost instantly, in came the mold.

Though the water had been shut off, it took the better part of the day for all of the water to finish filtering through the space between our units. While I’ve thought a lot about the architecture of our building, which dates to the mid-1940s, I'd never contemplated what exists between the floors. It’s not a pleasant realization: decades of dust and grime, spores of all sorts, and undoubtedly a host of creepy crawlers.

In a matter of hours, the cracks widened as plaster peeled away, and our ceilings began to take on an ombré-like effect, the greenish-black cracks giving way to ochre splotches that branched out into a raised dove-gray pattern. For a moment, as I stood bemuddled in the bedroom, I saw a strange sort of beauty. One giant gash reminded me of satellite images my father showed me when I was little. “It looks like the Nile,” I thought. “The Nile is twisting across our bedroom.” I played with Instagram, turning the photos into modernist abstractions, and then lost all humor.

Once the initial shock wore off, the fear set in. We see massive floods on the news and homes destroyed not by the water but by what it leaves behind. My mother, a retired nurse, started telling me we had to get out. My microbiologist brother-in-law echoed her words with a warning about black mold. So we left for the night, and with building management slow to respond, I began frantically Googling: How to get rid of mold? What types of mold are toxic? Are mold kits worth it? Turns out, there’s no easy answer. One website says one thing; the next says another. I ultimately went with the CDC’s page on the subject and decided a mold kit wasn’t necessary since the maintenance crews would be coming in to handle the repairs. What’s the point of a mold kit anyway, when you already know what you’re seeing? It's there; it's bad; just get rid of it. What I did try, to at least feel like I was making our home a safer place, was the advice of a friend who used to work for the City of Los Angeles.

Her first warning was not to shock the mold with chlorine because it could cause it to sporulate since it thinks it’s in danger, which of course it is. Rapid, compulsive breeding to try to save itself—fungus is smarter than I realized. Her next suggestion was to grab the laundry detergent and mix up a warm sudsy wash that I could scrub on the area until the mold was gone, or at least to the point that no more could be removed. The final step was a chlorine solution (1 gallon of water to 1.5 cups of bleach) that I was to apply to the affected area for 15 to 30 minutes before wiping away and leaving to dry.

One quick trip to the drugstore for bleach, rubber gloves, and a mask, and I was ready for battle, which, when fought over one’s head and on the end of a Swiffer, is really just an exercise in frustration. Did it help? I don’t know. Having done what I could in the first few days, I handed the rest of it over to management. Though the building wouldn’t comment on the mold situation (nor would they test for it, presumably because they’d find it), they did recommend that we let them add a mildewcide to the paint as an extra precaution. It sounded like a good idea, so we agreed, though the little red packets of Krud Kutter did somehow seem equally toxic. We also learned that latex paints can offer a bit more protection against mildew, as they offer fewer nutrients to feed on than oil-based paints. Essentially, treating mold like the unwanted houseguest it is proves the best way to get rid of it. Who wants to stay where they’re not fed and watered? But mold is never truly gone because it’s natural. Beyond keeping a tidy home and using smart cleansers, there’s really little we can do. Mold is in our living spaces, ready to reveal itself as soon as opportunity strikes.

Over the course of about three weeks, in came the carpet removers, the floor refinishers, the plasterers and the painters. Out went the mold? For now, anyway.

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