Q DEAR BARRY: Do you think the mold issue has been exaggerated? I do. Mold has been on the earth for millions of years. How is it that all of a sudden mold became so toxic that people are tearing down their homes, ripping out sheetrock, pulling out their hair, and spending untold millions annually on mold inspections and repairs? What is the source of this crazy new scare? Could you offer a more logical, even-handed response? -- Martin

A One does wonder how a naturally occurring, ubiquitous substance suddenly became a deadly scourge.

Mold typically grows where there is excessive or persistent moisture caused by such things as leaky plumbing, ground moisture under a building, or lack of adequate ventilation.

Airtight home construction exacerbated the problem in recent years. Construction that was intended to conserve energy also promoted the growth of spores and moisture.

In most cases, visible stains or musty odors alert homeowners to the presence of mold. But some mold can be detected only by professional testing, and the cost of a mold survey is often prohibitive.

As with other indoor environmental hazards of the past 30 years, such as asbestos, radon, formaldehyde, lead and electromagnetic fields, reality is often overpowered by media-induced hysteria. That is not to say that those things do not pose significant health hazards for specific individuals in certain situations. However, overreaction is possible, and excess abounds.

In the late 1980s and early 1990s, homebuyers routinely canceled escrows at the mere mention of asbestos or radon. In the mid-1990s, lead paint sent buyers running for the hills.

Responses exceeded the risk. In the case of asbestos, most residential forms (some types of ceilings and vinyl flooring) posed no direct or immediate health hazard. In most cases of radon gas, mitigation was simple and relatively inexpensive. Lead paint is also manageable: Keep your children from teething on the woodwork, and use proper methods when stripping the paint.

Now comes mold, the environmental and economic bombshell. Detonation occurred when some extreme cases of mold infestation were given high-profile treatment by TV magazine shows. An avalanche of mold-related lawsuits and insurance claims followed, causing major insurance carriers to stop doing business in some states.

The real estate, pest inspection and home inspection industries began searching for what to say and what not to say in the new liability environment.

Some, no doubt, will read this and say I'm whitewashing a significant environmental health hazard, exposing readers to catastrophic illness by disseminating misleading information.

In the interest of heading off such misunderstandings, let's clarify a few essential points:

* Toxic forms of mold exist and can harm some people.

* Some homes were so seriously infested with mold that mitigation was not possible, requiring demolition.

* The statistical likelihood of serious mold growth does not warrant the current levels of anxiety, mitigation, litigation and expense.

In the "good old days," about two years ago, a mold stain on a windowsill or below the kitchen sink could be cleaned with bleach, primed and repainted. Now we must hire costly certified industrial hygienists for an in-depth analysis, and all affected materials (drywall, wood, carpet) must be replaced.

A more sensible approach would be to balance the costs with the risks.

The risks are real. Mold might someday invade your home, just as a drunk driver might someday cross the double line in your path of travel. But to what extent should we be stressed over these potential threats? How much must we spend and what procedures must we employ to protect ourselves?

Eventually, the emotional dust of mold hysteria will settle, as it has with previous residential environmental panics. Then, we might return to a place where mold, toenail fungus and the common cold occupy their customary positions among the adversities of everyday life.

Barry Stone is a professional home inspector. If you have questions or comments, contact him through his Web site, www.housedetective.com, or send mail to 1776 Jami Lee Ct., Suite 218, San Luis Obispo, Calif. 93401

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