What's Floating in Your House Can Make You Sick

Last October, the month before Joey Specter was expecting to give birth, part of the ceiling in her and her husband's Brooklyn apartment started to flake off. Annoyed, but with their minds occupied, they weren't too concerned. Until the day after they brought the little bundle home from the hospital and Specter's husband went to work sweeping up the flakes. "He just poked the ceiling a few times and a huge chunk of it collapsed," Spector says, exposing a vast black growth that looked like mold, accompanied by an "awful, earthy smell." Panicking, they searched online for help, coming across a listing for an environmental consultant who came to test the air. It turned out to be toxic black mold.

While much environmental debate is over how fast the ice caps and forests will disappear, the great indoors look more likely to get to you first. Airborne particulates coming from mold, dust, lead paint and building materials are causing heightened concern as people develop higher sensitivities to things in the air. Home-inspection companies have been around for decades, looking for things like asbestos and mold, but increasing awareness about home-based allergens has led to a brisk upswing in the home-inspection and consulting industry.

Micro Ecologies, the firm that responded to Specter's black-mold problem, usually gets calls from people wondering why their living room makes them sneeze. What comes next isn't cheap. A full home consultation with a lab analysis can cost around $1,000, depending on the size of the residence and extent of the problem, says Arthur Lau, a general manager of the company. A different company comes later to fix the problem, which can be covered by insurance.

The industry keeps a loose hierarchy of dangerous particles. Asbestos, the building material found in the 1970s to lead to forms of cancer, has always ranked first, although it's rarely found in newer homes. But consulting experts agree that the more prolific, and growing, culprit is mold. The fungus—of which 200,000 species are known to exist—often enters homes through an open door or window before taking haven in dark, moist environments like wall cavities or under carpeting. Most homes have small amounts of hidden mold that are usually harmless to nonallergic people, says industrial hygienist Victor D'Amato, especially in humid regions like Florida or the Northeast. Simply living in an environment also means things like dead skin cells, animal dander and carpet fibers will float in the air, often in small, unaffecting doses. The Centers for Disease Control call floating things like mold spores "respiratory irritants" that could cause different levels of allergy-like symptoms. Floating particles affect all people differently, depending on the quantity inhaled and the susceptibility to lung irritation. Longer-term exposure in higher doses could cause breathing difficulties like asthma.

The consultants NEWSWEEK spoke with said they consider mold a harmful substance worth removing from your home, even though science hasn't yet linked spore inhalation, of even the toxic kind, to much more than varying levels of allergic irritation. But a lack of regulation in the environmental home-consulting industry poses a more immediate problem. Investigators disagree on testing methods, like whether cursory air samples or visual inspections are the better way to spot a problem. Both can be inconclusive if done quickly. More important can be finding the source—often a leaky pipe or poor ventilation.

The wider concern is about consultants' certification. Asbestos inspectors are required to be certified by state and federal health agencies, but anyone can inspect for other irritants. "It is possible to become a certified mold inspector in the amount of time it takes you to print a business card," says Owen Seiver, a consultant and professor of environmental health at California State University Northridge. "It's hard to know who's doing it right." When something strange is growing in your ceiling, that's not a comforting thought.