Distressed homeowners and even mold remediation professionals often throw around the term “black mold” with a tone of ever-present concern when discussing toxic risks associated with degrees of ongoing water damage. Truth be told, the nomenclature itself is technically an immensely broad generalization worthy of a certain valid, crucial caution that accompanies a surprising degree of misconception.

Have you ever heard the phrase, “All elephants are gray, but not all gray things are elephants?” Professional mold remediators understand black mold by the very same principle.

What Is Black Mold?

Our planet is actually home to thousands of species of black mold, at least a thousand of them in the United States alone. Before you go fortifying your home with two-dozen HEPA filters, rest somewhat easy: the vast majority pose little mortal danger to humans. The trouble is, the most hazardous toxic varieties often appear indistinguishable from generally non-lethal ones at a glance.

The most notorious variety of toxic black mold found in many U.S. homes, Stachybotrys chartarum, is easily identified by a musty mildew smell emanating from moist areas. When you hear American homeowners refer to “black mold” with grave concern as a single specific species, this is most likely the fairly common type they have in mind. When it grows inside HVAC ducts, its pungent signature aroma often only becomes detectable when the system turns on and circulates its mycotoxin-laced particulates. Fortunately, its tendency to dampen downward in search of moisture prevents its spores from contaminating the air as easily as those of other molds.

What Does Black Mold Look Like?

Stachybotrys chartarum, in particular, earns its name by resembling patches or streaks of dirt. Upon closer inspection, it has a telltale slimy, gelatinous texture and a dark greenish-black or sometimes gray coloration that stands out among other black mold species. Other types display various distinguishing colors beneath their dark surfaces. When black mold depletes its immediate moisture supply, it typically dries out over time and takes on a powdery appearance.

What Does Black Mold Smell Like?

If black mold infests any part of your home, you may very well smell it before you ever actually see it. Following its stale smell will often lead directly to an extremely moist area and a healthy colony. A mold issue within an HVAC system can make detection much more tricky. Your nose may leave no doubt something is growing somewhere, but the odor could be piped in from anyway inside the ductwork. Only a more thorough investigation will tell you for certain.

What Is Toxic Black Mold

Toxic black mold spores and the colonies that disseminate them carry especially stable trichothecene mycotoxins not found in harmless varieties. These bio-bodies can take years to break down and may be virtually impossible to remove entirely from a home. Mold toxicity can vary in severity depending on the duration of exposure to mycotoxins and is triggered most often by inhalation, but any means of ingestion can set off a reaction.

What Is Non-toxic Black Mold

When mold remediators refer to “non-toxic” black mold, they don’t necessarily mean that it is naturally 100% benign. Some molds possess allergenic or pathogenic properties that can still pose significant health risks. An individual with a severe mold allergy or a compromised immune system may be in greater jeopardy following exposure to an allergenic or pathogenic mold than a healthy one who encounters a “toxic” species.

What Are The Symptoms Of Black Mold?

Although most black mold species are non-toxic, the rarest especially aggressive toxic species can generate a wide range of effects from minor irritations to potentially lethal reactions. Individuals with compromised or naturally weak immune systems such as infants, the elderly, cancer patients undergoing chemotherapy and upper respiratory illness sufferers are easily at risk for the most life-threatening of these symptoms:

  • Breathing Difficulties and/or Respiratory Distress
  • Unrestrained Sneezing and/or Coughing
  • Coughing Up Blood
  • Irritated or Inflamed Mucous Membranes
  • Bladder and/or Kidney Discomfort
  • Memory Loss
  • Impaired Concentration
  • Nausea, Vomiting and/or Diarrhea
  • Extreme Tiredness, Fatigue or Chronic Headaches
  • Suppressed Immune System
  • Red and/or Itchy Eyes, Nose and Mouth

The longer toxic black mold grows unrestrained in any volume, the greater the risks attached to ongoing exposure become as spores invade the body more frequently and with increased volume. Conversely, removing infestations from your home and seeking medical treatment as soon as impossible decreases the likelihood of irreversible long-term physical damage.

Where Does Black Mold Grow?

Black molds colonize rapidly in humid or moist areas once it gains a foothold but it takes much longer for these species to initially grow than many other molds. Most other varieties need only one or two very wet days to form colonies. Black molds require anywhere from eight to 12 days basking in rampant moisture. Once it matures, however, toxic black mold tends to force out any nearby molds for control over the environment.

Though it often inhabits plant and soil debris, Stachybotrys chartarum thrives in any wet environment where it can feed on cellulose-rich dead organic matter, such as wood pulp, paper, hay, straw, or cereal grains. A confirmed colony in your home virtually guarantees a water leak somewhere nearby. Two other similarly aggressive black molds pose notable dangers of which all property owners should be aware:

Aspergillus niger is an exceptionally durable type of black mold not to be taken lightly. It thrives even in surroundings with precious little nutritional value to offer and is discovered often in homes prone to damp walls. Though black in color on the surface, it is identifiable often by yellow or white coloration beneath. Its spores’ toxins have been known to cause hearing issues and even hearing loss after burrowing into human lungs.
Stachybotrys echinata is closely similar to Stachybotrys chartarum but favors a different set of surroundings. This species instead is commonly found lurking in linens, wool, cotton, and canvas materials. It produces many of the same toxins as its more prolific and well-known relation, making it a verified threat to humans.

The discouraging truth is, most homes contain some volume of one mold or another. That should never discourage you from testing for and promptly arranging the removal of any prominent colonies you can find while immediately addressing any problematic moist habitats lending them the comfort needed to multiply in short order.

How To Test For Black Mold

The only certain safe means of determining if you have a toxic black mold invasion on your hands is professional inspection and testing. Knowing whether you have a non-toxic species or one that produces dangerous mycotoxins on your hands is essential to determining the best course of action for removing it.

If the above-listed toxic symptoms accompany the discovery of severe water damage or you have already discovered what you suspect to be a toxic black mold colony, your next steps should be to immediately remove yourself and all occupants from the environment and schedule inspections to both hunt down the point where water is infiltrating your home and the mold itself. During the inspection, you and the inspector should note any water-damaged materials, lingering unpleasant smells, and visible signs of moisture damage such as peeling paint and warped walls. Pay especially careful attention near pipes and any other area where water regularly flows.

How To Get Rid of Black Mold

How should you eliminate this potential threat to your health? You shouldn’t. There is no over-emphasizing this: do not attempt to remove toxic black mold yourself unless you happen to be a certified and licensed mold remediation professional.

Trained experts employ fiber-optic devices and moisture meters to root out hidden toxic black mold colonies while only minimally disturbing your home and risking accidentally releasing spores into the air. A litany of careful second-nature steps taken with every inspection and removal protects the next home we visit from spores hitching a ride and cross-contaminating another property. Eradicating toxic black mold can sometimes be a time-consuming and stressful process, but protecting your well-being is worth nearly any inconvenience.