Coping with Mold in Hawaii

Fuzzy Logic: Mold—actually tiny fungi—is a fact of life in Hawaii. Here are some coping strategies.

Illustration: Pat Kinsella

You’re in the shower, washing your hair, when you notice that mold is growing—again—between the bath tiles. You vow to scrub it out, but wonder, is the mold bad for you? Is mold a health risk or just an unsightly nuisance? Here’s what we found out:

•  The position of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) is that exposure to damp and moldy environments may cause a variety of health effects, or none at all. Not exactly helpful, we know. But if you’re sensitive to molds, you’ll know it: the CDC says symptoms can range from a stuffy nose to wheezing, or, for those with serious mold allergies, reactions may include fever and shortness of breath.

•  “If you find surface mold, such as mold in your shower or tile grout, you can take care of that yourself,” says Earl Shook Jr., president of Ohana Environmental Construction Inc., a company that handles roughly 100 mold-related jobs in Hawaii per year. On the other hand, if you see mold that’s growing around pipes or from the inside of dry wall and causing deterioration, he recommends calling a professional.

•  Don’t bother getting too crazy with bleach. It’s impossible to get rid of all mold and mold spores indoors. But since mold can’t exist without moisture, keeping indoor humidity below 60 percent and venting appliances that produce moisture, such as clothes dryers, should help.

•  Nontoxic cleaning options include tea-tree oil, vinegar, grapefruit-seed extract and steam cleaners. A company called Smelly Washer makes products that are all natural and supposedly can rid washing machines of mildew funk. There’s also a Smelly Towel version. You can find both at

•  For the EPA’s downloadable guide on how to clean residential mold and prevent mold growth, visit

•  Everyone reacts to mold differently, says the CDC, so sampling or culturing mold isn’t a reliable way to determine a health risk.

•  How bad can mold get? Well, for one of Shook’s clients, “There was so much mold, it covered walls, the furniture, the clothes in the closets, and even the person’s razor blade in the medicine cabinet,” he says. “We had to gut the house.” Yikes.

Photo: Courtesy CTAHR, iStock

In Other Mildew News …

Pesto lovers take note. In January, a new fungal disease called basil downy mildew was found at several farms in Waianae, decimating commercial basil crops and quickly spreading across Oahu. (At press time, Neighbor Islands are still unaffected.) The disease can spread through contaminated seeds, fresh-cut basil or wind-blown spores, making control difficult. “The fungus did well here because, when it was first introduced, it was cool and moist,” says Janice Uchida, plant pathologist at University of Hawaii College of Tropical Agriculture and Human Resources. Growers are crossing their fingers that the warm summer months will knock the pathogen out. To check if your plants are affected, flip the underside of leaves and look for black or purple-grey splotches. For more info, visit