100 BRICKSTONE SQUARE
EMERGENCY SALVAGE OF MOLDY PAPER MATERIALS
The following advice is offered in the context of a crisis situation and includes only basic stabilization techniques. It does not address the complexities and difficulties of dealing with wet and moldy materials. A professional conservator should be consulted if questions arise or if further treatment is necessary.
THE ONLY SURE WAY TO STOP MOLD GROWTH IS TO GET THE ITEM DRY OR FROZEN.
Remember that mold likes four things: moisture, heat, poor air circulation, and dark. The first step in fighting mold growth is to get wet or damp material dry. If you know you cannot get the material dry right away, it is best to freeze it, if a freezer is available. This will stabilize the material (mold will stop growing) until you have a chance to dry it. If the item is small enough, it can be placed in the freezer compartment of a home refrigerator; for large items a commercial freezer may be necessary.
Wet material should be dried in a cool dry space with good air circulation. An air conditioned space is the best for this purpose, but if that is impossible, use fans to circulate air (do not aim fans directly at the object, however, as the air pressure can cause damage). If possible, use a dehumidifier to remove moisture from the air. Place paper toweling or unprinted newsprint (regular newspapers may transfer print to the wet objects) under the drying items to absorb moisture, and change this blotting material often.
Air drying takes time and attention, since you must check drying materials often, and you must maintain cool, dry environment, additional mold will grow. Materials may be dried outside in the sun if the outside humidity is low, but be aware that sun may cause fading and other damage. Never leave materials outside overnight.
Unfortunately, "quick cures" that you may have heard about (such as using lysol and bleaching objects) are often ineffective, especially where large-scale damage is involved. These measures may even cause additional damage to items or be toxic to people.
Special attention should be paid to framed objects, such as prints and drawings, since they are especially vulnerable to mold growth. A frame provides an ideal environment for mold; the back is dark, air does not circulate, and humidity is trapped inside. Framed materials should be unframed immediately, and dried as above. If the item appears to be stuck to the glass in the frame, remove the backing materials from the frame and leave the item in the frame and attached to the glass. Place the framed item in a cool, dry space as described above. Do not attempt to unstick the item from the glass; that should be left to a professional conservator.
Once moldy material is dry, take a soft, wide brush (such as a watercolor wash brush) and lightly brush the powdery mold off the surface of the item. Be sure not to rub the mold into the surface, since that will attach it permanently to paper fibers or the cover of a book. Plan to brush off mold outdoors, in front of a window exhaust fan, into a ventilation hood, or in some area designed to remove the mold spores from indoor environments. Mold spores will float in the air indoors, settle on surfaces, and remain to infect other items if conditions are favorable.
An alternative is to vacuum the mold (this should also be done outdoors), but DO NOT VACUUM THE ITEM DIRECTLY, since the suction can easily damage fragile materials. Instead, brush the powdery mold off into the vacuum nozzle. You may want to put a piece of cheesecloth over the nozzle as a precaution. Get a special filtration vacuum if possible, such as those used in computer rooms. Otherwise, be careful where you use the vacuum, since a normal vacuum will simply exhaust the mold spores out the back.
Many people are allergic to mold spores. Repeated exposure or exposure to high levels of the spores can cause allergies in people who previously were not sensitive to molds. Some molds are toxic. If you have any reason to believe that you are sensitive to molds or have other health problems which may be made worse by mold exposure, talk to your doctor before trying to clean moldy objects.
There are methods of protecting yourself when working with moldy objects. The best way is to brush spores outside or into a ventilation system while wearing protective equipment. Thin surgical or vinyl gloves will protect your hands (and also protect the object from skin oils). Wearing a dust mask will keep spores out of your respiratory system.
If you have heart or breathing problems which may be made worse by the stress of breathing through a mask, check first with your doctor. Some doctors also do not want pregnant women to wear dust masks or respirators.
Drug and hardware stores sell pollen dust masks which may be adequate for light work. For heavier work use masks designed for toxic dusts. These masks will be labeled "NIOSH-approved for toxic dusts." These are available from industrial safety suppliers. Two large suppliers are Aldrich Safety Products (1-800558-9160) and Lab Safety Supply (1-800-3560783).
Whether for pollens or for toxic dusts, masks will protect wearers only if they truly fit the face and have good skin contact all around the nose and mouth area. People with facial hair, very small faces, unusual facial shape, scars, or any other reason why the mask will not conform to the face will not be protected.
Remember that even after materials have been dried and superficially cleaned, you may have mold stains. Unfortunately there is very little that you can do about these, although a conservator may be able to lighten them. You should consult a professional conservator if an item needs further treatment after its condition has been stabilized. If you have questions about the information in this handout, or about treatment after its condition has been stabilized. If you have questions about the information in this handout, or about treatment of individual items, please call Northeast Document Conservation Center at (508) 470-1010 for further assistance.
Comments pertaining to health risks and respirator use were contributed by Monona Rossol, Arts, Crafts and Theater Safety, 181 Thompson St., #23, New York, NY 10012-2586.