If the space under the sink smells moldy or even a little bit of water's seeping into the basement, a serious health problem could be lurking in the near future.

If, that is, the mold hasn't already given the family constant runny noses and respiratory distress, sore throats, headaches, fatigue and trouble concentrating.

"Anyone and everyone can eventually suffer effects in terms of an allergic response to mold," said Eugene Cole, a health science professor at Brigham Young University who is part of a team of experts that just created national standards for proper mold removal.

Mold isn't a problem just anyone can clean up. It takes an expert hand. Some mold is so tenacious it can grow in jet fuel, said Cole, adding that mold is different from common household mildew, though both are from fungi and both need to be cleaned up. People who just swipe at mold or say they'll take care of it later may be allowing a minor problem to turn into a much bigger one, since mold feeds on the surfaces on which it grows.

Cole said you have 72 hours at most to cut the source off, remove the water damage and get rid of mold.

Otherwise, the building does the equivalent of "composting from the inside."

Some cities, such as San Francisco, take it so seriously there are laws about how it must be dealt with.

It's a myth that mold's not a problem in Utah because it's a desert state, Cole said.

"In homes you have to have a certain level of humidity or the skin burns, eyes itch and you start to dehydrate." People and pets give off moisture that could produce mold. And some people are genetically more susceptible to mold's misery.

"People spend a lot of time indoors. We've created an artificial ecosystem" with walls, a fake climate and more. Plumbing leaks, carpets get too wet during cleaning and rain penetrates foundations and roofs.

Concerns about mold center around allergies, toxicity and infection, he said. Certain mold compounds create a potent carcinogen that's highly toxic even in small amounts. Infections, while rare, are increasing. Medical journals over the past half-decade point to more opportunistic fungal infections growing in the nose, the lungs, etc.

People who have an "extreme exposure to mold in the home" may develop cognitive defects and memory loss. "An individual can become disabled mentally and can't function any longer," Cole said, adding that it can destroy lives.

If you find mold and it's not an entire wall or attic space, it should be cleaned off using a detergent, not bleach, which can be very toxic itself. Afterward, check in a few days and if the mold is back, you might need professional help, Cole said.

Getting good professional help can be tricky. Cole has encountered so-called mold-removal experts who have suggested such things as knocking down walls and blowing the space out with leaf blowers. That's a bad plan guaranteed to spread mold spores everywhere.

Big jobs require experts. Cole said they should be certified by the Institute of Inspection Cleaning and Restoration Certification, which sponsored creation of the peer-reviewed cleanup guide, or its sister organization, the Association of Specialists in Cleaning and Restoration. A certified expert will have passed a test and understand moisture, mold contamination, building sciences and more. It screens out fly-by-night outfits that led to the phrase, "Mold is gold."

There's no reason to panic. If you have a little mold under the baseboard, clean it up. "You don't need to evacuate."

He cautions against taking a heavy-handed chemical approach, which trades a biological problem for a chemical one.

Besides checking foundations and keeping an eye out for water leaks, make sure that carpet cleaners extract water so the carpet will dry within 24 hours. Carpets should be vacuumed regularly. Even in a very well-maintained carpet, 100,000 spores of mold per gram of carpet dust are found. That's normal.

But mold can take root and multiply in carpets and fabrics, bathrooms, pet areas, crawl spaces, food storage areas, heating and air conditioning systems, window frames, wall cavities and attic spaces. Once there, it can dine on wood, wallboard, wallpaper, ceiling tile, insulation, concrete, fireproofing and glues and sealants that are used in home building.

Cole presented the new guidelines earlier this month in San Diego to mold removal professionals, insurance adjusters, attorneys and others. The guidelines were co-sponsored by the Air Quality Association and Indoor Environmental Institute.

E-mail: lois@desnews.com