Removing mould from records and archives
This advice is not intended for mould remediation after a large flood incident. We are focusing here on cleaning minor surface mould growth resulting from poor storage environments. Flood incidents have a range of complications not covered here.
What is mould?
Mould is a generic name often applied to various types of fungi that grow on the surfaces of materials such as fabrics, paper, food and leather. They are multicellular organisms that send filaments through the materials they grow on and produce enzymes to break down their food. Moulds reproduce through the production of small spores which are carried through the air and deposited on surfaces – these spores are in the air all the time and cannot be eliminated from storage areas. Given the right conditions these spores will germinate and grow.
Before you begin
Removing mould can be difficult, dirty and time consuming. Mould remediation should not be undertaken lightly – especially where large quantities of records are affected.
If you find mould growing on any of your records it is first important to determine the extent of the problem.
Small quantities of records can be dealt with fairly easily, but large quantities are usually best left to professional remediation companies. This is both because the work is dirty and repetitive, but also if not cleaned properly the mould can spread and cause more problems.
It is important to determine whether your mould is dead or alive before doing any cleaning. Live mould is more difficult to remove and will smear easily. If the mould is alive it also indicates that the environmental conditions of the storage area continue to be unacceptable.
If you are dealing with a discrete and fairly small outbreak it is preferable to isolate the affected records from the rest of your collection. Place affected materials into plastic bags or air-tight plastic tubs and remove them to a dry, well-ventilated space where they can be cleaned.
Your health and safety
There are also health and safety implications to be considered. Mould spores whether they are dead or alive can seriously affect your health – people with allergies and/or respiratory problems are more susceptible, but everyone should be cautious. Personal protective equipment (PPE) should be worn to ensure that the procedure is safe.
Work should be carried out in a well ventilated space and using a fume hood is advisable where possible. Dust masks, plastic gloves, and eye goggles’ are advised – and ensure that your mask is rated for mould spores (see equipment list below).
Drying your records and killing the mould
Most mould species need high levels of moisture to grow – without moisture they will die. High relative humidity (anything above 60%) will raise the moisture content of hygroscopic (moisture absorbing) materials such as paper, leather, cloth and some glues, which provides free moisture for the mould to grow.
To kill the mould on your records you will need to reduce the amount of moisture available to the mould to grow. You can either reduce the relative humidity in your storage area by using devices such as dehumidifiers, or you can remove the affected records to a clean, dry space. The humidity will need to be kept below 50% in order to dry the records sufficiently.
Care must be taken when moving mouldy items as the smallest movement can cause spores to generate which will spread the mould through your collection. As mentioned above you must transport the affected material in plastic bags to prevent cross-contamination.
To confirm the mould is dead brush the surface of the mould with a small brush – if it is powdery it is likely to be dead. If it is slimey or smears – it is likely still alive.
Equipment and materials required for cleaning mouldy records
|P2 dust, mist and fume respirator/mask||Occupational Health and Safety suppliers (such as Setons)|
|Plastic gloves (Nitrile are best)||Mediflex Industries, Pharmacies|
|Butcher paper||Artists’ supply store|
|Container with lid or sealable plastic bags (for disposing of used swabs)||Recycle a glass jar, zip-lock bags|
|HEPA filtered vacuum cleaner||HEPA filters can be fitted to many brands of vacuum cleaner|
|Methylated spirits or Ethanol||Hardware store|
|Dehumidifier (optional)||Munters or other flood salvage companies|
|Fume hood (optional)||Laboratory supply companies|
Mould removal procedure
Once thoroughly dry, mouldy records must first be vacuumed with a HEPA (High Efficiency Particulate Air) filtered vacuum cleaner. The filter ensures that the spores are not re-circulated around the room. Do not use the brush attachment that comes with the vacuum cleaner as it will get dirty and hold the spores. Instead, use a soft brush such as a paint brush or shaving brush to brush the dust and spores into the cleaner nozzle (brushes should be cleaned with soap and hot water at the end of each day).
Work on a clean, flat and un-cluttered surface. Working on Butcher paper is a good idea as it can be replaced regularly when it gets soiled preventing re-contamination.
Great care must be taken not to get too close to the surface causing it to be ‘sucked’ up. This can cause serious damage – tears and losses. To reduce the suction, muslin or ‘pantyhose’ material can be stretched over the end of the nozzle with an elastic band (this also prevents the paper from being sucked into the machine). An additional safeguard is to reduce the size of the nozzle by using flexible plastic tubing stuck into the end of the nozzle.
Before returning records to storage
Shelves where mouldy items were stored will need to be thoroughly cleaned before the items can be returned to the shelves. Shelves should be vacuumed thoroughly and then wiped with a 70% solution of Methylated Spirit or Ethanol. Allow the shelves to dry thoroughly before returning records.
After cleaning, items should not return to storage conditions with high relative humidity, as there is a good chance the mould will return. State Records provides Guidelines and Standards on the storage of records on its website. Look under Advice or Standards. These publications provide information on the environmental conditions required, types of shelves that should be used, and protective packaging for different record types.
To prevent mould growth on records you must keep your storage areas clean and dry and provide good air circulation.
The most important factor to preventing mould is moisture – mould cannot survive without adequate moisture. Relative humidity must be kept below 60%. The Image Permanence Institute published a Preservation Calculator which provides an indication of how well your storage conditions are preserving your collection. An important part of the Calculator is its indicator of the “Days to Mould Germination”. You can download the Preservation Calculator to help you work out whether you have a problem.
Dirt, dust, and food debris provide additional food sources for mould growth so keeping storage areas clean is very important. Shelves and records should be carefully dusted on a regular basis.
Records should not be packed too tightly as this allows pockets of stagnant, damp air to develop and prevents good air circulation. Do not stack boxes, volumes or other records against walls – especially external walls.
Inspect your records regularly for signs of mould as it is much easier to deal with small outbreaks and any mould growth will indicate potential problems with your environmental conditions.
Further Reading and Information
Florian, Mary-Lou, Fungal Facts: Solving fungal problems in heritage collections. Archetype Publications, London, 2002.
North East Document Conservation Centre Preservation Leaflets provide information on a variety of conservation techniques and issues. Of particular interest for mould are Leaflets under the Emergency Management heading.
The National Archives of Australia has a range of information about preserving records.
The State Library of NSW has a Dealing with Mould factsheet avaibable on their website.
The Australian Institute for the Conservation of Cultural Materials (AICCM) is the peak professional body for conservators in Australia. Their website provides information and links useful for a range of conservation issues.
There are a number of mould remediation companies across Australia. Contact State Records NSW or your nearest State or Federal archive for further information.