Response: I suspect that the smell comes from mold, which as it grows, can emit a mixture of gases that smells musty and earthy. Mold, which is a type of fungi, can have many different forms and can be present nearly anywhere. Molds reproduce by producing tiny spores, which will grow anywhere there is water, organic materials (such as paper, wood, or cellulose) and oxygen.
When present indoors, mold can be a significant structural and health concern. Since mold requires moisture to grow, water must be entering the basement routinely – possibly through leaky windows, the foundation, or a leaking pipe. Chronic water problems can not only lead to mold but can also damage the home and lead to structural problems in the long run. Mold can cause additional damage by breaking down walls, wood, and other building materials.In addition, mold may be dangerous to your health. Some scientific studies have linked the mold-related smells to respiratory irritation. Of more serious concern, however, may be the mold spores themselves. Reports from the Institute of Medicine of the National Academies concluded that mold (and other factors related to damp indoor conditions) were related to asthma symptoms in people who have asthma and also to coughing, wheezing, and upper airway symptoms in people who are otherwise healthy.
If you love the house and would like to live there except for the musty basement, I suggest that you figure out why the basement is wet. Your real estate agent should be able to help you find a qualified mold professional to inspect the basement and identify where the mold is and how water is getting in the house. Based on their assessment, you could negotiate the cost of the assessment and of the solution with the seller. On the other hand, if you are only mildly interested in this property, you may want to pass on the house. Good luck!
Previous Ask Treehugger columns can be found here.
Helen Suh MacIntosh is a professor in environmental health at Harvard University and studies how pollution behaves in the environment and how it affects people's health. Please keep in mind that her answers are just her interpretation of available information and should not be taken as the only viewpoint or solution to a problem. Use this column at your own risk. Having said this, please feel free to post any of your environmental health questions to AskTreeHugger [[@]] TreeHugger [[.]] com (please use a descriptive email subject line and mention if you want to remain anonymous or not).