Mold pollution is a key element of indoor air pollution that few people understand. Mold has been making the headlines more frequently over the last several years, largely as a result of Hurricane Katrina. And this year has brought enormous record-breaking floods in the U.S. not seen in more than a century, including the massive overflow of the Mississippi River, certain to activate serious mold infestations in certain areas of the country.
If you live in one of those water-stricken areas, you could already be "sleeping with the enemy."
Along with obvious places such as shower stalls and damp basements, there can be many hidden sources of mold in your home. Particularly, if you've had plumbing problems or leaks in your roof, mold may grow and release spores from places such as behind drywall, under carpet or carpet padding, or in wood.
But mold can find its way into some rather surprising places. One study found that even Christmas trees can breed mold, quietly releasing millions of spores into the room and causing winter allergies and asthma attacks. The study found that indoor air quality dropped six-fold over the 14 days a Christmas tree typically decorates a room. Millions of mold spores may even be hiding in your pillows.
And, surprisingly, if you live in a dry climate you may be even MORE at risk—mold grows routinely in desert regions, and the desert naturally selects the most tenacious forms.
Mold Can Be Deadly
What many people don't realize is that mold can make you extremely sick, or even kill you. According to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), all molds have the potential to cause ill health. The type and severity of your symptoms depend, in part, on the types of mold present, the extent of your exposure, your age and general health, and your existing sensitivities or allergies.
At a 2003 environmental medicine symposium in Dallas, studies of more than 1,600 patients suffering health issues related to fungal exposure were presented. These patients experienced major medical problems, including the following:
Muscle and joint pain
Headache, anxiety, depression, memory loss, and visual disturbances
Immune system disturbances and fatigue
Shortness of breath
Yet, medical professionals are sometimes not up to speed on how extensive and devastating mold can be to human health, often missing important biological clues that you're being affected by mold. It is important to be aware of these potential problems because your physician may NOT be, and you need to take the wheel as your own health advocate.
Mold's Favorite Places in Your Home
Fungi grow by releasing reproductive cells (spores) into the air, just as plants reproduce by spreading seeds. The airborne spores are invisible to the naked eye, which is a major reason mold is such a problem. It is not uncommon to find hundreds or even thousands of mold spores per cubic foot of indoor air. Spores are extremely small (1-100 microns)—20 million spores would fit on a postage stamp.
Spores can survive harsh environmental conditions, such as dryness, that do not support normal mold growth. In fact, many spores can lie dormant for decades until favorable conditions allow them to spring back to life.
Molds can be found almost anywhere; they can grow on virtually any substance, provided moisture and oxygen are present. There are molds that can grow on wood, paper, carpet, tile, sheetrock, insulation, leather, fabrics, and foods. Molds survive by digesting whatever substrate they are growing on, which is a real problem when it happens to be your floorboards. There is no way to eliminate all mold and mold spores from your indoor environment; the only way to control indoor mold growth is to control moisture. The most common indoor places for mold to take hold are damp areas, such as:
Bathrooms and kitchens, especially under sinks—particularly leaky ones
Behind or under appliances that hide slow plumbing leaks (refrigerators, dishwashers, washing machines, etc.)
Around windows where condensation collects
High humidity areas of your home, such as basements
Often, the first sign of a mold problem is a "musty" odor. You are probably familiar with the smell of mildew—mildew is simply a variety of mold. You could also notice bowed or buckled floorboards, discolored carpet, a new water stain on your wall, or black or white specks—all signs you could be developing a mold problem. But what type of life form is mold?
Types of Fungus Among Us
Mold is a type of fungus, as are mushrooms and yeast. There are between 100,000 and 400,000 types of fungi (estimates vary), and of these, scientists have identified more than 1,000 types of mold growing inside houses across America. Molds are classified into three groups according to human responses:
Allergenic Molds: These don't usually produce life-threatening effects and are most problematic if you are allergic or asthmatic. The challenge is in figuring out what you are sensitive to. Children are particularly susceptible to mold allergies.
Pathogenic Molds: These produce some sort of infection, which is of particular concern if your immune system is suppressed. They can cause hypersensitivity pneumonitis, an acute response resembling bacterial pneumonia. An example is Aspergillus fumigatus, which can grow in the lungs of immune-compromised individuals.
Toxigenic Molds (aka "toxic molds"): These dangerous molds produce mycotoxins, which can have serious health effects on almost anyone. Possible reactions include immunosuppression and cancer. Mycotoxins are chemical toxins present within or on the surface of the mold spore, which you then unwittingly inhale, ingest, or touch. An example of this is aflatoxin, one of the most potent carcinogens known to mankind. Aflatoxin grows on peanuts and grains, and on some other foods.
The five most common indoor mold varieties are:
Alternaria: Commonly found in your nose, mouth, and upper respiratory tract; can cause allergic responses
Aspergillus: Usually found in warm, extremely damp climates, and a common occupant of house dust; produces mycotoxins; can cause lung infections (aspergillosis)
Cladosporium: This very common outdoor fungus can find its way indoors to grow on textiles, wood and other damp, porous materials; triggers hay fever and asthma symptoms
Penicillium: Very common species found on wallpaper, decaying fabrics, carpet, and fiberglass duct insulation; known for causing allergies and asthma; some species produce mycotoxins, one being the common antibiotic penicillin
Stachybotrys: Extremely toxic "black mold" that produces mycotoxins that can cause serious breathing difficulties and bleeding of the lungs, among other health problems; thankfully, less common in homes than the other four, but not rare; found on wood or paper (cellulose products), but NOT on concrete, linoleum or tile
Mycotoxins: From Antibiotics to Biological Warfare Agents
Molds produce a number of powerful substances that can affect your health in beneficial or detrimental ways. It should come as no surprise that fungi produce potent biologically active compounds—after all, lysergic acid (the parent compound of LSD) is produced by a mushroom! And penicillin is a mycotoxin produced by the mold Penicillium, better known as an antibiotic.
Some mold compounds are volatile and released directly into the air, known as microbial volatile organic compounds (mVOCs). Fragments of the cell walls of molds (glucans) can also be inhaled and cause inflammatory respiratory reactions, including a flu-like illness called Organic Dust Toxic Syndrome (ODTS).
But the most serious danger comes from highly poisonous agents called mycotoxins.
More than 200 mycotoxins have been identified from common molds. Mycotoxins interfere with RNA synthesis and may cause DNA damage. The mycotoxins that have probably received the most attention by researchers are the trichothecenes, produced by Stachybotyrs chartarum and Aspergillus versicolor. Mycotoxins, even in minute quantities, are lipid-soluble and readily absorbed by your intestinal lining, airways, and skin. Some are so poisonous that they have been studied and developed as biological warfare agents as far back as the 1940s. Aflatoxin and trichothecenes are prime examples.
Even spores that are no longer able to reproduce can still harm your health due to these mycotoxins—in other words, "dead" mold spores are every bit as dangerous as "live" ones. The spores do not produce the toxins—rather, it is thought that the toxins are produced when the spores are produced, by the mold colony. Scientists believe that mycotoxins are the organism's way of holding a competitive edge by defeating other organisms that are trying to thrive in the same environment—like humans, for example.
Adverse Health Effects from Mold
A lot of people end up treating the symptoms of mold exposure and never get to the root of the problem. Oftentimes, they don't even make the connection that mold is the cause of their problems… and neither does their physician. According to mycotoxin expert Dr. Harriet Ammann, exposure to indoor molds can damage the systems of your body in the following ways:
Vascular: blood vessel fragility, hemorrhage from tissues or lungs Digestive: diarrhea, vomiting, hemorrhage, liver damage, fibrosis, and necrosis
Respiratory: trouble breathing, bleeding from lungs Neurological: tremors, loss of coordination, headaches, depression, multiple sclerosis
Reproductive: infertility, changes in reproductive cycles Immune: Immunosuppression
One of the challenges of diagnosing a mold allergy is that reactions are so variable from one person to another. Some people start having memory problems, while others may experience sudden changes in disposition, such as agitation, anger, panic, or depression. Headaches are common but don't affect everyone exposed to mold.
Common symptoms are:
Coughing and wheezing
Sinus problems and post-nasal drip
If you would like more information about how to recognize a mold reaction and how to read your own body's "silent alarm system," I highly recommend listening to my interview with Dr. Doris Rapp. Dr. Rapp is a mold expert and author of several books, including Our Toxic World: A Wake Up Call...