Mold in your home, school or workplace can pose a number of serious health problems that you may not realize are related to mold exposure. This article is part of a series of articles I’m writing about this silent health threat. The focus of this particular article will be on some of the more serious medical conditions—some deadly—with which mold has been associated.
For an overview of mold—where you might find it, how to identify it, and how to get rid of it—refer to this previous article.
In a previous interview with mold expert Dr. Jack Thrasher, he estimated that as many as 40 percent of American schools and 25 percent of homes have mold infestations, unbeknownst to the people occupying those buildings. It follows that adverse health effects of mold may be reaching pandemic levels.
Growing right along with mold are what are called “gram negative” and “gram positive” bacteria. Just like mold, they require moisture and organic material to thrive and are often found growing in the same places as mold, and the synergistic action between mold and bacteria further worsen inflammatory health conditions. Oftentimes, bacterial infections occur alongside fungal infections and make treatment more complicated.
Everyone is potentially at risk for toxic mold exposure, regardless of your geographic region, climate, socioeconomic status, race, age or gender. As with most other medical challenges, knowledge is your most powerful weapon.
Scientific research has been emerging that connects mold exposure with various health conditions for which the causes were previously unknown. For example, in 2010, Fisk et al published a meta-analysis showing a substantially significant association between residential dampness and mold with respiratory infections and bronchitis. Dr. Michael Gray has compiled a database of conditions reported in the literature of adverse health effects of fungi in man and other species. These include, but are not limited to, the following conditions—some common and some relatively esoteric:
|Alimentary toxic aleukia (a lack of leukocytes arising from food poisoning)||Dendrodochiotoxicosis (alimentary mycotoxicosis caused by Dendrodochium toxicum fungus)||Kashin Beck disease (an bone and joint disease)||Usov’s disease|
|Stachybotryotoxicosis||Cardiac beriberi||Ergotism (the effect of long-term poisoning by ergot fungus)||Balkan nephropathy (a form of kidney disorder)|
|Reye’s syndrome (condition that causes swelling of your brain and liver)||Hepatocellular carcinoma (liver cancer)||Onyalai (a rare form of thrombocytopenia; abnormally low platelet count)|
Mold CAN Hurt You
Many common health problems may be associated with mold exposure, but very few people have connected the dots. This is why it is SO important for you to be aware of the seriousness of this problem and become familiar with what to look for.
From a toxicity point of view, some mycotoxins (toxic substances produced by mold) are actually far more toxic than heavy metals, in terms of concentration. Mycotoxins also tend to affect more biological systems in your body than do pesticides or heavy metals, partly because fungi have the ability to dodge your immune system by rapidly mutating, while at the same time producing chemicals that suppress your immune system.
If your immune system is stressed in any way, or if you are extremely sensitive and have allergy-like reactions to a variety of agents (see Multiple Chemical Sensitivity syndrome or MCS), then you may be even MORE sensitive to mold than the average person and have chronic symptoms directly related to mold in your environment. But even if you are generally healthy, mold can still pose a significant risk if you are caught off-guard.
Deadly Mycotoxins Can Cross Into Your Brain From Your Nose and Eyes
Mycotoxins are chemical toxins present within or on the surface of the mold spore, which you then unwittingly inhale, ingest, or touch. These mold toxins are extremely potent and often affect nearly every organ system in your body. Some effects resemble radiation sickness. Some are neurotoxic and produce central nervous system effects, including cognitive and behavioral changes, ataxia and convulsions. Approximately 70 percent of the people with confirmed exposure to toxigenic molds exhibit significant neurotoxicity.
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.
One of the reasons mycotoxins are so toxic is they can cross directly into your brain. According to Dr. Thrasher, your olfactory neurons are in direct communication with your brain—there is no barrier. Anything you have inhaled or smelled, even if it doesn’t have an odor, can go directly into your brain via these olfactory neurons. Mycotoxins have even been found to enter your brain via optic muscles and optic nerves. This lack of a blood-brain barrier has been confirmed in scientific studies.
This creates the potential for mold-induced sinusitis to lead to serious brain complications if left untreated.
More than 200 mycotoxins have been identified from common molds. Mycotoxins interfere with RNA synthesis and may cause DNA damage. Mycotoxins, even in minute quantities, are lipid-soluble and readily absorbed by your intestinal lining, airways and skin. 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.
The mycotoxins that have probably received the most attention by researchers are the trichothecenes, produced by Stachybotyrs chartarum and Aspergillus versicolor, two of the molds I’d like to discuss due to their especially toxic effects.
Stachybotrys Chartarum: The Dreaded “Black Mold”
Stachybotrys chartarum (SC) is a greenish black mold that grows on material with high cellulose content, such as wood, straw, hay, wicker, cardboard, fiberboard, etc., particularly when these materials become water damaged. It needs a good deal of dampness to flourish. According to Mold-Help.org, the toxic effects of Stachybotrys chartarum were first reported in the 1920s in Russia when horses and cattle that had eaten moldy hay began dying. The “Yellow Rain” attacks in Southeast Asia in the 1970s were associated with aerosolized trichothecenes, the type of mycotoxin produced by this highly toxic type of mold.
SC is typically dark in color and wet and slimy to the touch. It can also appear grayish or sooty, with a powdery appearance.
However, it’s important to remember that molds cannot be identified visually—many molds are similar in appearance. Cladosporium, Aspergillus, Alternaria and Drechslera can be mistaken for Stachybotrys. The only definitive way to identify a species is by examination of the spores under a microscope, which is why professional testing is so important.
According to Mold-Help.org:
“Most people are not aware that harmful molds come in a variety of colors—they can be white, or orange, or blue, for instance. The color of a mold generally has to do with the spores it produces, and has no bearing on whether it is dangerous or not. There are some white molds that grow on walls and other surfaces that can be just as bad as the harmful black molds.”
Mycotoxin poisoning by Stachybotrys is referred to as stachybotryotoxicosis. In animal studies, trichothecenes are 40 times more toxic when inhaled than when ingested orally. But even if SC is present in your environment, you may not be at risk because it may not be currently releasing toxins.
Again, according to Mold-Help.org:
“Laboratory studies indicate that molds such as Stachybotrys that have the ability to produce toxins do not always do so. Whether a mold produces a toxin while growing in a building may depend on what the mold is growing on, conditions such as temperature, food, pH, humidity or other unknown factors. When mycotoxins are present, they occur on spores and the small mold fragments that may be released into the air.”
The spores from SC can survive temperatures up to 500 degrees F, as well as surviving caustic agents like bleach and acid. According to Dr. Michael Gray, spores from molds removed from 2 million year-old sedimentary rocks have grown when placed in a favorable media!
When these mycotoxins are present, they can suppress and even destroy your immune system, including your lymphoid tissue and bone marrow. Animals injected with SC toxins experience hemorrhaging from their brains and other organs, including their thymus, spleen, lungs, intestine, liver and kidney. Humans with chronic exposure to SC mycotoxins have reported the following health problems:
|Cold and flu symptoms||Respiratory problems, such as asthma and nose bleeds||Memory loss||Muscle aches|
|Sore throat||Headaches||Dermatitis and rashes||Fatigue and generalized malaise|
|Hair loss||Cancer||Pulmonary hemorrhage, emphysema-like disease||Autoimmune disease|
Could SIDS Be Caused by Mold Toxicity?
The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) warns that the toxic effects from mold, such as Stachybotrys, may cause severe health problems in infants, including acute vomiting, diarrhea, asthma attacks, and even pulmonary hemorrhaging in severe cases. But it may be far worse than that.
Long-term exposure can lead to death. According to a public health report in 1994 in Cleveland, Ohio, eight infants were repeatedly exposed to potent mold toxins. One infant died from pulmonary hemorrhage. Five of the eight infants suffered recurring illness once they returned home from the hospital, after treatment. According to the AAP, some American infant fatalities classified as “SIDS” (Sudden Infant Death Syndrome) may actually be related to mold exposure.
According to Vicki Lankarge, author of What Every Homeowner Needs to Know About Mold (And What to Do About It), there have been 45 reported cases of infant mold exposure since the 1994 incident in Ohio. And sixteen of these infants died. If your infant inhales these mycotoxins, the blood vessels in his lungs are weakened. If this exposure goes on long enough, it can result in severe pulmonary hemorrhaging and death. Exposure to mold has also been linked to croup, pneumonia and bronchitis in infants.
Aspergillosis: Mold that Can Take Up Residence In Your Lungs
Aspergilli are some of the most common environmental molds, frequently found in decaying plant matter, such as compost heaps. Inside, it’s found in air conditioning and heating ducts, insulation, and even on some food and spices. Most strains of this common mold are not dangerous, but a few can cause serious illness when their spores are inhaled by people who have weakened immune systems, as is the case with asthma or underlying lung disease. Or, healthier individuals can be at risk from long-term exposure to mold quietly growing in water-damaged buildings.
Infections caused by Aspergillus are called aspergillosis, which is actually a group of illnesses ranging from mild to severe lung infections, or even whole-body infections. The most serious type of aspergillosis is invasive aspergillosis, which is when the mold invades your blood vessels and the spreads to the rest of your body.
Aspergillus allergy can result in fever, productive cough and worsening asthma.
With aspergillosis, you can actually grow a “fungal ball” in your lungs, a tangled ball of fungal fiber called aspergilloma. Aspergilloma can lead to coughing up blood (hemoptysis), wheezing, shortness of breath, fatigue and weight loss. According to the Mayo Clinic, if this type of fungal infection becomes very severe, it can spread to your brain, heart, kidneys or skin. You can also develop pneumonia. Invasive aspergillosis can cause:
|Fever and chills||Hemoptysis (coughing up blood)||Pulmonary hemorrhage||Shortness of breath|
|Chest or joint pain||Nosebleeds||Facial swelling on one side||Skin lesions|
Exposure to one known variety of Aspergillus (A. niger) can damage your hearing. Severe Aspergillus infections are generally treated with aggressive intravenous antifungal medications, and even surgery in some cases. You can obtain more information about aspergillosis here.
Other Diseases Surprisingly Linked to Mold Exposure
Dangerous molds have now been linked to a number of different diseases that are prevalent today, including learning disabilities, gastrointestinal disturbances and GERD, heart problems, cancer, multiple sclerosis, fibromyalgia, and several autoimmune diseases. Kurt and Lee Ann Billings wrote the book Mold: The War Within after extensive personal bouts with toxic mold exposure, writing extensively about their experience and recovery. They describe ongoing problems with thyroid regulation, in terms of both excess and deficiency, among a multitude of other health problems.
The truth is, when your immune system is impaired, almost anything can happen in terms of negative health effects. This makes identifying the cause a real challenge, and when mold is hidden, it is extremely easy to miss the link between toxic mold exposure and a persisting health problem. This makes it that much more important to find a healthcare provider who can perform a smart, comprehensive evaluation if you find yourself in the unfortunate situation of having an unexplained medical condition.
Diagnostic Challenges Require Uncommon Expertise
In their book, the Kurt and Lee Ann Billings interview a number of specialists who treat mold reactions. One of these specialists is Michael R. Gray, M.D., M.P.H., C.I.M.E., Board Certified in Preventative Medicine and Occupational Medicine. In a 2007 interview with Dr. Gray (Billings book, page 160), Dr. Gray explained that although white counts elevate with bacterial infections, they do NOT generally elevate with fungal infections. This is a key piece of data that can help your physician tease out the cause of your infection.
Additionally, fungal infections will cause an increase in eosinophils (a type of blood cell associated with allergies and parasites) in the area of the infection, such as in your nasal mucosa. This phenomenon was confirmed by a study from the Mayo Clinic, according to Billings.
Knowledge like this is NOT something the ordinary healthcare practitioner holds. So it is necessary for you to be as knowledgeable as possible, in addition to finding a physician who has a good deal of training and experience in environmental medicine. Some of the tests that may be needed in a comprehensive workup include:
|Metabolic panel, including electrolytes, blood sugar, kidney and liver status||Measurement of serum antibodies to molds and mycotoxins||Immune tests for autoantibodies, complement, gamma globulins and lymphocyte panels|
|Urine and blood testing for mycotoxins||Pulmonary function tests||Pupillometry and heart rate variation to assist in the evaluation of autonomic nervous system function|
|Neuropsychological test batteries||EEG||Brain imaging techniques such as SPECT and magnetic resonance imaging (MRI)|
|Visual contrast sensitivity tests||Hearing tests||Thyroid hormone level|
Need Help Finding a Physician?
Dr. Thrasher has compiled a list of physicians who are well versed in treating people for mold exposure, which you can access here. In my interview with him, he specifically mentioned the following three physicians:
- Michael R. Gray, MD in Benson, Arizona
- Ritchie Schoemaker, MD in Maryland, author of Surviving Mold (not listed on Dr. Thrasher’s webpage)
- Janette Hope, MD in Santa Barbara, California
Please watch for the next article in my mold series, where I’ll be discussing the best course of treatment for mold-induced illnesses.
Remediation Steps for Mold Problems
Now, if you have mold in your home, you’ll want to call in a professional, because there’s no telling how bad the problem might be. The visible portion may just be the tip of the iceberg. Standard mold remediation includes:
|1. Setting up containments and sucking the air out with negative air pressure. (This is similar to turning on your bathroom vent fan.)|
|2. Next, they clear the air using a HEPA filtered air purifier or scrubber. The air must be cleaned because once they start working on the mold, the spores will begin to fly everywhere like light dust.|
|3. Wearing protective gear, such as HEPA filtered respirators, goggles, protective suits and latex gloves, the remediator begins taking the affected area apart. Removed parts, such as drywall, are slowly and carefully placed into a bag.|
|4. Once the affected pieces are bagged, every inch of the area is carefully HEPA vacuumed again.|
|5. Once the source of the mold has been located, it’s carefully removed using hot soapy water, scrub brush, HEPA filtered sanders, chisels, or any other tool that will remove the mold.|
|6. Professional remediators will typically treat the area with a disinfectant, as bacteria accompany mold growth.|
|7. Next, the area is force dried. Once thoroughly dry, repairs can be made.|
You can find contractor or professional listings on the following sites. Both the IICRC and NORMI are certifying organizations for mold remediation, but the IICRC certification is perhaps the most widely used:
- IICRC (Institute of Inspection, Cleaning and Restoration Certification)
- NORMI (National Organization of Remediators and Mold Inspectors)
- ACAC (American Council for Accredited Certification)—a certifying body that is third-party accredited.
- The IAQA (Indoor Air Quality Association)—a membership organization with no certification program (the ACAC handles this by agreement)
- RIA (Restoration Industry Association)
Keep in mind that a mere certification or listing may not be enough. Also evaluate the remediator’s qualifications and insurance (liability as well as workman’s comp). With the ACAC, there are a few different levels.
Post Mold Remediation Air Purification Strategies
Once you’ve remediated the mold, or if you don’t have any to begin with, you may want to consider addressing the air quality.
Ozone generators effectively remove odors, even some of the most persistent ones, including combusted materials (fire), organic odors, and skunk. They should not be used when you’re in the room at levels higher than the EPA recommends, however, and they pose a danger to both plants and pets. But the ozone dissipates quickly, so after airing the area out for about 20 minutes, it’s safe to return, and there is no residue. It is important to understand that air purifiers incorporating ozone use an active process and do not physically capture any indoor air pollutants.
Rather they generate a safe dose of ozone that will oxidize and permanently remove the pollutants just the way they do outdoors in Mother Nature.
When it comes to air purification units for your home, the EPA has established clear ozone limits for occupied spaces … and that’s 0.05 ppm. And this establishment by the EPA seems to make a great deal of sense since typical levels outdoors are present at 0.05 ppm and are still considered safe. So there is no reason to be fearful of ozone. I personally run two of these units in my home constantly to keep the air clean of pollutants, mold spores and any occasional odors that migrate into the home.
Another useful tool in the remediation process is the photocatalytic oxidizer, an active air purifier that employs UV light on titanium dioxide. I personally like these and highly recommend them because they cover the whole house (up to 3000 square feet), require little maintenance, and are relatively inexpensive.
Always remember however, you must remove any mold FIRST, before you consider purifying the air of any lingering odors.
- Environmental Health 2010
- Environ Health Perspect July 2006
- WHO Guidelines for Indoor Air Quality
- American Academy of Pediatrics
- Case Western Reserve University Pediatric Pulmonology
- Mayo Clinic
- Pub Med Health June 8, 2011
- UrthPro June 28, 2011