HEALTH EFFECTS OF MOLD
Statistics show that between home, work, and school, most people spend an average of 90 percent of their time indoors. We like to think our homes are healthy places to live and raise our families and that our offices safe to work in. But just how safe are they?
Some people are sensitive to molds. For these people, exposure to molds can cause symptoms such as nasal stuffiness, eye irritation, wheezing, or skin irritation. Some people, such as those with serious allergies to molds, may have more severe reactions. Severe reactions may occur among workers exposed to large amounts of molds in occupational settings. Severe reactions may include fever and shortness of breath. Some people with chronic lung illnesses, such as obstructive lung disease, may develop mold infections in their lungs.
Some molds release volatile compounds into the air, produce unpleasant odors and have been associated with a variety of specific health problems. Scientists label these compounds “microbial volatile organic compounds” or “mVOCs”. Exposure to mVOCs has been associated with headaches, dizziness, and fatigue. According to the California Department of Health Services, molds produce health effects through inflammation, allergy, or infection. Allergic reactions are most common following mold exposure. Typical symptoms that mold-exposed people report include:
- Respiratory problems such as wheezing, difficulty breathing and shortness of breath
- Nasal sinus congestion
- Eye irritation (burning, watering or reddened eyes)
- Dry hacking cough
- Nose and throat irritation
- Skin rashes or irritations
Headaches, memory problems, mood swings, nosebleeds, body aches and pains, and fevers are occasionally reported in mold cases, but their cause is not understood.
HOW MUCH MOLD CAN MAKE ME SICK?
How much mold might make you sick depends on the situation as well as the person. This question is difficult to answer in the same way it’s hard to say how much sun causes a sunburn: the amount varies from person to person. What one person can tolerate with little or no effect may cause symptoms in another individual.3 For some people, a relatively small number of mold spores can trigger an asthma attack or lead to other health problems. For other people, symptoms may occur only when exposure levels are much higher.
The long-term presence of indoor mold may eventually become unhealthy for anyone. Those with special health concerns should consult a medical doctor if they feel their health is affected by indoor mold. The following types of people may be affected sooner and more severely than others:
- Babies and children
- Elderly persons
- Individuals with chronic respiratory conditions or allergies or asthma.
- Persons having weakened immune systems (for example, people with HIV or AIDS, chemotherapy patients, or organ transplant recipients).
Nonetheless, indoor mold growth is unsanitary and undesirable. If you can smell mold or see mold indoors, take steps to identify and eliminate it and the moisture source that caused it. If you believe you are ill because of exposure to mold in the building where you work, you should first consult your health care provider to determine the appropriate action to take to protect your health. Notify your employer and, if applicable, your union representative about your concern so that your employer can take action to clean up and prevent mold growth.
ARE SOME MOLDS MORE HAZARDOUS THAN OTHERS?
Mold spores are organized into three groups according to human responses:
(most likely to affect those who are already allergic or asthmatic)
(serious health effects in persons with suppressed immune systems)
(capable of causing serious health effects in almost anybody)
Allergic persons vary in their sensitivities to mold, both as to the amount and the types to which they react. In addition to their allergic properties, certain types of molds, such as Stachybotrys chartarum, may produce compounds that have toxic properties, which are called mycotoxins. Mycotoxins are not always produced, and whether a mold produces mycotoxins while growing in a building depends on a number of factors such as, what the mold is growing on, conditions such as temperature, pH, humidity, and other unknown factors. When mycotoxins are present, they occur in both living and dead mold spores and may be present in materials that have become contaminated with molds.
While Stachybotrys is alive and growing, a wet slime layer covers its spores, preventing them from becoming airborne. However, when Stachybotrys dies and dries up, air currents or physical handling can disturb the mold and cause spores to become airborne.2 At present there is no environmental test to determine whether or not Stachybotrys growth found in buildings is producing toxins. Nevertheless, since the health effects of mold on people and animals are the same whether the mold is viable (alive) or non-viable (dead), whenever test result confirm the presence of Stachybotrys indoors, appropriate steps to remediate should be taken immediately whether the mold is growing or not.
THE AMOUNTS OF MOLD PRESENT IS MORE CONCERNING THAN THE TYPES
Experts will argue about which molds are potentially more hazardous than others. But more concerning are the levels of airborne spores than the types of molds present indoors. Stachybotrys and other toxigenic molds such as Chaetomium, Aspergillus, and others are absolutely undesirable to have growing indoors and should always be taken seriously. But a few rogue spores of toxigenic mold in an air sample is far less worrisome than a few million spores the common molds such as Penicillium or Cladosporium.
Consider this: If you open a bottle of Clorox bleach outdoors and hold it to your chest, how long will it take you to get sick? You probably won’t get sick outdoors in the open air. But if you open that same bottle of bleach indoors in a small enclosed space such as a bathroom, how long will it take you to get sick? In just a few moments your eyes will be irritated to tears, your nose and throat will be burning, and you will most likely become violently ill, vomiting and unable to get the smell and taste of bleach out of your nose and mouth for days. Why? Its the exact same bottle of bleach regardless of where you open it. Right? So what’s the difference?
The difference is the space in which you are exposed to the bleach. And so it is with mold. You can take the exact same molds that are outdoors right now, not bothering anyone in the open air, bring them indoors in an enclosed environment and multiply them by 100, or 1,000, or a million, and you will have a very toxic environment, regardless of what types of mold it is. That is why testing can be so important in some cases.
For more information on the differences between allergenic, pathogenic, and toxigenic molds see below.
HOW CAN I BE EXPOSED TO MOLD?
Illness from mold exposure can only occur one of three ways:
- Through absorption into the skin
While it is never good to have mold growing indoors, if it is, you are not necessarily exposed to a health risk just because its there. Nobody gets sick looking at mold on a wall. But when mold is disturbed, spores are released into the air and you can then be exposed to those spores through the air you breathe. Also, if you directly handle moldy materials, you can be exposed to mold and mold spores through contact with your skin. Eating moldy foods or hand-to-mouth contact after handling moldy materials is yet another way you may be exposed. Other than small child who doesn’t know any better, most people would not intentionally touch mold or knowingly ingest it. But disturbing mold can easily send billions of spores the air and create an immediate health risk in an enclosed indoor environment.
HOW IS MOLD DISTURBED?
An action as simple as cleaning mold that is growing on a surface will send spores airborne. The process of mold remediation send billions of spores into the air. Other ways include:
- Scraping or scrubbing mold off of moldy surfaces
- Demolition or tear out of mold contaminated construction materials
- Vacuuming moldy carpet (conventional vacuum cleaner bags do not trap mold spores – they blow them through the bag and into the air)
- Running a furnace or air conditioner with mold in the duct work
- Running fans in rooms where mold with contaminated materials
- Opening doors an windows – Realtors do this often when a house smells like mold. They try to get the property ahead of a buyer or a mold inspector and open all the doors and windows to remove the smell. But if a strong breeze is blowing through it can stir up a lot of settled mold spores into the air.
Eventually mold spores fall down and, like dust, when spores fall they end up on and in everything, including furniture, bedding, drapes, carpets, inside appliances and electronics such as TVs, computers, stereos, etc. Coming in close contact with mold spores by lying on the carpet, putting on clothes, or working near electronics with fans inside can increase exposure via skin contact and inhalation. Children who crawl around on mold-contaminated carpet are most at risk by scraping their hands and knees, then rubbing their eyes or handling food.
LOSE THE DUST
Dust is a magnet for mold spores. Homes and buildings with a lot of dust are much more likely to have higher concentrations of airborne mold spores than cleaner structures. Exposure to unhealthy levels of dust and mold can be reduced by regular dusting, periodic cleaning under major appliances, blowing out electronics with high pressured air, and eliminating cobwebs. Once every two to three months is recommended.
KEEP IT CLEAN
Greasy, grimey garbage and dirt is an ideal environment for mold growth. Removing garbage from indoors and away from the structure outdoors will reduce the potential for mold growth as will regular cleaning of cabinet interiors and corners where dirt and grime tend to build up.
WHO IS MOST AT RISK OF HEALTH CONCERNS FROM MOLD EXPOSURE?
Excessive exposure to mold is not healthy for anyone inside buildings, especially where ventilation is limited. There are, however, certain individuals who are more likely to experience severe reactions to mold exposure. People with allergies tend to be more sensitive to molds. People with immune suppression or underlying lung disease are more susceptible to fungal infections. Other high risk candidates include:
- Infants, children, and the elderly
- Immune compromised patients (people with HIV infection, cancer chemotherapy, liver disease, etc.)
- Pregnant women
- Individuals with existing respiratory conditions, such as allergies, multiple chemical sensitivity, and asthma
People with these special concerns who live or work in mold contaminated structures should consult a physician if they are having health problems. People who experience unexplained health problems while inside a structure that tend to go away when they leave the structure should consider having an inspection and testing done to determine the likelihood that indoor mold growth is the cause of their symptoms.
ADVERSE HUMAN HEALTH EFFECTS ASSOCIATED WITH INDOOR MOLD
Printable Documents by The American College of Occupational and Environmental Medicine – (click here to download document)
- EPA – Environmental Protection Agency website: Mold Resources/Health and Mold/How do molds affect people?
- CDHS – California Department of Health Services: Indoor Air Quality Info Sheet/Mold in My Home: What Do I Do?
- FDOH – Florida Department of Health website: Indoor Mold and Health – How much mold does it take to make me sick?
- CDC – Centers for Disease Control and Prevention website: Basic Facts/Molds in the Environment/I’m sure that mold in my workplace is making me sick.
This website was developed primarily to provide general information about mold and services offered by DOODLEBUGGERS SERVICE NETWORK with respect to mold inspections, mold testing, and other indoor environmental testing. This site is not intended to be a resource for medical advice or information concerning health matters. The information being disseminated in this site is believed by DOODLEBUGGERS SERVICE NETWORK to be the most recent and most reliable information available at the time. Neither DOODLEBUGGERS SERVICE NETWORK nor its principles or employees warrants all of the information contained herein to be 100% factual. For proper medical advice you should always consult a physician or other qualified expert.