What are the health effects of toxic mold?

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Homes with water damage are highly susceptible to mold infestations, which can pose serious health risks to occupants. The aftermath of Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans saw many families, including the LaCours, plagued by mold problems. Check out images of natural disasters.
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In January 1993, a newborn in the Cleveland area fell ill due to acute pulmonary hemorrhaging. Over the next two years, 26 more infants suffered from the same illness, one of whom died. An investigation revealed that all the infants lived in homes that had sustained extensive water damage and were infested with Stachybotrys chartarum (S. chartarum), a greenish-black fungus. While it is not definitive that the mold caused the infants’ deaths, medical professionals worldwide began to wonder if toxic mold posed a serious health risk.

The term “toxic mold” refers to the spores produced by fungi such as S. chartarum, Fusarium, and Trichoderma, which release mycotoxins. These spores can be inhaled, absorbed through the skin or intestines, and can cause skin irritations, lung inflammation, and immune suppression. Some have even claimed that toxic mold causes memory loss and brain damage. While a court has ruled in favor of such claims, medical science has yet to prove the link [source: White].

Mycotoxins can damage human health by killing living cells, which release toxins that can have a range of effects. While there is no definitive proof that molds like S. chartarum pose serious health risks to humans, research into their effects is ongoing. Organizations such as the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the Environmental Protection Agency have started to compile data on toxic mold and how to combat it. Tips on how to protect your home from mold can be found on the next page.

 

Toxic Fungi in Your House


Ed McMahon, the former co-host of Tonight Show, won $7.2 million in damages from home contractors who failed to clean up toxic mold that had infested his house after water damage. Both McMahon and his wife fell ill due to the mold, and their dog Muffin died.
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Fungi can enter your house in various ways, such as through open windows, air conditioning systems, vents, or even by sticking to your clothes or pets. Once inside, it can be challenging to eliminate it completely. The spores of the fungus may remain dormant in your house until they encounter the right conditions for their growth.

S. chartarum thrives in damp environments with a relative humidity of about 94 percent [source: EPA]. Since most homes have a much lower relative humidity than that, the need for such high humidity would theoretically reduce the likelihood of a toxic mold infestation. However, a leaky roof, plumbing, or even a moist flower pot can provide the necessary humidity for S. chartarum and other toxic fungi to grow.

Toxic mold prefers cellulosic materials, such as gypsum board and fiberboard. Wet building materials offer an ideal habitat for S. chartarum. Drywall and carpet that have been damaged by floods or broken water pipes can become colonized, posing enough of a health risk that the CDC recommends these materials be carefully removed and disposed of [source: CDC].

The Environmental Protection Agency created a chamber to simulate different indoor climates to examine the conditions under which chartarum grows best and on which surfaces. The EPA studied building materials commonly found in homes, such as drywall and ceiling tiles. They also used these chambers to test antimicrobials, such as fungicides, to determine which is most effective in killing S. chartarum. While these experiments are not yet completed, the EPA aims to quantify the health effects of molds like S. chartarum on humans. In other words, the EPA intends to determine how much mold is acceptable and how much, if any, poses a health threat.

In the meantime, organizations such as the CDC recommend that all mold infestations be treated with caution. One reason for this is that S. chartarum may colonize with less dangerous mold groups, making it difficult to detect. Additionally, since almost all molds can cause allergies in some people, there is no need to have mold samples taken from your home; just get rid of it, says the CDC.

If your home has suffered water damage from a broken water pipe or a flood, it’s a good time to check for mold growth. Under the right conditions, mold can grow and spread in as little as 24 hours on materials such as drywall and wallpaper [source: Clean Air Council]. If you discover any mold, it’s time to clean it up. Wear a dust mask, rubber gloves, and long sleeves and pants while cleaning up a mold infestation.

Since materials like carpet, ceiling tiles, pillows, insulation, and drywall are absorbent and will not respond to cleaning, they should be discarded. Hard surfaces such as concrete floors, ceramic tiles, and Formica countertops can be cleaned of mold. While the EPA continues its investigation into the best antimicrobial to kill toxic mold, the CDC recommends using a solution of no more than one cup bleach to one gallon water to kill mold (never mix bleach with ammonia, by the way).

Once you have completed the cleaning process, it is important to ensure that all mold has been removed, even dead mold, as it can still cause sickness. Additionally, make sure the affected area is thoroughly dried to prevent spores from returning. You can take preventative measures against mold by using an air conditioner during humid months and cleaning the drain pan under your fridge monthly. For further information on mold and related topics, visit the next page.

Find a wealth of information on a variety of topics by clicking on the “Lots More Information” heading. You can also check out the “Related Articles” and “More Great Links” sections for additional resources. The “Sources” section provides references to several studies and articles on the dangers of mold.

FAQ

1. What is toxic mold?

Toxic mold, also known as black mold, is a type of fungus that produces mycotoxins. These mycotoxins can cause health problems in humans and animals.

2. How does toxic mold grow?

Toxic mold grows in damp and humid environments, such as basements, bathrooms, and crawl spaces. It can also grow on organic materials, such as wood and paper.

3. What are the symptoms of toxic mold exposure?

The symptoms of toxic mold exposure vary from person to person and can include respiratory problems, headaches, fatigue, and skin irritation. Long-term exposure can lead to more severe health problems.

4. How does toxic mold make you sick?

Toxic mold can make you sick by releasing mycotoxins into the air. When you breathe in these mycotoxins, they can cause inflammation and other health problems.

5. Can toxic mold cause permanent damage?

Long-term exposure to toxic mold can cause permanent damage to your health, including respiratory problems and neurological damage.

6. How do you test for toxic mold?

You can test for toxic mold by hiring a professional mold inspector or by using a mold test kit. These tests can identify the type and level of mold in your home.

7. How do you get rid of toxic mold?

To get rid of toxic mold, you need to address the moisture problem and remove the mold. This can be done through cleaning or by hiring a professional mold remediation company.

8. How can you prevent toxic mold from growing?

You can prevent toxic mold from growing by controlling the moisture levels in your home. This can be done through proper ventilation, using a dehumidifier, and fixing any leaks or water damage.

9. Can you get sick from touching toxic mold?

You can get sick from touching toxic mold if you have an allergy or sensitivity to it. However, the primary way people get sick from toxic mold is by breathing in the mycotoxins.

10. When should you see a doctor if you suspect toxic mold exposure?

If you experience symptoms of toxic mold exposure, you should see a doctor as soon as possible. They can perform tests to determine if you have been exposed and provide treatment for any health problems that may have resulted.

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