Mold Hazards, A Story From New Orleans

Medical Author: Melissa Conrad Stoppler, MD
Medical Editor: Dennis Lee, MD

Interview from the front lines

I had originally written this article on the hazards of mold after a water disaster with the intent of it being strictly a medical information piece. I then received a phone call from one of the staff members from our Executive Office. She had just spoken with her friend who was in New Orleans, and had some striking observations on this topic. Here's the interview, and the facts.


Richard is a photojournalist with a national news organization and has been to Louisiana twice since Katrina struck. Cynde Lee is the Content Manager for MedicineNet.com

Ms. Lee: Richard, what things struck you the most on this last visit to New Orleans?

Richard: Three things Cynde. Number one, the smell and stench in the houses is horrendous. All of the doors have swollen shut, so you have to kick them open to get in. Once you kick the door open, it HITS you...hard. The smell is overwhelming. The best description of the odor would be this; when I was 18, and had moved out of my parent's house and into my own apartment, after a shower I would throw the sopping wet towel in the laundry hamper. A couple weeks later when I opened the hamper to do laundry, there's the smell. Well, take that smell and multiply it by 100. It is simply overwhelming and undescribable.

The second thing that struck me was the raw sewage on the floors of the houses. It was mixed in with dirt and mud. It was everywhere.

The third thing...to see mold growing everywhere. Green, black, and blue mold growing on every surface in the houses. If the water line had been 8 feet up the wall, the mold was growing 10 feet up. There was mold on TV's, bookcases, countertops, dining tables, chairs, stove tops. Literally every surface had mold growing on it.

Ms. Lee: What type of houses did you go into?

Richard: We went to houses in upscale neighborhoods, and houses in the projects. It was the same, the smell, the sewage, and the mold growing.

Ms. Lee: What were some of the other things that you observed?

Richard: New Orleans is a ghost town. The only people you see are clean-up crews. There are trees down everywhere, debris covering the streets. There is no power...anywhere. Powerlines are down everywhere. Another thing that was very surreal were the watermarks on the houses. As we drove down the streets, you could see the watermarks on the houses, you could see how high the water had gotten. It was striking.

Ms. Lee: Did you see any animals?

Richard: I won't tell you some of what we saw, but we did see a couple of cats and a dog walking the streets. One of the animal rescue foundations has set big bowls of dog/cat food and water on the street corners, so that animals that are out will have food until they can be rescued. That was a nice sight to see.

Ms. Lee: Richard, thank you for taking the time to share your experience with us. We at MedicineNet.com, are thinking of the Katrina survivors and responders, and our hearts go out to all of them at this tragic time.


More on Molds

Molds are fungi that grow in warm and humid conditions. Following hurricanes, floods, and other natural disasters, standing water and flooding can encourage the growth of molds. Molds can be found indoors in moist areas as well as outdoors in shady areas where vegetation is decomposing. There are thousands of different types of molds. Some common indoor molds include Cladosporium, Penicillium, Alternaria, and Aspergillus. For certain groups of people, molds can present a serious health risk.

Who is at risk?

People who have asthma or allergies may be sensitive to molds. These people may develop a stuffy nose, wheezing, eye irritation, or a skin rash when exposed to mold. Other people may have more severe allergic reactions and experience breathing difficulty. People whose immune systems are weak due to HIV infection, chemotherapy for cancer, or those who are taking any drugs that suppress immune function are at risk for development of infections in the lungs from molds. People with chronic lung diseases are also at risk for the development of mold infections in the lungs.

You can take steps to prevent and control the growth of mold in areas that have been flooded:

  • Dry the home or building as quickly as possible. Open doors and windows, and use fans to help the drying process if electric power is available (although I doubt this will be possible for homes severely flooded).
  • Remove carpet, insulation, upholstery, drywall, and other porous items that cannot be cleaned if these have been wet for longer than 48 hours. If not removed, these items may remain a constant source of mold growth in the home.
  • Removal of mold from hard surfaces can be accomplished with commercial cleaning products or a diluted bleach solution (mix one cup of bleach into a gallon of water). Scrub surfaces thoroughly using a stiff brush.
  • Cleansing of surfaces with detergent and water can help prevent the growth of mold.
  • If mold growth is related to faulty plumbing or another problem with the water supply, be sure to fix the problem when you clean up the mold. Moisture is the strongest factor that promotes the growth of mold.

Reference: U.S. CDC, Mold Fact Sheet, 2005 and Protect Yourself from Mold, 2005


Last Editorial Review: 9/21/2005




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