Household Mold Making People Sick
Reviewed By Charlotte Grayson
The attack of the spores usually starts so subtly you almost don't notice. "A few years ago," says Cheryl, a special education assistant in Vancouver, British Columbia, "our son said the carpet next to his bed was wet. He had a suite in the basement and we went down and checked around." The water heater was broken; they fixed it.
However, around that same time, her son, then about 18, started throwing up each morning. He was in a rock band that toured and one day he mentioned that he never threw up on tour.
Cheryl and her husband looked at each other and headed for the basement. Their son had a waterbed flush with the floor -- they emptied and lifted it. Underneath, she says, was a solid carpet of black slime with a fluorescent green cast. "The smell was unbelievable!"
Kathy, a friend of Cheryl's, had a similar experience with her 8-year-old son. He was missing a day of school every two weeks for nausea, coughing, and other upper respiratory symptoms. "It seemed like colds, sort of," Kathy remembers. Cheryl suggested it might be mold. Sure enough, behind the toilet was a thick black coating of the stuff. They attacked it with a bleach solution and her son has not been sick since.
Which Molds Are Worst
"It's pretty hard to prove cause and effect with mold," says Jay Portnoy, MD, a physician at Children of Mercy Hospital in Kansas City and a representative of the American Academy of Allergy, Asthma, and Immunology. "There seems to be a relationship between mold and illness, but it's hard to prove. We can't blow mold in people's faces to see what happens. That wouldn't be ethical."
Nevertheless, Portnoy says, there is a growing body of evidence that the molds penicillium and aspergillus, which are usually found indoors and smell bad, and cladosporium, present in outdoor air and less odorous, are not good to have around.
Another strain, stachybotrys, has gotten a lot of press for attacking the houses of high-profile victims such as crusader Erin Brockovich, resulting in crushing lawsuits that have resulted in higher insurance rates and sent homeowners insurance companies into a tizzy. However, stachybotrys accounts for only 20% of cases, according to Portnoy.
Portnoy says his interest was prompted by escalating numbers of asthma patients coming into his hospital. They sent inspectors to the homes of some kids with stubborn cases and found mold in a significant percentage. Sometimes the symptoms mimic asthma -- difficulty breathing and sneezing. Or existing asthma can be exacerbated, sometimes to a fatal level.
Other symptoms include fatigue, nausea, vomiting, and strange rashes. In one famous instance, in the mid-1990s, a cluster of 45 cases of lung bleeding in infants, 16 of whom died, was attributed to stachybotrys.
How Mold Acts on the Body
According to Portnoy, mold attacks in one of four ways.
First, you could be allergic to it. This occurs in 10% to 20% of cases. A skin or blood test would pinpoint it as an allergic substance.
Second, substances called ergosterol and glucan in the walls of mold cells can cause hay fever-like symptoms with itchy, red, and watery eyes and nasal congestion. You don't have to be allergic -- anyone could react to these.
Third, molds release organic compounds such as benzene and acetone that would raise alarms in any workplace and are linked to nausea, dizziness, and headaches. Again, you don't have to be allergic.
And last, molds, like other organisms, don't want to compete for food and nurturing, so they expel mycotoxins to kill competitors such as bacteria. In the case of helpful mycotoxins, we call these antibiotics and use them to help us. But in the case of some molds, the mycotoxins target cells within our bodies and cause problems such as cancer, stillbirths, and bleeding in infants. Stachybotrys makes a lot of these harmful mycotoxins.
Where Molds Hide
Most molds grow on wood, fiber, or paper that has gotten wet for more than a few days. (Vinyl, concrete, and tile are safe -- these dangerous molds are not the ones that grow in the shower, although that should be kept clean, too. Green bread mold is also harmless.)
According to the Environmental Protection Agency, the tiny mold spores waft through the air and land on inviting damp spots. The spores then get blown up into ventilation systems and are distributed around the house. The only way to get rid of the mold permanently is to get rid of the moisture.
- Fix leaks and seepage, even if it involves landscaping around basements.
- Put plastic over dirt in crawlspaces and keep them well ventilated.
- Use exhaust fans in kitchen and bathroom.
- Turn off humidifiers if you see condensation on windows.
- Use dehumidifiers and air conditioners, especially in hot, humid climates.
- Pay special attention to carpet on concrete floors. Use area rugs that can be lifted and washed. Or install a vapor barrier over the concrete.
Getting Rid of Visible Mold
Cindy, a writer living outside South Bend, Indiana, has been battling mold on her own. She had the water heater fixed three times, but her health problems and those of her teenage son continued. It seemed to be getting dryer, but she was getting sicker. One day, she found mushrooms popping up through the basement carpet. "There was mold in the basement and on every windowsill in the house," she says.
Her "a-ha moment" came with an article on mold sickness in The New York Times. She had the house swabbed by a testing lab for $700. Sure enough, stachybotrys, penicillium, and aspergillus were detected.
No way -- their insurance company informed them. "The policy said no coverage for water heater damage," she says. (Many companies have doubled to quadrupled rates on homeowners insurance and even so, are declining to cover water damage and mold.) "We cleaned up the best we could with bleach," Cindy says.
Bad idea, Portnoy says. "Professional companies have the masks and equipment," he says. "This stuff is dangerous."
Even now, Cindy's son is ailing and quit the hockey team. "The saga hasn't ended," she says. "This can destroy a home and you don't even know it. We can't sell, either."
Originally published Dec. 30, 2002.
Medically updated Jan. 24, 2005.
SOURCES: Environmental Protection Agency. Jay Portnoy, MD, physician at Children of Mercy Hospital in Kansas City, representative of the American Academy of Allergy, Asthma, and Immunology.
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