The Growing Hazard of Mold: How to Stay One Step Ahead of a Mold Spore

The Growing Hazard of Mold: How to Stay One Step Ahead of a Mold Spore
May 13, 2009
After studying the relationship between mold and health problems in humans, I dismiss the theory that the presence of toxic mold in a Sonoma County work site was associated with the increased incidence of cancer among employees. I also conclude that some of the health problems experienced by employees at the Sonoma County work site could have been triggered by their immune systems' dysfunctional responses to mold allergens. It appears that allergic responses to mold can result in a variety of ailments like allergic fungal sinusitis, some types of asthma, headaches, irritability, rashes, inflammation, and chronic coughs.

The Growing Hazard of Mold: How to Stay One Step Ahead of a Mold Spore
May 13, 2009
Molds are multicellular fungi that are omnipresent in many indoor and outdoor environments. They are both beneficial and detrimental to humans. Exposure to mold happens through inhalation, consumption, or direct contact. Adverse health effects commonly occur due to allergic, pathogenic, and toxic mechanisms. Relationships between mold and allergic and pathogenic illnesses are reasonably well understood, but toxic exposures to mold due to inhalation is less understood and rather controversial. In this report we examine the relationships between humans and mold, and discuss the problems that result from these associations. Red-flag areas of concern and mold-remediation strategies are also discussed.


We've both been affected by mold and are motivated to share our experiences to help prevent others from suffering. We therefore begin this project by sharing our stories.
After we share our stories, we discuss the association between mold and health problems. We also make some suggestions for avoiding unwanted encounters with mold.

Personal Stories--Mold in the Workplace

One of my jobs required me to work in a "sick building." (In a sick building people work in close proximity to each other, breathe in noxious air, and develop health problems.) Two of my co-workers (who shared the same office space) died of cancer within six months of each other. The new hire (who was positioned in the "cancer" office) also ended up in the hospital with a cancer diagnosis that same year.

In my office space, the health problems were stranger but not so catastrophic. One co-worker developed asthma and sinusitis (inflammation of sinus cavities resulting in pain and headaches). Another developed headaches, irritability, rashes, a chronic cough, and inflammation in her joints.
Because I was dramatically allergic to whatever was in our office, my exposure was relatively minimal. (I couldn't work in my office because I became instantly sick.) Even so, working in the mold seemed to have affected me. Before working in mold I had very few seasonal allergies. After working in mold I became off-the-charts allergic to most allergens, including to mold!
I believe my immune system, like that of many people who work or live in mold, responded to mold exposure by becoming very reactive. It isn't very fun to be atopic (allergic), but I believe my allergies spared my health, if not life--so I view my allergies fundamentally to be friends. The problem, of course, is that once an immune system is turned on, it is hard to turn it off. This is the problem I will be exploring in my paper: how mold turns on immune systems.
With the benefit of hindsight, I believe the pathogens in my workplace were primarily fungal in nature. I'll briefly tell you why I think this.
    1. My former employer hired a company to test air quality. The testers found many pathogens in the air that they identified as fungal organisms. Their recommendation was to cease working in the contaminated areas.
    2. One of my doctors reviewed the air quality reports from my workplace and began to explain how different fungal organisms were implicated in each of the symptoms I described to him--in myself and in co-workers. I listened closely to what he had to say.
    3. Since I've taken Biology 240 and conducted more research on the relationship between mold and health problems, I believe a credible association exists between my co-workers' symptoms like asthma, sinusitis, headaches, irritability, rashes, coughs, and inflammation.

      Warning: There is no simple way to describe the cause-effect relationship between mold and such a variety of non-specific complaints. I therefore encourage you to review the dicussion section of this paper to learn more about how I drew my conclusions.
    4. My doctor told me that some toxins found in the fungal organisms in my old workplace were carcinogenic. This discovery obviously raised the question: Can working in a building with toxic and pathogenic mold give you cancer?
The problems I share with you spread far beyond my workplace. Many people are living in unhealthy conditions and don't even know it.

For example, it's very common for students to reside in homes that have had leaky pipes or leaky roofs; these students are therefore routinely exposed to moisture and associated mold in their homes. In fact, an SSU graduate told me when she attended SSU she lived in what she and her five house mates called "the mold house." One of her house mates ended up in the hospital for six months with respiratory problems. I walk by "the mold house" daily and feel sorry for its current tenants.

Significant Findings

Of the more than 100,000 mold species that have been identified, only about 200 are definitively associated with health problems in humans and animals (Tortora, 345). Some of the most common types of indoor molds associated with health problems are Penicillium sp., Aspergillus sp., Alternaria sp., Fusarium sp., Cladosporium sp., Trichoderma sp., Wallemia sp., Epicoccum sp., and Chaetomium sp..
Even though it is difficult to prove that one fungal species causes one non-specific response in an individual who has been exposed to "too many microbes to count," I argue it is reasonable to find an association between the immune system's dysfunctional response to mold and to immune-mediated ailments like allergic fungal sinusitis, some types of asthma, headaches, rashes, inflammation, and chronic coughs. This association suggests to me that mold species are associated with more health problems than the current literature would suggest. In other words, mold doesn't have to be toxic or pathogenic to negatively impact health. Furthermore, as researchers learn more about how immune systems respond to mold, they will recognize the devastating impact mold is having on our health.
Unfortunately, poor indoor air quality is a problem for most residents of Sonoma County, whether they are students, professionals, or individuals working from home. People who understand the dangers of poor indoor air quality and mold can do a lot to protect themselves and their loved ones from unnecessary suffering.

Personal Stories--Mold in the News

A lot of famous people—and their dogs—have had well-publicized run-ins with toxic mold. For example, after helping win a $333 million judgment against a company that had poisoned a town's water supply, activist Erin Brockovich-Ellis developed chronic respiratory problems that she linked to a toxic mold infestation in her home. Her two-year-old son developed respiratory problems, too, and began to vomit, sometimes as often as 70 times per day. And so began Brockovich-Ellis's expensive battle with toxic mold that ultimately ate up $600,000 of her savings and brought her more publicity. "I wasn't looking for mold," said Brockovich-Ellis. "Mold found me" (Money, 7).

Former "Tonight Show" co-host Ed McMahon claims black mold invaded his Beverly Hills home. The mold caused him and his wife to develop coughs and migraine headaches and resulted in such severe respiratory illness in Muffin (their dog) that he had to be put to sleep. The McMahons filed a $20 million lawsuit against their insurers and companies hired to clean up the mold. They ultimately received a $7 million settlement.

Melinda Ballard of Dripping Springs, Texas (that is not a joke) gained fame after a variety of molds invaded her mansion and left it so toxic no one could enter without a decontamination suit and respirator. A jury awarded Ballard $32 million, including $12 million in punitive damages.
Water damage to buildings caused by hurricanes and other extreme weather conditions has long been associated with allergies and increased respiratory ailments in humans. In 2004, Florida encountered its worst hurricane season since 1851. Hurricanes Charley, Frances, Ivan, and Jeanne deluged the state and damaged one in five homes. Newspapers and hospital spokespeople reported an increased incidence of breathing problems, coughing, sinus irritation, and itchy eyes.
Infection control officials and spokespeople for hospitals frequently cited post-storm mold growth as a contributor to increased allergies and respiratory problems. Spokespeople for the State Department of Health could not confirm that mold was clearly the cause of these problems, although they and other health agencies did recommend that storm survivors dry out their homes and kill mold with diluted bleach.
This is the same advice given to residents of Forestville, Guerneville, Sebastopol, and other flooded areas of Sonoma County: Dry out your home and kill mold. Later in these Web pages I will discuss actions you can take to protect yourselves and safeguard your homes.

Significant Findings

While a handful of people who live in mold receive $32 million settlements, most of us just become ill. For example, studies show that a higher percentage of people are suffering—and dying—from asthma in the United States than they did thirty years ago (Institute of Medicine, 208). Many people think increased air pollution indoors is to blame. Most energy-efficient buildings rely upon mechanical heating and cooling systems for ventilation. When these ventilation systems are poorly maintained, they can pollute buildings with unwanted microbes like mold.
The best way to protect youself is to keep your home dry. You can also support your immune system by making conscious decisions about what foods to purchase and consume. To learn more, see discussion section of this paper.

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last updated: 05.11.2009