Indoor Mold and Your Health

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Photo by Lorena Betta, CC BY

Mold is a type of fungus that enjoys wide distribution. Like other fungi such as mushrooms and yeast, they derive their food from dead and decaying organic matter. They thrive in wet and damp conditions, growing on substrates of organic origin such as wood, leather and fabric.

Molds spread by growing a network of filaments called hyphae. When mature, they make spores and release them into the air. These spores germinate on wet surfaces to start a new colony of hyphae. Buildings affected by dampness offer ideal conditions for molds to grow. Unlike their counterparts found outdoors, those growing inside are considered toxic molds because they produce harmful substances called mycotoxins which cause symptoms of black mold exposure.

How Molds Affect our Health

Allergic reactions are produced on exposure to spores of toxic molds. According to the Institute of Medicine, allergic rhinitis and sinusitis are the most common symptoms of black mold sickness. Some may develop dermatitis or skin rashes on contact with black mold particles. Even though people who have symptoms of chronic allergies are the most affected, repeated exposure to toxic mold is known to increase the sensitivity of others too.

Irritation?of the trigeminal nerve and the mucous membranes is another black mold symptom caused by volatile organic compounds (VOCs) produced by toxic black molds during their metabolic processes. The chemicals produced may vary depending on the type of metabolism (aerobic or anaerobic), and the substrate on which the black mold is growing. At lower concentrations they may cause low grade black mold exposure symptoms such as itching, burning, skin crawling sensations, and breathlessness. Higher levels of VOCs may result in more serious symptoms of black mold sickness such as headache, dizziness and disorientation. The characteristic odors of VOCs such as musty smells may cause digestive symptoms of black mold sickness such as nausea and vomiting in some people. They may worsen the symptoms of asthmatics too.

Infections are caused by a few toxic molds, usually in immunocompromised persons. Aspergillus fumigatus is a pathogenic mold causing infections in the lungs, eyes and the skin.

Toxicity of molds is due to mycotoxins produced as a survival mechanism against other competing molds and bacteria. Adverse growing conditions are known to trigger the production of these chemicals, which interfere with the synthesis of proteins, RNA and DNA of the cells, including those of humans and other animals. Exposure to mycotoxins in the spores of black mold may cause damage to the gastrointestinal tract and the respiratory system and produce a wide variety of black mold symptoms. They act as immunosuppressants and make people susceptible to a host of other infections as well.

Common Toxic Molds

Stachybotrys ? Commonly known as black mold, Stachybotrys produces a potent mycotoxin called trichothecenes, which cause headaches, flu-like symptoms, depression and fatigue. It has also been implicated in pulmonary hemorrhage in infants. Stachybotrys chartarum is notorious for killing off a large number of horses in Russia.

Aspergillus ? Aflatoxins produced by some species are highly toxic to the kidneys, liver, brain and heart. Aspergillus fumigatus causes a disease called Aspergillosis, which is infectious. ?Aspergillus niger?is another type of toxic black mold that can cause neurological symptoms similar to Stachybotrys.

Penicillium ? This toxic mold produces spores with highly concentrated nephrotoxins such as ochratoxin and citrinine that can cause kidney damage.

Challenges

  • The amount of toxic molds in buildings and their toxicity cannot be determined accurately by analyzing samples from the site.
  • Symptoms of mold exposure vary as people react differently to toxic molds.
  • Mycotoxins are difficult to measure in the blood and their effects cannot be distinguished from those of other chemical contaminants.

Recommendations

  • Moisture problems in the building should be rectified immediately.
  • When the presence of black mold is seen in a building or occupants develop symptoms of black mold exposure, remediation measures should be initiated without delay.

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