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Mold Health Problems — Fact or Fiction?
Browse around the internet and you’ll find a wide variety of beliefs on the health effects of exposure to mold. Some claim devastating effects such as cancer and brain damage, while others see mold as no more than a minor irritation. Even among the mold inspection and mold remediation industry, you’ll find a wide variety of opinions.
First, let’s look at the biggest question:
The question remains, however, if exposure to an unusual amount of toxic mold can produce problems. And if so, how much? Unfortunately, at this time, scientists and physicians do not have sufficient information to answer this question. Though it is worth noting, no published studies have established negative health effects from airborne exposure to toxic mold.
Why? Mycotoxins (mold toxins), like many toxins, require a certain quantity of exposure before they will induce measurable effects. Thankfully for us, current research indicates the quantity of toxins produced by mold is very small. Too small, in fact, to produce health problems. It is important to note, however, the limited understanding of mycotoxins. Future studies may reverse current beliefs and establish a solid connection between toxic mold and adverse health effects.
Caveat. Though not particularly relevant to humans, mold toxins can cause severe illness and fatalities among animals. These problems are not derived from airborne exposure, but rather through ingestion of mold contaminated food. Exposure to food borne mold toxins can cause decreased reproduction, feed and water refusal, lameness, atazia, paralysis and death (Gregory Moller, Ph. D).
Perhaps no other mold is more often referenced in the media than stachybotrys. Implicated in a wide range of health problems, the mold has garnered much attention in recent years. However, recent studies have shown that both the health implications and attention are simply not grounded in good science. The question is one of exposure. Regardless of whether or not stachybotrys is capable of producing harmful toxins, if actual exposure is very unlikely, then its health implications should not be emphasized.
For example, a recent study tested whether or not the normal air currents within a building can disperse the conidia of stachybotrys. Surprisingly, they found a 1,000 fold increase in airspeed was required to disturb and distribute the conidia (Tucker, Stolze, Kennedy 2007). Antedctol evidence from thousands of air samples collected during our mold inspections support this finding. Stachybotrys is rarely found in high numbers in the air. While a building can contain large amounts of the mold growing on walls, a relatively small number of spores are found in the air.
As mentioned earlier, stachybotrys was previously implicated in infant fatalities. Additionally, several high profile lawsuits regarding the famous mold have surfaced in the last decade. However, after revisiting the initial findings, it was found that stachybotrys was not a contributing factor in the fatalities.
Research has shown a clear connection between exposure to mold and allergic responses, sinus infections and asthma. While less disastrous than the purported effects of toxic mold, the allergic response to mold can still be very unpleasant. Headaches, wheezing, shortness of breath, fatigue, etc. are all possible health problems associated with mold. According to a recent study by Fisk and Mudarri (2007) as much as 21% of the asthma cases in the U.S are caused by exposure to damp buildings and mold. Their study estimated an economic burden of $3.5 billion.
Unfortunately, these symptoms are not limited to toxic molds; many non-toxic molds can still produce allergic responses in sensitive individuals. Compounding the problem is that skin prick allergen testing, the traditional method for diagnosing an allergic response, is not reliable for mold. This is because thousands of species of mold exist, and only a handful of these are tested for during a regular screening.
If the primary health problem related to mold exposure is an allergenic response, this leads us to several conclusions:
Each person will react differently. Some individuals can live in homes with highly elevated mold spore counts andapparentlysuffer no ill effects. Others can suffer from the background level of mold spores in the outside air.
Sensitivity to mold can change within an individual’s lifetime.
Infection. Some mold species can cause respiratory infection when the live mold invades the tissues of the lungs or respiratory tract. This is not a significant risk for healthy people, but can be dangerous for individuals with weakened immune systems, infants and the elderly. For those with extremely compromised immune systems, such as bone marrow transplant patients, even a small exposure to opportunistic mold spores can prove deadly. These patients must be confined to ‘clean rooms’ within a hospital, because even the normal quantity of mold spores in the outside environment can cause an infection.
Irritation. Molds can produce volatile organic compounds (VOC) through both primary and secondary metabolic processes. It is these secondary metabolites that are often associated with musty odors. Both types of metabolites are capable of irritating the mucous membranes of the eyes and respiratory system (Harriet M. Ammann, Ph. D). However, it is difficult to determine if mold growth is capable of producing sufficient VOCs to effect the total VOCs found in a building.
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