Great Smokies Medical Center of Asheville

Is Your Moldy Home Making You Sick?

We’ve all seen the dramatic footage on the evening news. An entire family finds themselves homeless, prohibited from entering their dream-home-turned-moldy-toxic-EPA-nightmare.

Could molds be putting your health at risk? For more and more people across the nation, the answer is yes.

More than 200,000 species of molds have long been associated with health problems, the most common of which include respiratory illnesses (coughing, asthma, and bronchitis) and skin problems (ringworm, athlete’s foot and fungal disorders of the skin and nails).

Molds reproduce by releasing spores, which land on surfaces and thrive when the conditions are right: the right material combined with poorly ventilated, dark, warm, and moist environments.

Molds require organic matter (straw, soil, paper, dry wall, wood, food, leather, tile, natural fibers, etc.) for growth. They may be visible as green, black, orange, white, or gray discoloration, and may have a slimy or dry, fuzzy visible surface growth. Molds emit an unpleasant, musty odor.

Even more toxic than molds are 400-plus toxic chemical metabolites produced by mold called mycotoxins. The impact of one agricultural mycotoxin, aflatoxin, on humans and livestock is well researched. The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) routinely monitor aflatoxin levels of crop foods. Produced by the mold Aspergillus flavus that infests many crops including corn and peanuts, aflatoxin causes liver and kidney toxicity and is a known potent liver carcinogen.

Indoor molds and mycotoxins that result from tighter, energy-efficient residential construction practices are also a concern. Such practices cause decreased air exchange, trapped moisture, and recirculation of contaminated air.

Between 1993 and 1998, physicians in Cleveland saw an unprecedented 37 cases of pulmonary hemorrhage in infants. Nearly all required intensive care and artificial ventilation for breathing difficulties. Because the symptoms recurred when the infants were returned to their homes, researchers suspected that something in the homes was responsible for their symptoms.

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) researchers found evidence that the homes were contaminated with Stachybotrys chartarum, a mold known to produce numerous mycotoxins. Stachybotrys, called “black mold,” requires low nitrogen, high cellulose materials for its growth. Dry wall, paper, dust, lint, fiberboard, and wood are thus ideal substances for stachybotrys’ growth. Researchers hypothesized that mycotoxins from stachybotrys contributed to the respiratory ailment that ultimately resulted in the deaths of 12 of the infants. Varying susceptibility of individuals who are exposed and the volatile nature of mycotoxins make their study difficult.

Symptoms of stachybotrys exposure result from immune system suppression: coughing up blood, non-traumatic nosebleeds, memory loss, cognitive changes, hair loss, sore throat, infections, muscle aches, nausea, rashes, headache, mood disorders, and fatigue.

Many other molds affect indoor air quality. For example, Cladosporium is a common indoor and outdoor mold that grows on paint, textiles, plants, soil, and the fiberglass liners of ductwork. It is allergenic and a well-known cause of asthma. Chronic exposure may contribute to emphysema.

Several species of Aspergillus are suspected carcinogens and contribute to fungal nail infections, ear infections, kidney and liver disease, and aspergillosis, a serious fungal lung infection.

To determine if your house is making you sick, take a weeklong trip to a non-moldy environment and see if your symptoms decrease. The answer may be apparent only upon the return of symptoms when re-entering your home.

Seek the opinion of a certified environmental specialist before making costly remediation decisions, keeping in mind that the best solution may be relocation. If necessary, consult a physician who understands the roles molds play in health problems.

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