Until recent years, mold was widely regarded as an unsightly, smelly nuisance that triggered allergic reactions in sensitive people -- but we now know that it is potentially even more dangerous than that. Airborne mold is implicated in adverse health effects ranging from mild to deadly, and not only among people with allergies. Both the Environmental Protection Agency and the Federal Emergency Management Agency have released guidelines for reducing mold in indoor environments.
Mold, Mildew, Fungi: What They Are
Mold is a tiny organism belonging to the Fungi kingdom, and mildew is mold in its early stages. Instead of generating seeds like plants, fungi reproduce by releasing spores that attach themselves to damp surfaces, consuming any organic matter there. In nature, mold performs an essential role by digesting dead and decaying plant materials. Indoors, mold thrives in damp areas such as basements, bathrooms and around windows. Humidity also fosters mold growth. Thousands of different kinds of molds are present in the air we breathe.
Some varieties of mold produce potent disease-causing agents called mycotoxins. According to the Environmental Protection Agency: "More than 200 mycotoxins have been identified from common molds, and many more remain to be identified." Ingestion of aflatoxin B1, which has been found on contaminated grains, peanuts and other foods, can cause liver cancer, and some evidence suggests that inhaling it might cause lung cancer, notes the EPA.
Symptoms of Mold Exposure
A five-year study conducted by researchers at the University of Cincinnati and published in "Pediatric Allergy and Immunology" in June 2006 found that children exposed to airborne spores as babies were at increased risk of developing multiple allergies to mold, pollen, dust mites, pet dander and foods in later life. Common symptoms of mold exposure include respiratory problems such as wheezing and asthma attacks, nasal and sinus congestion, as well as eye, nose, throat and skin irritation. Mold can also affect the central nervous system, causing headaches, mood changes and memory loss. Infants and children, people with compromised immune systems or pre-existing respiratory conditions, pregnant women and the elderly are most vulnerable to adverse reactions.
Toxic Black Mold and Infant Deaths
In 1993 and 1994, a slimy, greenish-black mold called Stachybotrys chartarum (or atra) was implicated in an outbreak of pulmonary hemorrhages among infants in one neighborhood of eastern Cleveland. Although the subsequent investigation into the deaths of six babies was inconclusive, the American Academy of Pediatrics decided to take this policy stand on the toxic effects of indoor molds: Pediatricians treating infants for pulmonary hemorrhage were directed to inquire about mold and water damage in the home, and autopsies performed on any babies who died suddenly of no known cause were to include tests for the presence of the protein hemosiderin, an indicator of previous hemorrhages.
A study published in the June 2008 "Annals of Agricultural and Environmental Medicine" found dangerous levels of 36 species of mold in a library and three archive storage facilities. Of these, 12 were potentially disease-causing, 8 were allergens and 11 had toxic properties. The researchers concluded that mold can present a "significant health hazard" to people working in archives or museums.