Molds have several deleterious effects on human health. Pathogenic (disease-causing) molds gain access to the body in several ways, including through the foods we eat, through broken skin and the air we breathe. Molds also emit poisons, called mycotoxins, which can cause a variety of health problems ranging from sinus inflammation and headaches to more serious disease states such as cancer.
Most respiratory illnesses are caused by inhalation of mold spores in a flooded or moldy environment known as a "sick building," on construction sites or on a farm. Most commonly, inhaling mold causes sinus irritation and respiratory illness with wheezing, coughing, itchy eyes, runny nose and headaches. Sometimes more insidious illness can occur from inhaling mold spores. Farmer's Lung is caused by mold spores that grow in hay, stored grain or silos. The attack usually occurs five to six hours after the exposure. Symptoms include fever, malaise, shortness of breath and pain or tightness in the chest. Chronic conditions of Farmer's Lung include chest colds. Without prompt treatment, permanent damage can be done to the lungs.
Gastrointestinal problems are most often a result of eating food contaminated with molds. This is not limited to visible mold. Rather, mold toxins called mycotoxins commonly contaminate certain foods and are invisible to the naked eye. More than 400 different types of mycotoxins exist. In 2002, Ruth Etzel, M.D., Ph.D., wrote in the Journal of the American Medical Association, "Mycotoxins are capable of producing illness and death in humans and animals." Corn is one of the foods most commonly contaminated with mycotoxins. Cornell University reports, "Corn is probably the commodity of greatest worldwide concern, because it is grown in climates that are likely to have perennial contamination with aflatoxins (a mycotoxin) and corn is the staple food of many countries." Mycotoxins are not limited to corn. They are also found in grains, peanuts and alcohol. Mycotoxins can cause gastrointestinal problems including vomiting, diarrhea and bleeding. Chronic mold exposure can also lead to candidiasis, or yeast infections, in the stomach.
As mentioned previously, corn is universally contaminated with mold poisons. Corn contains the mycotoxin fumonisin b1. Increased fumonisin b1 intake in corn products, such as corn tortillas, has been linked to neural tube birth defects. Interestingly, taking folic acid decreases the effects of this toxin. The journal Teratology reported in 2002 that "Fumonisin has the potential to inhibit neural tube defects. Folic acid can reverse some of these effects."
Mold exposure has also been linked to neurological conditions in humans. Symptoms can range from muscle spasms and hyperirritability to blindness and stupor. Ergot is a mycotoxin found in breads and emitted by indoor molds such as Stachybatrys chartarum. The journal Clinical Microbiology Reviews reported in 2003: "Neurologic or convulsive ergotism is characterized by symptoms including muscle spasms, seizures, and hallucinations, often from compounds produced during the baking of bread using contaminated grain." This neurotoxic phenomenon is not a new concept. In the 1960s and 1970s, many people consumed "magic" mushrooms for their hallucinogenic effects.
Mold and mycotoxin exposure is a risk for development of certain cancers. The Colorado Department of Agriculture says, "Aflatoxin is the most potent, naturally occurring carcinogen known to man. Aflatoxins have been detected in corn, peanuts, wheat, rice, cottonseed, tree nuts, milk, eggs, cheese, copra, milo and other foods." The toxic indoor black mold Stachybotrys emits several mycotoxins that are linked with cancer. Besides ergot, the Stachybotrys mycotoxins include aflatoxin, trichotecenes and zearalenone. The journal Clinical Microbiology Reviews reported in 2003: "Penicillium species produce patulin and penicillic acid can cause tumors …. Zearalenone, is among the most widely distributed of the fusarial mycotoxins and is found in 6 to 28 percent of corn samples destined for human consumption. Significant concerns have been raised as a result of its estrogenic activity and thus its potential for stimulating estrogen-sensitive tumors." The best way to avoid exposure to mold and mold toxins is to avoid foods that contain the toxins, and to clean moldy environments as soon as possible while wearing a mask to limit inhalation of spores.