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Black Mold May Sound Scary, But Is It Harmful?   PDF  Print  E-mail 
Posted by Susan Lillard  
Sunday, 03 October 2004

Written by: Jonathan York

Faster than this fungi can colonize ceiling tiles, it has spread across headlines in Texas.

Its alleged effects are nightmare material: respiratory trouble, fever, headaches, rashes, bloody noses, memory loss, infant pulmonary hemorrhage.

Its names sound equally insidious: black mold. Toxic black mold. Stachybotrys.

But now that black mold traces have been found in dark corners of the Henderson County Courthouse, the question is whether it deserves its infamy.

After all, much is at stake on the mold's retaining its dread reputation -- like potential lawsuits and environmental testing, as well as the health of persons exposed to stachybotrys.

To no one's satisfaction, the jury remains out on this question. Southwest Indoor Environmental Group, the Seven Points company responsible for the latest mold tests in the courthouse, does not consider the amounts of stachybotrys to be the county's prime concern.

Stachybotrys is a toxic mold. It can produce the trichothecene mycotoxin, which is quite dangerous, said Keller A. Thormahlen, the senior toxicologist at the Texas Department of Health in Austin. Other compounds originating from stachybotrys can cause allergic reactions and suppression of the immune system, he said.

Scientists have not determined, though, where -- or when -- the potent mycotoxin is produced.

"Anectdotally, we're not sure we've found any stachy toxins in buildings in Texas," Thormahlen said.

It is not rare that one fungus would have different reactions in different environments, he said. The toxic mold Aspergillus, for instance, may produce several different mycotoxins. An overwhelming presence of aspergillus (which is similar to penicillium) may be responsible for sickness and poor air in the courthouse, Dan Guiter of the Southwest Indoor Environmental Group told the Athens Review.

As for comparing stachybotrys to aspergillus, Thormahlen said, "You've got softballs and you've got golf balls. Which one's gonna hurt you worse? There are inherently too many different characteristics."

The two differ in appearance, weight and hardiness. Stachybotrys is a heavy, dark mold that can survive only in places with 92 percent humidity or more. It does not become airborne easily -- in fact, problems with stachybotrys exposure are common when the mold has been disturbed, Thormahlen said.

Aspergillus, on the other hand, may grow faster and in less humidity. Its appearance usually is green, and it travels by air with relative ease.

On its Web site, the Centers for Disease Control emphasizes that no test has proven connections between stachybotrys and specific ailments (

"There are very few case reports that toxic molds ... inside homes can cause unique or rare health conditions such as pulmonary hemorrhage or memory loss," according to the Web site, which also advises that "all molds should be treated the same with respect to potential health risks and removal."

Cecil Fambrough of the Texas Health Department in Tyler subscribes to this philosophy.

"A lot of people call me and want to get somebody to test," he said. "They want to know, 'Is it that stachybotrys? Is that the black mold? Is that going to kill me?'"

"I can't answer that for you. It's not likely to. There's no way of knowing that -- there are just a whole bunch of unknowns about it."

Though empirical evidence is scarce, individual testimony to the dangers of stachybotrys is as close as College Street in Athens, where a home was evacuated last year after the black mold took over.

Other examples abound across Texas. The Associated Press reported that 19 families in Lubbock had to evacuate their homes when black mold came to stay. Respiratory troubles were reported among the residents -- including the illness of a child who was in the womb when his mother was exposed to black mold. Eight county employees had to be relocated from a sheriff's office in that area. After stachybotrys was found, more than one apartment building in Dallas lost its tenants, who complained of respiratory problems, according to a D Magazine article.

The mold even has caused political trouble. The state's increases last year in homeowner's insurance rates -- leading Gov. Rick Perry to call for "stiff" regulation -- may partly be blamed on a stachybotrys scare.

"When I first started, I thought [the mold scare] was all smoke and mirrors," said Dr. David Anderson, an industrial hygienist for Advanced Environmental Services in Keller. "The more I'm around it, the more I've become a believer that it does make people sick."

Any presence of stachybotrys in test results is a threat, he said.

In his work testing mold samples, Anderson has come across the standard array of complaints -- everything from sore throats to hair loss. A convincing experience, though, was what happened to his son: "My son is a college senior, and he's been helping me in the lab in the summer months. Before, he had no health problems. But he was exposed to stachybotrys -- he got a good dose of it in the lab -- and now every time he's exposed to it he's sick for three or four days."

Last Updated (Sunday, 03 October 2004)

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