by Mariko Thompson : Los Angeles Daily News
Posted on Mon, Jul. 22, 2002
It started with allergic symptoms that didn’t go away.
The woman’s symptoms included skin irritations, sinus infections and chronic fatigue, she said. "I went to all sorts of doctors. I knew it was the house, but I couldn’t figure out why."
It turned out to be an old problem with a trendy new name: toxic mold.
Toxic mold is not some mutant superstrain wreaking havoc on homes, offices and schools. It’s the same old mold that’s always been around.
"The term ‘toxic mold’ is kind of a misnomer," said Sandra McNeel, mold expert and research scientist at the California Department of Health Services’ environmental health investigations branch. "There are over 400 molds that are capable of producing toxins. This is not a new contaminant inside our homes."
Mold, found indoors and outdoors, releases spores that, when inhaled, can cause common allergic reactions, including skin rashes, respiratory problems, nasal and sinus congestion and dry cough. When competing against other bacteria and microorganisms, certain molds also can produce toxins called mycotoxins. Severe symptoms, including memory loss and pulmonary hemorrhage, have been associated with mold toxins.
The extent to which mold toxins are responsible for these more serious ill effects has stirred debate, as has the question of how much mold exposure is too much.
The California Department of Health Services says moldy buildings pose a public health threat, whether the culprit is mold allergens or toxins. The young, the elderly and people with weakened immune systems are particularly susceptible to ill effects.
But unlike chemical exposure where dose levels can be correlated to symptoms, mold doesn’t affect everyone at the same levels in the same way. Also, just because a mold is capable of emitting toxins doesn’t mean that it always does.
Though research on animal subjects has examined health effects through ingestion, how mold toxins affect the human body when inhaled is a relatively new question, state researcher McNeel said.
Dr. Gary Ordog, who runs a mold specialty clinic called Medical Toxicology in Santa Clarita, Calif., treats 5,000 patients from around the world for severe cases of mold exposure. Ordog says enough is known from research in military and agricultural settings to show that mold toxins cause serious health effects.
"There’s no doubt that mold is toxic," Ordog said. "There usually are multiple signs or symptoms. When you put them all together, it’s a poisoning of the whole body."
Rather than the plain shower-curtain type mold, Ordog is talking about mold caused by water damage, in particular a greenish-black strain called stachybotrys chartarum.
"Stachy is the Mr. Hollywood of mold," said Glenn Sigmon, owner of the mold remediation firm Aqua Restoration in Van Nuys, Calif. Stachybotrys, along with penicillium and aspergillus, are the molds most often cited for wreaking havoc on home and health.
One reason indoor mold has become such a nagging problem has to do with building construction since the 1970s. Though buildings have been made more energy-efficient, they’re so airtight that moisture gets trapped, creating the perfect environment for mold, Sigmon said.
"Buildings need to breathe," Sigmon said. "Air movement is the best anti-microbial."
Dr. Ashok Jain, associate professor of emergency medicine and environmental toxicology at the University of Southern California, would like to see doctors better trained to recognize environmental impacts on health.
Too often, doctors match symptoms to treatments without considering the underlying cause, said Jain, who specializes in sick building syndrome. As a result, patients continue to suffer from chronic symptoms that could stem from their homes or the workplace.
"You’re told everything looks normal, and you just have to learn to live with it," Jain said. "In the medical curriculum, there’s not much stress on environmental factors. We need more education for doctors. Any time people in a house are sick and it doesn’t go away, that’s a clue something is wrong environmentally."