Story last updated at 6/3/2009 - 12:15 pm
In the May 6 issue of the CCW, I wrote an article on the topic of mold in homes. Apparently, this article struck a nerve with many readers resulting in my hearing from individuals in Southeast Alaska and across the state. I'm building on that basic mold information in this month's article. Two issues are presented: 1) How to determine whether mold is present in your home, and 2) Types of health problems caused by or related to the presence of mold.
How do I know if there is mold in my home? (See the May 6 article for information on areas in your home that may harbor mold growth).
This is one of the problems with mold - identifying it. Shades of mold may be whites, greens, browns, blacks or oranges. Is it mold or is it dirt? Here is a reasonably reliable test to determine whether a mark is mold or dirt.
Mix a solution of one part chlorine bleach to two parts water, with enough dishwashing detergent to clean off surface grime and oils in a single wipe. Using a clean cloth, dab (don't wipe or scrub) the stain or mark with the chlorine bleach solution. Observe any changes in color. If the color is entirely or largely removed, the stain is likely organic and probably mold. If the color is not removed, the mark is probably non-organic and not a mold. (Cleaning and removing mold will be addressed in the next issue.)
One telltale sign of the presence of mold is smell. Mold may be present if a house smells musty, earthy, faintly of alcohol (even though no alcohol has been consumed or recently spilled), or has a sickly-sweet smell. Sometimes, a musty smell coming from clothing can be an indication of mold in the home.
Unfortunately, the absence of smell does not always guarantee that the home is free of mold. Any sign that the occupants have more health problems than normal or prolonged illnesses should be investigated.
How do molds affect my health?
Molds have the potential to cause health problems as they may produce allergens (substances that can cause allergic reactions) and irritants, including skin irritation. In some cases, molds can produce potentially toxic chemicals called mycotoxins. Once these mycotoxins are released into the air, individuals may breathe them into their lungs, where they can affect the immune system, nervous system, liver, kidneys, blood and blood clotting.
Toxicosis is the medical term used to describe any disease condition due to poisoning. Although not proven by medical science, toxicosis (the reaction to toxins produced by some molds) may be a health risk for some individuals. Toxicosis is hypothesized (not proven) to cause or contribute to neurological damage (memory loss) and infant pulmonary hemorrhaging (bleeding lungs in infants). Further, some mycotoxins are known carcinogens (cancer-causing agents).
Adverse health reactions can vary depending on the amount of the exposure and the susceptibility of the affected person. Threshold levels for exposure have not been developed yet research on mold and health effects is ongoing,
At risk groups for health risks associated with mold exposure include:
- Those with allergies
- Those whose natural ability to fight illness has been suppressed
- Possibly healthy individuals where exposure levels are significant
Mold symptoms are similar to everyday cold and flu symptoms so many people have a hard time distinguishing if they have health effects from mold or simply have the flu. Common mold symptoms are as follows:
- Excessive coughing
- Fatigue and asthma
- Itchy throat
- Memory and hearing loss
- Sinus headache and nasal congestion
- Watery eyes
Because these symptoms are associated with other diseases, misdiagnoses of mycotoxins exposures are common. There are very few physicians with the experience or expertise in correctly diagnosing mycotoxins exposures.
If you see or smell mold in your home, you have a problem. In the third and final installment of this series the focus will be on what to do when mold is found in your home. For resources on mold problems and environmental health, contact the Juneau District office at (907) 796-6221.
Sonja Koukel, PhD, is an assistant professor in the Health, Home & Family Development Program for the Cooperative Extension Service UAF Juneau District. Reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org or (907) 796-6221.