Tuesday, August 2, 2011

Taming the Wild Debate Over the Health Effects of Mold Exposure

If you are confused about the potential health effects resulting from exposure to mold contamination, join the club.  Truth be known, professionals working in the field are not necessarily of one mind as to potential effects of such exposure.

The popular press heralds the dangers of “Toxic Molds” particularly Stachybotrys species.  This is the infamous “black mold” that appears to have terrorized many who live or work in an environment plagued by moisture intrusion.  According to some very respected researchers, the belief that exposure by inhalation to mycotoxins (toxins produced by molds) produces a wide variety of symptoms is not supported by scientific evidence. 

The most significant incident launching the names “Toxic Mold,” “Black Mold,” “Killer Mold” and Stachybotrys into the public vernacular was the death of several young children with symptoms including pulmonary bleeding.  These deaths, that occurred in a Cleveland, Ohio inner city neighborhood, were closely connected with exposure to Stachybotrys.  Recent studies by the Center for Disease Control (CDC) have concluded that, “Serious shortcomings in the collection, analysis, and reporting of data resulted in inflated measures of association and restricted interpretation of the reports.  The associations should be considered not proven; the etiology (cause) of AIPH is unresolved.”  (AIPH refers to Alveolar Idiopathic Pulmonary Hemosiderosis, or bleeding from the alveolar [small cavities or sacs] portions of the lung.)  In plain English that means that Stachybotrys exposure has not been proven to be the cause of the pulmonary bleeding that accompanied the infants’ deaths.

Other long-time researchers claim that considerable evidence exists that there is a fungal etiology (or basis) to a large number of chronic diseases, many of which are considered “incurable” by current medical practice.  Fungi in this usage should be considered to include molds, yeasts and mushroom spores (reproductive “seeds”).  This research appears to support that relatively high chronic exposure to environmental molds can at least increase the susceptibility of the body to the onset of a variety of chronic illnesses.

As is often the case, the truth may lie somewhere between these two positions.  There is general agreement that sufficient exposure to some molds can elicit allergic responses in some individuals.  These responses can range from rhinitis (irritated, runny nose) and other upper respiratory symptoms to asthma and skin irritation. 

Another area of agreement is that sufficient exposure to certain pathogenic fungi such as Coccidiodes, Histoplasma and Blastomyces can cause systemic infections even in otherwise healthy individuals.  Each of these fungal genera originates in soil or soil enhanced by animal or especially bird droppings.  Exposure is generally by inhalation of spore-laden dust.

A third area of agreement is that there are certain mold species that are opportunistic pathogens.  These mold types, most commonly some Aspergillus species, can affect immuno-compromised persons.  People who are immune system impaired could include very young children, the elderly as well as AIDs, cancer and transplant patients.  Certainly anyone in a lowered state of health might be susceptible to such infections.

So there are certain areas of agreement even between the two extremes.   Points of contention appear to cover the effects of fungal toxins (mycotoxins) as well as the infectious capabilities of a variety of molds and yeasts.

My experience and that of many other mold investigators is purely anecdotal.  We see individuals suffering from symptoms ranging from mild to severe respiratory conditions, headaches, digestive disorders, nose bleeds, skin conditions, chronic fatigue, memory loss and even seizure disorders.  Commonly persons with many of these conditions have been chronically exposed to conditions that result from water intrusions.  One of the environmental contaminants that is often found in such environments is Stachybotrys and/or other potentially toxic molds.  The proximity of one condition to another does not establish cause, however.  Essentially, we do not know if the causative agent is Stachybotrys, other molds, bacteria or possibly some combination of more than one of these factors or even other factors not yet discovered.  What we do know is that such wet environments that foster microbial growth indeed appear to result in adverse health effects in humans.  We also know that most often when suffering individuals are removed from the environment or the environment is properly remediated, the unwanted health symptoms usually abate.  Even those who have become severely debilitated after long exposure to the moist environment usually experience some relief after be removed from the environment.

Our conclusion is that those concerned can continue the debate and research to positively determine the origin of the health symptoms.  Once this has been satisfactorily discovered, more specific steps can be taken to limit or remedy exposure.  In the meantime, the actions being taken to deal with moisture-laden environments appear to be working.  The source of the moisture must be found and eliminated.  Porous materials with visible mold growth or that are water damaged or stained must be removed.  Any remaining mold growth and excessive mold spores and debris are then removed from the environment.  Once that is completed the environment is generally no longer detrimental to the occupant’s health. All of the above mentioned actions should, of course, be done under proper isolation and with adequate personal protective equipment. Most people who are in reasonably good health will recover from their health symptoms once the exposure has been eliminated.  Those who have become severely debilitated will at least have some hope for recovery even though they may require long term treatment.

We are addressing the source of the problem eliciting health conditions attributed to mold exposure even if the actual source or sources of the symptoms have not yet been scientifically established.  So while the debate rages on, the solution is in hand and producing results.

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