Written By: Raymond M. Pirnat, Jr., CMC, CSA – Director of Field Services
November 17, 2015
If you have ever been in a damp, musty basement, chances are you were exposed to elevated levels of mold. Many of us have seen that little line of greenish black coating near a bathroom tub or window. In case you haven’t guessed it yet, that’s more than likely mold.
Most everyone these days has heard that exposure to mold is dangerous. We here news reports every now and then that toxic black mold is deadly. But just what is toxic black mold?
The term “Toxic Black Mold” has absolutely no scientific validation. It is a term made up by the media. Unfortunately, much like a video that goes viral, the term has resonated with both private companies that use it to exemplify potential dangers, and public officials, who seek to regulate the industry.
The (Centers For Disease Control and Prevention) CDC state that the term “Toxic Mold” is not accurate. While some molds can produce toxins, (specifically mycotoxins; mycotoxins are secondary metabolites produced by micro fungi that are capable of causing disease and death in humans and other animals) the molds themselves are not toxic or poisonous.
Mold can come in many colors. Black mold is most often associated with the mold species Stachybotrys chartarum (due to its greenish black coloring). Stachybotrys is often referred to as “toxic black mold” by the media. The association was due to a statement made by the CDC in 1995 that suggested a link to a medical condition called Acute Idiopathic Pulmonary Hemorrhage (AIPH) or Pulmonary Hemoiderosis.
Ten infants in the Cleveland, OH area were diagnosed with AIPH. One of those infants died as a result of the AIPH. All of the infants were identified as living in homes that had extensive water damage and mold; one of the molds being Stachybotrys chartarum. The CDC posed a question. Could high levels of volatile mycotoxins produced by molds be responsible for the infant’s death? Shortly after this statement was printed additional information surfaced that proved the association was unfounded.
The damage, however, was done. The American Academy of Pediatrics issued the statement about the toxic effects of indoor molds, then published documents highlighting the AIPH association first suggested by the CDC. Similar statements were also cited in congressional testimony and in the media. (To date, there is no substantial evidence linking Stachybotrys to AIPH).
Unless you are in a sterile environment (such as a hospital operating room) you’re breathing mold spores. Mold spores are everywhere; you’re breathing them in right now. At what point then does mold exposure become a health issue? In the early 1500’s, a Swiss doctor, Paracelsus, wrote, “all substances are poisons; there is none which is not a poison, the right dose differentiates a poison from a remedy.” This statement holds true for mold exposure. Modern environmental professionals, who conduct investigations for mold exposure, look not only at exposure levels, but also the type of mold. Some people can have a severe reaction to a particular type of mold even in low levels.
The adverse health effects from being exposed to mold are well documented. There is even a reference in the King James Bible on how to address visible mold (referred to as the plague).
In Chapter 14 Leviticus, the passage describes an apparent mold-contaminated building, “If the plague be in the walls of the house with hollow strakes, greenish or reddish, which in sight are lower than the wall; then the priest shall go out of the house.” The house would be vacated for seven days. If on the seventh day the priest witnessed spreading of the plague on the walls, the house would be dismantled and the rocks removed from the city.
There is no argument that excessive exposure to almost any type of mold can cause adverse health effects. In 2004, the Institute of Medicine (IOM) found sufficient evidence linking exposure to mold with upper respiratory tract symptoms such as coughs and wheezing in otherwise healthy individuals. In 2009, the World Health Organization (WHO) issued guidelines for indoor air quality: Dampness & Mold. To date, there are no federal regulations addressing potential health effects as a result of exposure to mold.
The question that is asked by everyday folks is” how much mold exposure will cause health problems?” The answer is not definitive by any means. There is no specific amount of mold exposure that has been identified to cause health problems. There are many factors involved. A portion of the population is predisposed to experiencing adverse health effects, those with existing allergies, asthma, or emphysema. Also at risk are those who have a compromised immune system; such as people with HIV/aids infection, organ transplant patients or chemotherapy patients.
If an adequate food source and moisture is available, mold can grow very fast. Once it is established, just taking away moisture won’t solve the problem. Mold can lay dormant for many years and become viable (able to reproduce) after moisture is re-introduced. Some species of molds require a substantial amount of moisture (like Stachybotrys) others, need very little. Like anything else in the animal kingdom, mold species are competitive and typically one will become dominant.
Mold damage in buildings has been occurring for many years. With the housing boom of the 1990’s , the construction industry made widespread use of materials such as OSB particle board (a type of plywood compressed wood pulp and glue). Unfortunately the OSB allows for much greater water damage than older construction materials. Many mold claims are also a result of poor craftsmanship that allowed for water intrusion into the building material.
In 2001, a lawsuit was filed against the Farmers Insurance Company by Mary and Melinda Ballard. Mary had purchased a 7,400 square feet home in Dripping Springs just outside of Austin, Texas. Within a short period of time, the Ballards were experiencing water damage due to water intrusion events. Farmers Insurance Company, according to Ms. Ballard, undervalued repairs and mishandled her claims, causing substantial delays in getting any repairs completed to the ongoing water damage.
During a business trip, Mary met an environmental professional who conveyed to her, the potential for health issues associated with water damaged building materials. At Mary Ballard’s request, testing was conducted by the environmental professional. The test identified molds including Stachybotrys. The homeowner was told by their environmental representative, that this type of mold could cause serious health effects to the occupants of the home.
The lawsuit claimed that as a result of the insurance company’s refusal to address water damage in a timely manner, the plaintiff’s home was rendered uninhabitable due to extensive mold damage. A jury awarded the homeowner thirty two million dollars, an unheard of sum at the time. The case made headlines and brought attention to mold contamination issues. The lawsuit and subsequent settlement was considered a landmark case and set the tone for how insurance companies would address claims of water damage. The case was appealed and in 2004 was settled for an undisclosed amount.
In the years since the Farmers Insurance lawsuit, many more lawsuits regarding mold in homes has been heard by the courts. Many of these lawsuits were settled out of court. There is much more information available now on how to recognize and address potential mold problems in both residential homes and commercial buildings. There are Federal and State guidelines on how to inspect for and remove water damaged material that is contaminated with mold. There are also industry guidelines that address these issues. Training centers have been established that teach workers how to safely removed mold contaminated building materials.
So far only Texas has regulated mold in buildings, requiring training and licensing for companies and individuals who may inspect and remove mold contaminated building materials. The remediation industry fully expects soon that federal regulations will be adopted. In the meantime, there is a wealth of information from both government institutions and the remediation industry that should help to shed light on a problem that has been around for nearly three billion years.
Janet Macher, Sc.D., M.P.H., “Bio-Aerosols: Assessment and Control,” ACGIH , OH. 1999.
Christopher D’Andrea, M.S., “Guidelines on Assessment and Remediation of Fungi in Indoor Environments,” New York City Department of Health and Mental Hygiene, Bureau of Environmental and Occupational Disease Epidemiology, New York, April, 2002.
U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, “Mold Remediation in Schools and Commercial Buildings,” Washington. DC, 2001.
David Beacom, “Assessing Toxic Risk,” National Science Teachers Association, 2001.
Dr. Henry P. Shotwell, Ph.D., CIH, “Stachybotrys – Toxic Black Mold”???, Servpro of Hershey, PA, Web 11/18/14 accessed 11/14/15.
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