Molds and fungi are simple, microscopic organisms, found virtually everywhere, indoors and outdoors. They can be found on plants, dry leaves, and other organic material. Molds and fungi play an important role in the environment by breaking down dead, organic material. Their spores are very tiny and lightweight, allowing them to travel through the air. Mold growths can often be seen as a form of discoloration ranging from white to pink and from green to brown and black.
Molds occur in nature, and as such, are always present in the air at ambient levels. Although airborne levels vary according to locale and current environmental conditions, most individuals will not suffer adverse health effects from exposure to background levels. Sometimes, though, conditions indoors can be favorable for fungal growth resulting in increased levels of airborne fungal spores, which can overwhelm the body’s natural defenses. Inhalation of such elevated levels of airborne spores can result in allergic or toxic responses. Although infection can occur in an otherwise healthy individual, those most susceptible include infants, children, the elderly, and immune compromised individuals such as those undergoing chemotherapy or suffering from liver disease. The health effects from molds depend on the length and level of exposure (chronic vs. acute) and on individual sensitivity. Health effects from exposure to molds can be divided into four general categories: infection, toxicosis, allergy and irritation.
There are now over 100 species that are known to cause infection in humans. The three classifications of infection caused by fungi are systematic, opportunistic, and dermatophytic.
Many fungi produce toxic metabolites called mycotoxins. The health effects from exposure to the levels of mycotoxins that may be encountered in contaminated indoor environments are not yet completely known. However, dramatic toxic and carcinogenic effects have been reported for animals and humans exposed to high levels of mycotoxins in laboratory studies. Generally mycotoxins are non-volatile and exposure usually occurs only after disturbance of a contaminated source. Symptoms of exposure may include headache, nosebleeds, dermatitis, and immune suppression.
Allergenic response is the most common symptom associated with exposure to elevated levels of fungal spores or mycelial fragments. Any fungus can be allergenic, producing antigenic proteins and polysaccharides that can cause allergic reactions in sensitive individuals. These reactions may be similar to those caused by pollen and may be seasonal in nature. Many people experience allergic responses in the fall when outdoor levels of mold are typically high.
Fungi produce volatile organic compounds during degradation of substrates that cause the "moldy" odor associated with fungal contamination. These compounds can be irritating to mucous membranes causing headaches and other symptoms due to the decaying plant material.
Some of the common molds known to cause health problems include species of Stachbotrys, Penicillium, Aspergillus, Fusarium, Alternaria, and Cladosporium. These molds, with the exception of Stachbotrys, are very common outdoors.
Common Symptoms of Health Effects Include:
- Respiratory problems, such as wheezing, and difficulty in breathing
- Nasal and sinus congestion
- Eyes - burning, watery, reddened, blurry vision, light sensitivity
- Dry, hacking cough
- Sore throat
- Nose and throat irritation
- Shortness of breath
- Skin irritation
- Central nervous system problems (constant headaches, memory problems, and mood changes)
- Aches and pains
- General malaise
- Chronic fatigue
- Bloody noses
Requirements of Mold Growth
- A food source - such as leaves, wood, paper or dirt
- A source of moisture
- An optimal location (warm stagnant air)
Sources of Indoor Moisture
- Slab foundations
- Backed-up sewers
- Leaky roofs
- Damp basement or crawl spaces
- Construction defects
- Plumbing leaks
- House plants - watering can generate large amounts of moisture
- Steam from cooking
- Shower/bath steam and leaks
- Wet clothes on indoor drying lines
- Clothes dryer vented indoors
- Combustion appliances (e.g. stoves) not exhausted to the outdoor
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