Everyone has encountered mold, but what exactly is it and should we be worried when the week-old leftovers in the fridge roar back to life, covered in fuzzy, furry mold? The answer is: Yes. Mold is an extremely old form of life that flourishes in nature by decomposing organic matter. It's particularly fond of decaying plant matter but can live anywhere there's moisture and temperatures above freezing. Wherever human beings can survive, mold can thrive.
Although most species of mold don't present a danger to people, the ones that do can cause serious health problems. Whenever possible, mold should be eliminated or avoided. Many mold species that thrive in the same environments as humans have a high potential for harming our health, and some produce toxins that can be lethal.
Facts about Mold:
- Mold is a member of the fungus family and can be found nearly everywhere on earth.
- Mold comes in over 100,000 species.
- In nature, mold helps break down dead organic material, particularly the remains of plants, but has a wide range of food sources.
- Mold reproduces by releasing tiny lightweight spores, called mycotoxins that spread easily.
- Some mold spores can cause illnesses ranging from mild to potentially lethal.
- Many people are allergic to mold spores.
- Mold can grow anywhere there's moisture and temperatures above 39 degrees.
- Mold typically has a musty, mildew smell and can be present in walls or in attics giving off no smell at all.
- Mold spores are durable and can survive harsh environments like freezing temperatures and the vacuum.
- Many medications are derived from molds, such as cyclosporin, lovastatin, and penicillin.
- Mold is most dangerous to people with weak or compromised immune systems, but some mold varieties pose a high degree of health risk to anyone who comes in contact with them.
- Mold can greatly impact mental and neurological functioning of children.
- Mold poses the greatest risk to a person's health when it's inhaled.
- Mold spores accumulate in dust and can spread through ventilation systems.
- Although mold and yeast both belong to the fungus family, they're not the same.
Mold comes in over 100,000 varieties, but you'll never see most of them. The following are some of the more common types of mold.
- Alternaria. Alternaria is found everywhere and grows in damp places. It's typically seen in bathtubs, showers, and under drippy sinks. It's a velvet-textured mold with dark green or brown hairs. It typically grows wherever dampness occurs, such as showers, bathtubs, and below leaking sinks. It can also be found on spoiled meats. Alternaria is an allergenic mold and can produce toxins that cause severe breathing problems, especially for people with asthma.
- Aspergillus. Aspergillus comes in over 185 species. It's common and can form thick growths that prompt allergic reactions. However, some varieties of aspergillus can be highly toxic, causing inflammation and damage to lung tissue in people with compromised immune systems. A few species, such as Aspergillus flavus, produce aflatoxin, a toxin that can contaminate foods like peanuts, corn, rice, maize, and tree nuts. Aflatoxin is dangerous to humans and pet food made from cornmeal contaminated with aflatoxin from Aspergillus flavus has been known to kill dogs and cats outright.
- Stachybotrys chartarum. This is the infamous black mold known for its toxicity. S. chartarum feeds on cellulose, which is found in many building products, like drywall, fiberboard, flooring, and wood. Its growth can be explosive when temperatures are warm and there's plenty of moisture. It only takes 24-48 hours for this mold to flourish after an initial water leak. It can hide behind walls, in the attic, or in the airducts. These mycotoxins are a root cause to impaired health and disease. Common symptoms include: depression and anxiety, chronic fatigue, brain fog, chronic pain and weakness, chronic sinus infections, insomnia, breathing and respiratory complications.
- Fusarium verticillioides. This mold grows on maize and can affect corn products. It produces trichothecenes, a toxin that survives processing and is consumed in products like corn chips. Symptoms of fusarium poisoning include nausea, vomiting, wheezing, and respiratory distress.
Dangers of Mold
Mold can be dangerous for several reasons. Mold allergies are caused by tiny spores that can irritate mucous membranes because of their small structure. More dangerous than mold allergies, is mold toxicity. Some species of mold produce poisonous spores called mycotoxins. Mycotoxins typically survive food processing and pass all the way from raw ingredients to products on your local supermarket shelves. Water damaged buildings or leaks can be a common source of mycotoxins, which spread throughout the environment and attach to clothing and furniture, making it impossible to avoid in severe cases. Nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, wheezing, coughing, mental health issues, and difficulty breathing are all typical symptoms of mycotoxin poisoning.
Mold Allergies. For some people, contact with mold produces mild levels of irritation, but for people with mold allergies, an encounter with mold leads to more serious consequences. For mold allergy sufferers, mold can be harmful even on brief exposure to the skin, eyes, or nose. When people with mold allergies or asthma breathe in mold spores, coughing, wheezing, shortness of breath, asthma attacks, anxiety and panic attacks, and even anaphylactic shock may occur.
Mold Toxicity. As mentioned above, many everyday species of mold produce mycotoxins. Brief exposure to most mycotoxins may not be immediately harmful. However, when mold grows indoors, this situation becomes dangerous. Daily, lengthy exposure to the chemical compounds produced by mold can cause many neurological symptoms and permanent lung damage through a disease called Chronic Inflammatory Response Syndrome.
Some symptoms of mold toxicity include:
- Problems concentrating, memory loss
- Depression and anxiety
- Metallic taste in the mouth
- Mood swings
- Night sweats
- Joint pain
- Muscle stiffness and weakness
Mold toxicity can mimic psychiatric issues, as mold toxins affect nerves throughout the body.
In fact, toxic mold syndrome is becoming more common. Mold needs moisture, the right temperature, and a food source to thrive. A food source that can contribute to the explosive growth of toxic mold is drywall, a ubiquitous building material. Given that homes and business buildings usually have plenty of drywall, moisture, and agreeable temperatures, it's no wonder that people get sick from mold exposure.
Mold doesn't stop at drywall, either. It can devour most common building materials and home products, like carpets, drywall, insulation, wallpaper, and so forth. Spores can get behind the surface of some materials and thrive there. Mold produces volatile organic compounds (VOCs) that give mold its characteristic "musty" odor.
Testing for Mold
Mold is easy to recognize but identifying specific species of mold often takes an expert eye and professional equipment. A quick method to tell if a small soiled area is contaminated by mold is to take a solution of bleach and water (1 part of bleach to 16 parts water) and apply it to the stained area. Mold will grow back, as dilute bleach will not kill mold.
To test for mold in your environment, it is best to use an ERMI (Environmental Relative Moldiness Index) test. This test involves submitting dust samples to a lab that measures 36 different mold species. One thing to keep in mind is these types of tests are not perfect and there is potential for error. It also does not test for other environmental contaminants and toxins.
Mold Removal on Surfaces
Small spots of mold can be removed with white vinegar at 5 or 6 percent concentration, but any area of mold larger than 10 square feet should be cleaned by professionals. Mold that has grown onto the surface of very porous materials like gypsum drywall requires professional removal, as does all mold growth caused by flooding.
Mold on Food
Moldy food is best discarded, even though some foods, like blue cheese, rely on mold to give them flavor.
Foods most contaminated with mold:
- Coffee beans
- Dried fruits
- Nuts (peanuts, cashews, pistachios)
- Wheat, rice, and grains
- Beer and wine
- Dairy and cheese
- Old spices
Supplements to Support Mold Detox:
You can't avoid exposure to mold all the time, but it's wise to make sure there's no mold growing in your home or working environment. Exposure to mold can lead to severe illnesses. If you are having symptoms of mold toxicity, it is important to work with an integrative health practitioner to properly detox and eliminate these mycotoxins. Supporting optimal gut, liver, and lymphatic health are keys for effective and safe mold detoxification.