Updated: Apr 26
In this article, you’ll learn about mould and the health issues resulting from toxins in the home from a Healthy Home Consultant’s perspective.
Holistic health looks at all the factors that influence your well-being. Of course diet, exercise, stress, emotional and familial relationships, weight management, and blood sugar balance are important pieces but often overlooked are things in your environment. Our environment can be the root cause of less-than-optimal health, or can exacerbate (triggering, or making things worse) or it may hamper the body from maintaining “homeostasis” (a state of well-being) by healing itself.
People can spend considerable time and effort consulting with a variety of health specialists without real improvement in health. Examining your current environment, or a former environment, might give clues to environmental stressors. Determining and removing environmental triggers is a key component to well-being and is especially critical during pre-conception, pregnancy, and for children. Prevention and early action is valuable. It’s well understood that there are environmental causes of respiratory distress, asthma, cancer, skin disease, and neurological issues. In recent studies environmental conditions have been shown to influence obesity, type 2 diabetes, hormonal balance, fatigue, insomnia, and depression.
Urban or industrial areas introduce toxins including exhaust, lead, asbestos, plastics, endocrine-mimicking chemicals, pesticides, pharmaceuticals, cadmium, mercury, lead, bacteria, mould, radon, solvents, and fire-retardants. Old housing stock, and especially basements or housing that has not always been maintained well, often have moisture problems and therefore mould growth. Tighter design requirements, energy costs and a prevalence of non-permeable materials in newer buildings have also resulted in moisture and mould problems. Detoxifying the home (and other spaces like workspaces) is therefore central to well-being.
How to tell if your body is suffering from mould exposure
Determining if mould is something that is affecting you is difficult. Some mould exposures cause symptoms with a direct relationship (respiratory symptoms or eye irritation). These are easy to understand. Non-specific symptoms which don’t affect every person the same way, can affect the same person in different ways at different times, and can affect multiple organ systems are more difficult. They can include: fatigue, digestive issues, skin rashes/eczema/redness, headaches, achy joints, poor concentration (fogginess), mood swings, heart conditions, and sensitivity to other stimuli (light, noise, chemicals, electrical). Recent studies are showing that the mycotoxins that moulds give off influence our intra-cellular communication thereby affecting any number of organ systems.
How to determine if your home has mould
(obvious and non-obvious signs)
Mould can be identified by its structure, its smell, its spores, and the toxins it creates.
In some houses it is obvious to almost everyone that there is a mould problem. People see it (yes, mildew is mould) and/or smell the mVOCs (microbial Volatile Organic Compounds that moulds create to defend their territory). Often, inhabitants will not smell the mould because they are used to it. It often takes an outsider to notice it. On the other hand, a house may not give any sensory clues that there is mould but some people will become ill after being in the home for a period of time.
Some facts about mould that is most important:
Every home has mould.
Anything can be toxic, it just depends on the dose (i.e., the amount).
Every person reacts differently to every different species of mould.
Mould needs water (or moisture) and food to grow (often cellulose materials like the paper backing on drywall, fibreboard (MDF), pressboard or particle board).
Herein lays the problem. Everyone wants to know from a mould expert if they are safe of not, but it is not possible for an outside mould consultant to be able to state “your house has an amount of mould that is a) toxic, or b) safe ”. In North America this has become a profitable business.
Fear is almost always a component when you hear someone referring to “the black mould” or “the toxic mould”. Fear about black mould started after very sensational new stories from Cincinnati in the early 1990s. Child deaths were attributed to Stachybotrus Chatarum (now called Chatarum atra by mycologists). The fact is that there are many black moulds, many moulds can be toxic (and only a small number of the hundreds of thousands of moulds have been studied) and their colour is not the determinant, and the Cincinnati cases are not without controversy (other compounding factors).
Never-the-less, should you wish to have your home tested for mould there are several different kinds of mould sampling are available: bulk, air, viable, spore and mycotoxin. All of these methods have their limitations and none of them will tell you if you have a toxic level of mould for you or not! no-one can determine how much mould you have in your home. Comparing the methods is complicated and not without controversy. Proper air sampling costs thousands of dollars (because there must be several sampling sites and a control or 2) and is not warranted in a home unless there are impending lawsuits or insurance claims relating to improper construction, etc. Testing is done to prove whether there is, or is not mould.
A homeowner or tenant could spend equal amounts of money addressing the cause of the problem which is includes proper repair or removal and/or treatment of building materials, furnishings, and/or contents.
While it is not possible for an outside consultant to tell you if you have mould that will influence your health or not, there are other strategies. A more practical and cost-effective method for mould identification is supported by Health Canada, Canada Housing and Mortgage Corporation, Health Departments, and Building Scientists. It includes having an outside consultant experienced in Building Science, homes, construction methods, moisture and mould investigations, look at your space rather than conducting mould testing. The consultant will view your space as an impartial judge and will be able to point out areas that need of action quite quickly and without thousands of dollars. They will be able to guide you through whatever remedial actions are necessary.
The other strategy is to conduct some personal tolerance testing. This strategy is supported by Canada Housing and Mortgage Corporation, many alternative health practitioners, and environmental health clinics. Start noticing the small fluctuations in your health; keep a diary. If possible, leave your home for a few weeks and document what happens to your health. Return home and do the same. This works the best if you can keep other factors constant in your life (stress, work, other activities, diet, exercise…). Going on vacation changes many variables but the key is noticing what happens to your health.
How to prevent mould growth, and to remove mould safely
Even though mould is everywhere, the bottom line is that people should not live in places with lots of mould. If you have visible mould or mouldy odours you have lots of mould.
To prevent (or control) mould from growing one needs to understand the following basic concepts:
Mould does not like moving air (so don’t have pockets of stagnant air; think of basement, storage areas, closets, washrooms with little air movement).
Mould does not like direct sunlight (open your windows, air out your belongings).
Mould will not grow if its water source (humidity) dries up (use desiccants, dehumidifiers, heat).
Design moist areas to dry out readily (leave basement walls unfinished) or seal your airspace from any likely damp spaces (behind basement walls, crawl spaces…)
Wherever there are signs of mould, the mouldy materials should be removed from the property. Treatment methods that claim to kill and/or cover mould may cause further problems by introducing chemicals that may cause adverse effects. Removal of all damaged cellulose materials requires careful removal so as not to spread spores and mycotoxins to other parts of the home. To protect the people during the removal use respirators, remove clothes outside your inhabited space and promptly wash and dry, and if possible put in the sunlight for the UV rays to disinfect.
About the Author
Anne Stewart is an educator and consultant practicing in Parry Sound and Toronto and areas in between. She has written many articles for magazines and newsletters, been interviewed about healthy homes and conducts educational workshops. Visit her website www.ecofitter.ca to learn more.
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