Toxic Mold: Flooding’s Evil Twin
By Matthew Stein, P.E. NOTE: the following is excerpted from Chapter 13 of my book, When Disaster Strikes: A Comprehensive Guide Emergency Planning and Crisis Survival, published by Chelsea Green Publishing
Mold and flooding go hand in hand. Even though it has been more than ten years since Hurricane Katrina struck, there are rows upon rows of abandoned New Orleans homes that are filled with toxic black mold, rendering them unfit for human habitation. In the aftermath of any flood, the presence of significant visible mold inside a home makes it clear that drastic measures are mandated, such as the use of a professional mold-remediation team with respirators and Tyvek protective clothing (including Tyvek booties and hoods). In other cases, mold can be a hidden demon, thriving inside walls and crawl spaces, devastating occupants’ lives without leaving obvious clues as to the cause of their misfortune. This book is not about mold remediation. However, since floods and toxic mold problems tend to go together, I will provide you with some basic information to help you understand when your problem is serious enough that you should seek professional medical help, or the help of a qualified mold-remediation service.
One of the problems with toxic mold is that it could be harming your health even though you may not see or smell any mold, and that its effects can creep up on you quite insidiously, just a little bit at a time, until one day you come to the realization that you feel sick all the time and can no longer lead a normal life. The symptoms of toxic mold poisoning are quite varied, and most medical doctors will not recognize these symptoms as being caused by toxic molds.
Not all molds are equal! Some molds have relatively low toxicity, meaning that you may see and smell obvious signs of a mold infestation, yet if it is a low-toxicity mold, it might not cause any noticeable negative health effects. Whereas a super-toxic mold, like the deadly Stachybotrys black mold, could be hidden inside your home’s walls, or behind the floor boards, not smell at all “moldy,” yet be the cause of a catastrophic loss of health. In my experience, a “musty” smell means mold, and a “moldy” smell means lots of mold. Whether or not your problem is serious depends upon many variables, such as the type of mold, mold mycotoxin concentrations in household air, personal sensitivity and/or allergies to molds and mold mycotoxins, rate of home ventilation air changes, moisture issues in the home, and so on.
Health Effects of Mold and Other Fungi
“Mayo Clinic researchers say they have found the cause of most chronic sinus infections—an immune system response to fungus. They say this discovery opens the door to the first effective treatment for this problem, the most common chronic disease in the United States.” —Science Daily, “Mayo Clinic Study Implicates Fungus as Cause of Chronic Sinusitis, Sept. 10, 1999”
Many molds, not just black mold, give off a highly toxic substance that can severely affect your health, particularly in the case of children, seniors, and anyone with allergies or a compromised immune system. In severe cases, black molds have been known to kill healthy soldiers and horses that were sleeping on straw bedding infected with Stachybotrys. Here is a partial list of symptoms:
• The most common effects are respiratory ailments, including shortness of breath, wheezing, chronic sinusitis, and exacerbated asthma. Side effects of sinus issues include acid reflux and postnasal drip.
• Signs of mold-toxin overload often include poor low-contrast visual distinction (which makes night driving difficult), panic attacks, feelings of claustrophobia, headaches, tremors, seizures, confusion, and the inability to concentrate.
• Migraines and shimmering vision are common effects that my wife and I have each experienced when we spent too much time in a mold-contaminated room.
• Burning or itchy eyes, dizziness, and/or nausea.
• Rashes and/or spontaneous bruises on the skin. Itching, welts, or hives.
• Behavior changes, such as restlessness, hypersensitivity, and irritableness.
• Low-grade fever (can feel like a flu that seems to never go away).
• Compromised immune system (a normally healthy person suddenly starts “catching everything”).
• Chronic fatigue and/or hair loss.
• Fungi and molds can cause related lung diseases and cancers.
• In severe cases, toxic mold poisoning can lead to lung and brain hemorrhaging, permanent brain damage, and death.
(Adapted from Michael Pugliese, The Home Owner’s Guide to Mold, and Gary Rosen and James Schaller, Your Guide to Mold Toxins)
Caution: When it comes to toxic-mold contamination, your health, home, and all of your possessions are at stake. Delays could cost you everything you own and even your life.
Dealing with Mold
Any kind of flooding should be dealt with immediately, because mold will start to grow on wet or moist surfaces in twenty-four to forty-eight hours, especially in warm climates. Since mold loves to eat/grow on the paper that covers regular sheetrock, unless it has been specifically treated with chemicals designed to prevent mold growth, water-damaged sheetrock must be removed and replaced. A small amount of mold growing on the front side of sheetrock in a bathroom or laundry area, or by a water heater or sink, could be a sign of a much more serious problem hidden behind the sheetrock. If you have any concerns, I suggest that you pull off a small section of sheetrock so you can use a mirror to look inside the wall at the sheetrock’s back side.
If your carpets and furniture are wet from flooding, if you find signs of mold, or feel sick and suspect that mold may be the cause, I suggest that you immediately pick up one or two books on this subject and start educating yourself further on this important topic. Time is of the essence. If your situation looks at all serious, you should immediately call a certified mold specialist. When I was living in Hawaii, if I knew then what I know now about mold, I could have saved me and my family more than $100,000 in losses, long-term health issues, much heartache, and suffering. When dealing with all but very small amounts of toxic black molds, such as Stachybotrys, you should wear a respirator and protective clothing. When in doubt, it is best to err on the side of caution and bring in a certified mold-remediation professional.
In my experience, a person who has been severely sickened by toxic-mold exposure tends to develop a sensitivity to molds and must be much more careful about their environment than the average person. We have found a number of things that seem to improve the environment for the mold-sensitive person over the short term, but we have not found any “quick fix” type of mold-remediation actions that works to permanently eliminate mold. Here are several tips that we learned from personal experience and from the late Vincent Marinkovich, MD, a renowned mold specialist:
• You should eliminate (if possible) and/or encapsulate all active mold inside your home, including inside wall cavities and basements. Encapsulation should be with materials specifically designed to encapsulate mold long term, as mold will often grow through a coat of common paint in just a few months.
• Once mold has a hold on your house, all personal items will be contaminated with mold spores and could recontaminate your home after mold remediation has been completed and you move back into your home.
• If you are suffering from mold-related health issues, move out of the home, if at all possible, and leave the mold remediation to someone else. All of your personal possessions and furniture from the problem home will be contaminated with molds, spores, and mycotoxins. Some things can be cleaned and decontaminated, but it is sometimes safest and cheapest to simply purge everything and start over. Hard-surfaced furniture may be washed with a strong chlorine bleach solution (wear gloves and a painter’s respirator). I have also found that a product called Moldzyme that is quite effective for decontaminating hard surfaces, as well as for washing textiles. I add a capful of the concentrate to each load of laundry. I have found that some items of clothing that gave me a burning reaction did not give me a reaction after washing with a capful of Moldzyme. I buy it a quart at a time in concentrated form.
• All mold experts stress that moisture control is critical to controlling mold growth. If you don’t eliminate the source of the moisture, through patching leaks, proper drainage, proper ventilation, and the use of dehumidifiers when necessary, then the mold will come back. Mold will not usually grow in an environment that has less than 47 percent relative humidity.
• If you have been in a severely compromised physical condition, it is safest to replace your personal possessions, mattresses, sofas, and so on. You can buy supertight-weave mold-and-allergen-barrier zippered pillow and mattress covers for all your pillows, mattresses, and box springs. These covers will protect new items from contamination, and protect you from older items that are moderately contaminated. Good sources for these items are: http://www.natlallergy.com/ and http://www.allergybuyersclub.com/.
• It is important to evaluate the effectiveness of mold remediation with before-and-after mold-count measurements in the major rooms in your house, including all rooms where any mold work was done. There’s no point in moving back in if the house still has high mold counts.
• There are different schools of thought on killing and cleaning mold. Some say that liquid chlorine bleach (always use a respirator and eye/skin protection when cleaning with strong bleach solutions and other toxic chemicals) and fastidious cleaning, including a thorough rinsing, is the best way to kill and clean mold without leaving a toxic residue behind that could further contribute to the health problems of an already sick person. On the other hand, Michael Pugliese says he has been called in to perform several mold remediations after his predecessors had relied on bleach and the mold came back. Pugliese says that bleach is not an adequate mold decontaminant, and will not kill certain highly dangerous black molds. Instead, you should use EPA-registered treatment from companies such as BBJ Environmental Solutions and Envirocare Corp. to ensure that surfaces are treated with low-toxic solutions to prevent the regrowth of mold at a later date.
• You will never get all the mold out of upholstered furniture and wall-to-wall carpeting, and they should be junked. We got rid of all of our home’s wall-to-wall carpeting, and replaced it with hardwood flooring and tile. We have a number of rubber-backed throw rugs that we wash once every other week with a capful of Moldzyme in each load of laundry.
• When you super-ozone a room or entire house, it will temporarily remove mold spores and toxins from the air, but I have never seen it fix the problem long term. If you can smell ozone, it is harmful to your lungs. If the ozone is not strong enough to harm your lungs, it will not harm the mold. Use an ozone generator, such as ones from Air-Zone, with a built-in timer to allow the ozone to shut off and dissipate for several hours before reentering the room.
• Some people find that misting their home regularly with Moldzyme and/or Heartland Microbes (in Sanger, Texas) keeps their mold reactions down to a manageable level.
• Refrigerator cooling coils, personal computers with air-cooled cabinets, and other electronic devices with dark, air-cooled chambers will harbor mold spores inside their dusty recesses that you will never be able to entirely eliminate. If you move out of a home with a severe toxic mold problem, and bring any of these items with you to your new home, you stand a good chance of infecting your new home with the same toxic molds. However, if the new home does not have a moisture problem, and the old one did, those mold spores may not take hold in the new home.
• HEPA-type air filters, such as the ones made by Honeywell and Austin Air, placed in all rooms and running twenty-four hours a day will drastically reduce your airborne mold counts and mold reactions. Using good-quality pleated filters (not the cheap, see-through type) on a central heating and/or air-conditioning system and running the fan continuously will circulate the air in your house efficiently and clean it at the same time. Note: You should religiously service the pre-filters in HEPA-type air filters and your HVAC system filters on a regular basis.
• Dr. Marinkovich would often start people off on the relatively benign antifungal prescription of Nystatin. He custom-formulated a nose spray based on the heavy-duty prescription antifungal known as Nisoral. He sometimes prescribed Diflucan, but your liver must be monitored when taking oral doses of heavy antifungal drugs such as Nisoral and Diflucan.
• Dr. Marinkovich also recommends a strict anti-yeast diet (there are many books on the subject, such as Dr. Crooks’ The Yeast Connection). Since molds and yeasts are related, anti-yeast diets tend to also help the body heal mold-related health issues.
• Some people have reported excellent results using MMS (see chapter 6) to help them recover from mold-related health issues.
• There may be another way to detoxify your body from mold neurotoxins. By a stroke of luck, during a Maryland Lakes disaster when fish were dying and many people were getting sick, Dr. Ritchie Shoemaker stumbled upon an effective pharmaceutical for eliminating many biotoxins from the body. When dozens of people who were sickened by the biotoxins in the local lakes filled Shoemaker’s Maryland office, he gave cholestyramine (trade name Questran) to an older woman to treat her diarrhea. Not only did her diarrhea disappear, but also most of her neurotoxin symptoms simply evaporated. Since then, Dr. Shoemaker has treated thousands of patients with cholestyramine and has found it to be very good at binding and eliminating neurotoxins (Rosen and Schaller 2006, 73). My wife was suffering from debilitating daily mold-related migraines. The use of a single daily dose of cholestyramine made a night-and-day difference, reducing her migraines from a daily occurrence to rare occasions! [NOTE: one of the known side effects of Stachybotrys poisoning is cancer. Tragically, my wife Josie passed away in 2013 due to multiple myeloma, a blood/bone cancer]