Fungus Among Us: Find Out the Causes of Mold and How to Prevent Mold Growth

Scary mold stories have been all over the news lately. Should you be concerned?

| July/August 2003

In February 2001, a Foresthill, California, family burned their house down to get rid of mold. In May 2002, the Delaware Supreme Court upheld a $1 million award to two women whose landlord failed to address leaks and mold problems in their apartments, resulting in asthma attacks and other health problems.

Why is mold suddenly such a huge issue?

Molds have been around since the beginning of time. There are more than 100,000 known living species of fungus, some of which are beneficial to humans (notably those used for making cheese and penicillin), and there may be as many as 200,000 more unidentified species.

Molds can be found in any dark and damp place, indoors or outdoors. The four types that are of most concern are Stachybotrys, Chartarum, Penicillium, and Aspergillus. These are present, in varying degrees, in almost every building we inhabit. According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), “There is no practical way to eliminate all mold and mold spores in the indoor environment; the way to control indoor mold growth is to control moisture.”

Molds reproduce by creating tiny spores that drift through the air. These spores grow by digesting damp materials such as wood, paper, carpet, and foods. Mold needs very little to thrive: air, food, and moisture (liquid water isn’t necessary; most mold species need only 40 to 60 percent relative humidity). By increasing the amount of insulation and decreasing air leakage in houses, we have created more opportunities for mold to grow if moisture leaks into walls or floors. Also, homes built on concrete slabs will release moisture into the walls for years as they cure. Building materials that were left outside before use can harbor mold spores for many years.

Mold spores can be inhaled, absorbed through the skin, or ingested on food. While most people are not adversely affected, some—particularly infants, the elderly, and anyone with immune system deficiencies—are particularly susceptible to serious illness following exposure to microbial contamination. Common ailments from molds are asthma, pneumonia, upper respiratory problems, sinusitis, dry cough, skin rashes, stomach upset, headaches, disorientation, and bloody noses. A 1999 Mayo Clinic study cites molds as the cause of most of the chronic sinus infections that inflict 37 million Americans each year.

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