You’ve just learned that a building where you spent a lot of time is contaminated by mold—not a surprise, since you’ve been smelling it and even see it growing on the ceiling and walls. The mold is getting taken care of…but should you do anything else to protect your health? We posed that question to one of Bottom Line’s top health experts.
You may have heard of “sick building syndrome”—illnesses, especially upper-respiratory problems, attributed to airborne contaminants, including “toxic mold.” Whether mold really is at the root of the symptoms is controversial and remains unproved. However, according to the Institute of Medicine (IOM), evidence links indoor mold exposure to…
- Upper-respiratory-tract symptoms (coughing, wheezing) in otherwise healthy people
- Asthma symptoms in people with asthma
- Hypersensitivity pneumonitis, a lung disease where lungs of people prone to the condition become inflamed when airborne pollutants, including molds, are inhaled.
Plus, other research suggests that early exposure to indoor mold may be linked to development of asthma in children, especially if they are genetically at risk.
Realistically, you can’t completely avoid mold. Scientists estimate that it’s been around for 500 million years and forms 25% of Earth’s biomass. Nor would you want all mold eliminated—think cheese (especially blue, Roquefort, Gorgonzola), beer, wine, cider, vinegar…and penicillin.
HOW MOLD TAKES HOLD
While many kinds of mold can grow inside buildings, the most common culprit is Stachybotrys atra, also called Stachybotrys chartarum or black mold. S. atra is greenish black and thrives where there is a continuous supply of moisture (a water leak, condensation, humidity) and nutrients (cellulose-based building materials such as ceiling tiles, wood, wood products…paint, insulation, drywall, carpet, upholstery, etc.). Mold also can grow inside building vents and air-conditioning systems. (Note: Legionnaires’ pneumonia is caused by the bacterium Legionella pneumophila—not mold.)
S. atra is not itself toxic, but it can produce toxins, as can other molds, called mycotoxins. But even when mycotoxins are not present, inhaled spores can cause an allergic reaction…an immune system reaction…or nonallergic irritation of lungs and nasal passages.
People with allergies, asthma or other respiratory conditions such as chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) are most likely to have a reaction or a worsening of the symptoms of their condition when they inhale mold spores. In otherwise healthy people, typical symptoms include stuffy nose, itchy eyes and wheezing—which usually clear up quickly once the exposure stops.
Mycotoxins, on the other hand, can be nasty. Some mycotoxins are powerful enough to kill bacteria (penicillin, for instance, is a mycotoxin)…and mycotoxins have been weaponized for chemical warfare. Mycotoxins from common indoor molds are not as deadly but still can cause acute and chronic illness.
Acute symptoms from mycotoxin exposure typically include headache, fatigue, disorientation, dizziness and vomiting. Most of the time, these symptoms clear up when exposure is stopped. However, long-term exposure can cause some people to develop more severe symptoms that affect the nervous system, mood, memory and concentration.
“DETOXING” AFTER MOLD EXPOSURE
There are no medications to treat mold toxicity, but you can help your body recover from the effects of exposure to mold by strengthening your immune system.
Obviously, you first need to make sure that you’re no longer being exposed to the mold that you suspect is causing your problems. This may be easier to do if the source is your own house than if it’s an office building, school, college dorm or some other public building over which you have less say in whether it gets remediated.
But once you’ve dealt with the source of mold exposure—or while you’re waiting for that to happen—take steps to keep your immune system as healthy as possible. Start by making sure you’re following basic healthy lifestyle recommendations—stay well-hydrated (drink at least six glasses of water daily)…eat plenty of fresh fruits, including colorful berries, and vegetables…avoid foods that promote inflammation, such as added sugar and fried, refined and processed foods…get enough sleep (ideally, about eight hours a night)…and enough exercise.
Then consider adding the following supplements…
- Vitamin C
- Vitamin B-12
- Selenium, a trace mineral that increases an important immune system protein called immunoglobulin A (IgA).
All three are available as supplements and are in most multivitamins, but it’s best to consult a naturopathic doctor for appropriate dosages for you. Nasal irrigation with a neti pot and a nasal wash, such as Alkalol, also can help reduce respiratory symptoms.
If you have symptoms that you suspect may be related to mold exposure, besides following these steps you may need a specialized diagnosis and/or treatment. Not all medical doctors (MDs) are familiar with diagnosing and treating illnesses stemming from exposure to indoor mold. You may need to consult a naturopathic physician (ND). Check the site of The American Association of Naturopathic Physicians to find one near you who can either treat you himself/herself or refer you to a naturopathic environmental medicine specialist.