Mold (fungi) has been around for hundreds of millions of years (perhaps over a billion years). Although there exists some understanding of diseases in humans caused by exposure to certain types of mold, much that is known about this naturally occurring phenomenon is based on anecdotal evidence of illnesses and diseases in livestock and humans after exposure to or consuming contaminated foods. Serious fungal infections are rare, but often lead to death. In most instances, the individuals involved had auto-immune diseases or a weakened immune system due to taking chemotherapeutic drugs or steroids.
Although the body of knowledge of how fungi affects living organisms is still expanding, scientists believe that mold is generally hazardous to humans in one or more of the following ways: allergic responses or the triggering of asthma due to sensitivities in some individuals (allergenic); invasion of the human organism (pathogenic) with resultant diseases (mycosis); production of mycotoxins that may be toxic to one or more organs or systems in the human body (toxigenic); production of organic compounds that may be toxic or cause an allergic response in individuals (volatile organic compounds or VOCs); or the triggering of a response in sensitive individuals or an increase in the risk of disease due to exposure to certain components of the cell walls of mold (Β-glucans).
Since the events of September 11th and the anthrax scares that followed, national attention has returned to the issues related to the presence of molds in buildings and homes and the concerns that some of these molds may present a significant health hazard. A day does not go by without seeing some article in a major newspaper or publication or hearing a news cast that reports on some incident involving “toxic black mold.” In reality, many of the newspaper articles and newscasts are overblown and only fuel the emotional fires.
Ironically, there are many molds that are black in appearance at some point in their growth cycle. What many of the articles are generally referring to is a type of mold known as Stachybotrys chartarum (stack-e-bot-tris shaw-tar-um), also referred to as Stachybotrys atra.
This particular mold has been associated by some scientists with infant deaths, bleeding lungs, and neurological illnesses. Again, the connection appears to be mostly anecdotal. It has been reported by some that this mold may be found at some point in about 5% of all homes in the U.S. Some current news articles alleging contamination by this mold have reported that owners have done everything from move into tents in their backyard to setting fire to their houses instead of remediating the mold. Unfortunately, many of these responses are reactions to the hype being fueled by the recent high-profile litigation and the significant awards, and the misinformation being spread by sources such as the Internet, news media, plaintiff lawyers, public adjusters, and mold remediation contractors.
In reality, there are over 100,000 different types of mold (fungi), most of which trigger no more than an allergic response in most individuals. However, for some, mold may cause more serious asthma attacks, respiratory illnesses, life-threatening infections, and diseases. The illnesses depend on the specie of the mold, the amount of mold present, the route of exposure (e.g., inhalation, ingestion, skin contact, etc.), the duration of exposure, and the vulnerability of the exposed individual. Unfortunately, the variability in individual susceptibility is one of the issues that adds to the difficulty in assessing mold problems. One obstacle in trying to correlate exposure to a specific type of mold and an alleged illness is that, at this time, scientists do not know how much of a particular mold is harmful or toxic since there are no “normal” levels. To further complicate matters, no one knows the synergistic effect that combinations of various molds at different levels can have on an individual in a particular situation.
As a practical matter, the only way that the type and extent of mold can be confirmed is to collect samples and have them evaluated by an experienced mycologist or microbiologist. Any investigation must be well thought out and will often involve several phases or steps, each requiring a separate visit, because of the numerous methods available for sampling microbiological contaminants. However, this opens up additional variables in the evaluation process since each sampling method (none of which are standardized) generates different information. Additionally, there are no numerical standards to compare the laboratory data against. Because the sampling results must be interpreted the conjunction with the observations made during the investigation, a considerable amount of professional subjectiveness is a large part of any mold investigation. It therefore becomes extremely important to retain experienced individuals who know what information is generated by each sampling method and how this information fits together to generate a complete picture of the problem. It is also extremely important to have the consultant perform the investigation as soon as possible after learning of a mold problem in order to establish a baseline of contamination since mold will continue to grow (amplify) and spread, provided all conditions that started the growth remain constant.
Once reliable and defensible information is collected and properly evaluated, additional individuals may need to assist in answering questions regarding exposure or health complaints or the issues related to the source(s) of water/moisture. For example, a medical doctor with appropriate experience in occupational and/or fungal exposure may be needed to consider the health implications. Other individuals that may need to be involved might include industrial hygienists, toxicologists, HVAC engineers, structural (building) engineers, and remediation specialists.
In summary, a “black mold” in an indoor environment does not immediately indicate the presence of Stachybotrys chartarum or any other toxic mold. It also does not indicate that a particular situation is imminently dangerous to health or well being. The only way to determine what type of mold is present and how extensive it is is to have a well-planned investigation performed by professionals who understand the various molds, the conditions necessary for growth, and how to objectively evaluate the analytical data. In this way, insurance professionals, defense attorneys, property owners, contractors, and others dealing with mold claims will be better prepared to cut through the emotional hype and resolve the issues on their technical merits.
For more information or to schedule a no cost seminar on toxic mold e-mail IES at: firstname.lastname@example.org
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