WHERE THERE IS WATER THERE WILL BE MOULD
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By Gillian Ward
The World Health Organization report Preventing Disease Through Healthy Environment (2016) cites Environmental factors, such as mould, contributing to illness as being responsible for 23% of premature deaths worldwide. The very young, the elderly, the immune compromised and malnourished are most sensitive to environmental illness, with the low and middle income brackets experiencing double the risk associated with high income.
Saskatchewan Occupational Health and Safety reported in 2007 "Facts about Mould" citing indoor air quality as a factor for serious health implications when any type of mould is present. As fungi , moulds release mycotoxins, a neurotoxin that is hazardous to anyone’s health at a certain level, with mycotoxins being present even in dead mould and in its invisible, airborne spores.
WaterToday caught up with Professor J. David Miller, Ph.D., NSERC Industrial Research Chair in Fungal Toxins and Allergens at Carleton University in Ottawa to find out more about the health risks of mould growing in our indoor spaces. Dr. Miller spends most of his time focused on controlling damaging moulds in field crops these days, but took the time to address our questions about the risk of moulds indoors.
Miller advised that any damp area in the home or office building can start mould spores growing, with detectable levels of moulds and mould by-products materializing in a single day. Beyond the basic black, any colour or type of mould can produce troublesome compounds, that can be harmful for people and pets in enclosed spaces. Miller says that while much is still unknown about the risk of mould on human health, the medical research community does agree on three direct effects from exposure to mould indoors: an increase in sensitivity to allergens, an increase in asthma symptoms and an increase in upper respiratory illnesses, such as coughs and wheezing. This information is readily available to the public through Health Canada website, provincial Health Authorities, Occupational Health and Safety Guidelines and World Health Organization papers.
What is not so well understood is the complex cascade of unusual symptoms experienced by many following exposure to moulds. WaterToday heard from a number of individuals, testifying of their personal experiences with mould exposure and the puzzling progression of their symptoms. Among those interviewed, common symptoms came up, including onset of persistent coughing, rapid weight loss, loss of muscle mass, extreme fatigue, loss of brain function and headaches. While these symptoms continue to defy explanation or a firm medical diagnosis, the personal experience goes well beyond allergies, asthma and respiratory conditions.
Miller cautions that just because two events are noted in the same space does not prove a cause and effect correlation. Tremendous effort and resources have been invested in scientific research to discover the cause of asthma, the source of the allergic reactivity in the lungs. In an interview with IAQ Radio Sept 2016, He explained that epidemiological research after 1989 was indicating strange trends with allergies, that "made no sense". It is only in the last three or four years that scientists are gaining some resolution on the gap between what was once accepted to be true about asthma, allergies and mould and the research results with test subjects around the globe.
Allergy scientists now understand that exposure to actively growing mould or dormant, dry mould increases sensitivity in human subjects to a whole range of allergens, not just moulds. Miller explained that the human lung reacts to inhaled fragments of decaying mould with an inflammatory response. This new information needs to be reflected in recommended clean up protocols, which currently focus only on the need to exercise caution with active, growing mould fields of a particular size. "The effects of exposure are relative, even a small area of mould can produce enough compounds to produce adverse effects in a small space over time", he says.
Many individuals we spoke to had not received a definitive medical diagnosis of mould related illness for their symptoms. Medical diagnosis related to mould is complicated, as there are over 100 moulds to test for. Each mould organism can produce more than one compound, any of which can be toxic for sensitive persons in trace amounts, and toxic for the average person in higher concentrations, or taken over a longer exposure period. Where mould related illness cannot be confirmed through medical testing, a patient may be diagnosed with acute interstitial pneumonia, Lyme disease, or myalgic encephalomyelitis (chronic fatigue syndrome).
When considering how widespread the mould concern might be, we consulted with Charles Pratt of the File Hills Tribal Council in Saskatchewan. Pratt told Water Today that no one should be ashamed to address the subject of mould in housing. Many older homes in First Nations communities have ongoing mould, but residents cannot just move out. "Where would they go, to the bush?", Pratt queried out loud. Ms. D. Windigo from Muskowekwan First Nation explained that any repairs required for mould are not insured losses, nor are the funds provided in annual budget allocations. Efforts are made to educate residents about mould prevention in the home.
Still, mould is an equal opportunity scavenger, striking any cloth, wood or paper that gets damp. A leaking roof, a flood, a tap left on or steam from the kitchen not vented are all it takes for a problem to begin. The consequences of unmitigated mould growth, both in economics and health impacts are too costly to leave to chance. Future housing developments could consider new mould resistant building materials and advanced technologies that alert home owners to moisture build up.
While there is no consensus yet among the scientific community as to what concentration of mould makes for certifiably unhealthy indoor air quality, awareness is growing that all mould needs to be handled with caution. Precaution is still the best defence. Attend to leaks and damp materials promptly. Even a postage stamp-sized area of mould needs to be dealt with. Mould can be wiped from non-porous surfaces with soap and water. When disturbing mould of any colour, active or dry, be sure to wear protective gloves, a properly rated air filter mask, dampening the area prior to disturbance. Ensure ventilation fans are in good working order and vented to the outdoors. Clean and or change air exchange filters, dehumidifiers and furnace filters as per manufacturers recommendations.
Don and Trish Leis and their 16 year old daughter live in Regina, Saskatchewan. Don is a former officer in the Canadian Navy, and a former member of the RCMP, having passed the muster for each of those demanding occupations in his day. Today, Don needs to rest up before he can move a box of books to the next room. He told Water Today that as the physical and mental deterioration of his family raged like a house on fire, his wife unable to get out of bed to use the toilet, it was all he could do to talk his girls into living another day. His bride wasted away before his eyes, atrophied and stricken with bedsores, while their daughter at sixteen was not asking to go out with her friends, indeed, the teen asked her father daily to be relieved of living.
The former Canadian Naval Officer and RCMP member gets the last word today. "How bad the health impact [of household mould] can be is something everyone needs to learn, but the story we hope to tell is how utterly abandoned we have been. Not even insurance, or qualifying for disability, let alone any support from the medical community or government. It is so hard."
While scientists cannot yet agree as to what level of mycotoxins are safe for most people, it would be a grave mistake to assume that any level of mycotoxin in the home or workplace is safe. Those with first hand experience are convinced that ill effects accumulate with prolonged exposure and everyone we interviewed is afflicted with different symptoms. The mystery illness is so baffling that our contributors have difficulty believing it themselves. While it is unproductive to look backward to lay blame, the survivors of mould infested environments have a common goal. Each one is committed to help others avoid their pain.
New building technology is available in Canada at comparable cost to traditional stick frame or timber frame. While we may not be able to turn back the clock and recover the vitality of the contributors to this story, we can honour their experiences by ensuring that no Canadian is left in the dark about modifiable environmental risk factors. Collectively, we must be too clever for that.
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