Is mold making us sick?
"I remember when I moved to the Island," says elementary school music teacher and performer Nancy Jephcote, "and everyone said, kind of jokingly, 'Wipe off the green stuff that grows on everything. It's just part of living here.'"
That was nearly 30 years ago and today Ms. Jephcote attributes the Vineyard's proclivity for growing "that green stuff," or mold, as a major contributor to a wide range of serious health issues that she's experienced over the past several years.
Ms. Jephcote is just one of a number of Island residents who believes that long-term exposure to mold in our homes and other buildings can lead to health issues ranging from simply annoying to downright life-threatening.
I've been mold-averse since childhood when I suffered from allergies and asthma. After undergoing a series of skin tests for allergens I learned that mold was a serious culprit. Like many other people, I sneeze, wheeze and get itchy eyes when I breathe in that telltale musty odor. And, maybe because I am so reactive to it, I feel like I'm hypersensitive to its presence. Living on the Island is a constant adventure for mold-challenged folks like me.
Here's a closer look at why it's so prevalent and what it might be doing to our health.
What is mold?
Mold is a type of fungi that reproduces by forming spores that are invisible to the naked eye. It grows indoors and out, found in virtually any environment but thriving in warm, damp and humid settings. Outdoors, mold is helpful, playing a vital role in the decomposition of such organic matter as dead trees, leaves and compost. But indoors, where we live and work, it grows in moist areas like basements, attics, crawl spaces, around plumbing pipes, and anywhere that water has seeped in and remained untouched. It feeds on all the materials we use to build and furnish our homes, stores, offices and public buildings: drywall, ceiling tiles, wallpaper, carpet, fabric and wood. It can be carried in from outdoors on clothing, shoes, bags, and pets, then spread throughout our structures through heating and air conditioning systems. Mold can appear in a rainbow of colors, sometimes as spots or as a powdery or fuzzy coating.
How can it affect our health?
Although mold is a natural part of the environment, we can experience health problems when exposed to large amounts of it, particularly indoors. It is well accepted that respiratory symptoms – runny nose, scratchy throat and sneezing – are indications of a mold allergy.
Asthma, a lung disease in which the airways can partially close, is often triggered by allergies, particularly to mold. Some mold species can even cause respiratory infections when the live mold attacks lung tissues or the respiratory tract. While this may not pose a serious risk for healthy individuals, it can be very dangerous for people with immune systems compromised by other illnesses.
Finally, very large doses of certain molds can lead to poisoning caused by toxins (called mycotoxins) in the mold cells. Hurricanes Katrina and Sandy focused our attention on Stachybotrys chartarum, commonly known as "black mold," a greenish-black mold that grows on walls, wood, paper and ceiling tiles that are chronically damp. It is one of several molds that can produce mycotoxins under certain environmental conditions. And, while health experts don't agree on the possible effects of inhaling these toxins, it seems likely that avoiding them is the best course of action.
Ms. Jephcote believes that her reaction to mold is intensified by an immune system compromised by both fibromyalgia and chronic Lyme disease. "Everyone knows we have a lot of mold in our environment and that it causes respiratory symptoms," she says. "But they don't know it can also cause classic Lyme symptoms: achiness, acid reflux, difficulty concentrating, blurry vision, anxiety, heart problems, fatigue, headaches, insomnia, blood pressure abnormalities." She explains that she has had significant relief from symptoms when vacationing at higher elevations in Colorado, leading her to attribute many of her recent health issues to the mold that flourishes on the Vineyard.
"This summer was the worst I can remember," she says. "The weather amplifies allergies and chemical sensitivities. There's a big morass of people here who have compromised immune systems and for whom this summer was a major doozy." She worries about the levels of mold in homes and other buildings on the Island that may have poor ventilation, improper maintenance or other issues that can lead to infestation.
"It would be great to have the beginning of a community dialogue about mold," she says. "I'm sure there's a lot we can do to help the situation ourselves. This is part of the health situation for every Islander." She has installed a dehumidifier and an adjacent ozone generator in her basement, replaced her window air conditioners and purchased a new mattress in an attempt to keep household mold at bay. A mold assessor recently suggested that she use mold-resistant paint and consider discarding her living room furniture.
Ms. Jephcote traveled off-Island to a specialist on the Cape who tested her for allergies, finding that she was reactive to both mold and birch trees. "The next step," she says, "will be to find out which molds I'm allergic to. I've heard that there are vaccinations for mold allergies that can be somewhat helpful."
"It's a conundrum," she concludes, "living in a community you love that may be bad for your health."
A Physician's Own Experience
While Ms. Jephcote acknowledges that the symptoms she links to mold are difficult to live with, others believe their own exposures to mold have been life threatening. Island physician Dr. Lisa Nagy, today a specialist in environmental illness, suffered from what she considers mold-induced illness and chemical intolerance that proved nearly fatal.
"I was disabled for 10 years," she says, "unable to work or read." She believes the origin of her health problem was exposure to mold from a 5,000-gallon fish tank in her California home. After seeking treatment from a controversial Texas-based physician who specializes in environmental illnesses, she says she has recovered slowly and is now able to resume her medical practice. As part of her therapy, she moved to a small house on the Island in 2004, outfitted to reduce the likelihood of mold growth.
A Cornell Medical School graduate, she has built what she calls a "small but intense" practice, treating patients like herself who complain of a constellation of symptoms, including fatigue, weight gain, chemical sensitivity, headaches, fatigue, depression, anxiety, memory loss and insomnia. Her approach: She takes a patient's history, identifies the most emergent problem, uses such tools as vitamin and adrenal supplements, oxygen therapy and sauna sessions to try to, as she says, "rid the body of mold toxins."
Now a self-proclaimed activist, Ms. Nagy hopes to educate both the medical community and the public about the dangers of mold. Her advice: "Don't wait until you're debilitated. Get advice early. And be vigilant about keeping your home dry."
"It was a struggle to get better," she admits. "I'm a trained physician and I almost died."
A Vineyard Haven resident since 1975, Marcia Streicher worked for a large Island employer whose work environment, she believes, was mold-infested. Suffering such symptoms as fatigue and memory loss, she found herself terminated from her job and anxious about the likelihood of finding another. Today, she is employed by Dr. Nagy in an administrative capacity and has found that the physician's approach to treating her symptoms has brought relief.
"Within four to six weeks I felt like myself again," Ms. Streicher says. Using a combination of medications, hormone treatment, detoxification, intravenous therapy, and changes in diet, Ms. Streicher says she has lost 20 pounds and regained both her energy and much of her ability to remember names and details. "I attributed my symptoms to aging," she recollects. "I know there are skeptics about mold but I'm not trying to convince anyone. I suggest that anyone having symptoms keep looking into it. If something's not right, you're the best judge. We all know our bodies from the inside."
Another patient of Dr. Nagy's, Lindee Tahee of Falmouth, travels once a week to the Island for treatment. She now believes that a wide range of extremely debilitating symptoms she experienced over a 12-year period, including low thyroid function, low blood pressure, low blood counts, weakness, headaches, dramatic temperature fluctuations, insomnia, gastrointestinal distress, difficulty breathing and exhaustion are the result of living in a mold-infested, ground-level cottage built over a crawl space vented to her bedroom.
"I begged my landlord to get rid of the carpet," she says. Underneath they discovered a moldy pad. Air ducts were never cleaned and the air cleaners she installed turned "filthy black."
By June of 2012, Ms. Tahee abandoned what she considered her toxic living environment and was forced to move into her office until she could find suitable housing. By the time she consulted Dr. Nagy, Ms. Tahee said she was experiencing circulatory problems and adrenal insufficiency. A former avid athlete, she was unable to perform any sustained aerobic activity.
Today she is living in a new, well-ventilated apartment high on a hill with what she considers good air quality. By no means recovered, she says she is taking prescribed supplements every two hours and using a sauna to help lower the level of mycotoxins in her body. Ms. Tahee suggests that anyone experiencing unusual symptoms should seek professional help. "Don't let anyone tell you you're imagining things," she counsels. "And if you think you have mold in your house, treat it like a house on fire."
Other Physicians Weigh in on Mold
Both Drs. Henry Nieder, a family practitioner based at Martha's Vineyard Hospital, and Gerry Yukevich, an internist at Vineyard Medical Services, report that they see many patients who suffer from what appear to be mold-related symptoms: respiratory issues, rashes, asthma and headaches. Both recommend thorough cleaning of mold-affected areas and preventive measures to ensure that the mold doesn't recur.
"I don't think of mold as any different than any other allergens," Dr. Nieder states. Both he and Dr. Yukevich refer patients who need specialized care to allergists off-Island.
Dr. Bruce Gordon, an otolaryngologist at Cape Cod Ear, Nose & Throat Specialists in Hyannis and Mashpee who treats a full range of allergies, says that the most common response to mold that he sees is sinus trouble, asthma and headaches. "I've seen a lot of weird stuff," he acknowledges, "but it can be created by allergens other than mold." He employs skin tests for sensitivity and, if a patient tests positive, he suggests investigating their home and office environments for mold.
"We live in a humid coastal climate," he explains. "With old homes, leaky pipes, poor insulation, defective roofs and easily flooding basements." The only effective treatment for mold in our buildings, he says, is remediation. "Call in a mold assessor and, if needed, a remediator. Be sure to get experts who are reputable." Dr. Gordon advises that if you think you have a problem in your workplace, contact the Occupational Safety and Health Administration to file an official complaint and have the building investigated.
Dr. Oceana Rames, a naturopathic physician who practiced on the Island for 12 years before a recent relocation to Mesa, AZ, reports that she treated a large number of patients on Island for mold-related symptoms, primarily "constant post-nasal drip and blocked airways."
Her approach involves antioxidants in supplement form to help the body fight off toxins. She also recommends improving diet, reducing mold attractants and adding air purifiers. "Environmental toxicity makes us more susceptible to illness and allergies," she says. Utilizing a lifestyle and dietary treatment program, she says she achieves a high success rate if patients are vigilant.
While physical symptoms are typically linked to mold exposure, some sufferers relate cognitive and emotional issues as well. Martha's Vineyard Hospital-based Psychiatrist Dr. Charles Silberstein says that he has "certainly seen people who attributed mental health symptoms to mold exposure."
"There's a feeling of skepticism in the medical community," he says. "But people were skeptical about wheat intolerance and I quit eating gluten and refined sugar many years ago and felt dramatically better. When people say they have a sensitivity to anything I take it seriously."
It makes common sense to get away from an environment that triggers symptoms, he suggests. "With a move from the environment and treatment of both physical and psychiatric problems, I've seen people improve significantly. I can't say mold was scientifically the cause, but I know they improved."
Find Out More About Mold
While its effect on our health is a controversial topic, most experts would agree that learning how to protect ourselves from mold-related illness is good medicine. Here are several resources that offer a range of information, from the conventional to the more controversial:
The MVTimes ran a story here in our Home and Garden supplement on September 5 that described how mold grows in our homes, and some Island sources that can help.
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention: http://www.cdc.gov/mold/faqs.htm
United States Environmental Protection Agency: http://www.epa.gov/iedmold1/moldguide.html
American Academy of Environmental Medicine: http://aaemonline.org
"My House is Killing Me! The Home Guide for Families Suffering from Allergies and Asthma," by Jeffrey May.