Embedded in carpet and padding, trapped beneath subfloor, growing on dry wall and paneling, lurking on top of ceiling tiles, buried in roofing insulation, hidden inside heating and air-conditioning ducts—molds are a surprisingly common and dangerous presence in our homes, schools and office buildings, threatening the health and welfare of hundreds of millions of people worldwide.
There are over 100,000 kinds of mold on Earth, and some widespread species are highly toxic. In fact, two common molds, Aspergillus flavus and Stachybotrys chartarum, are so lethal they've been produced and stockpiled for use as bioweapons.
Mold, a type of fungus, grows in threadlike structures called hyphae and secretes substances called mycotoxins to aid in breaking down and feeding on the surface it clings to.
Mature hyphae produce spores, the mold's method of reproduction, which are released into the air when the colony is agitated (for example when you're dusting or vacuuming) and stay dormant until they find a suitable place to form a colony.
As the colony grows, the mold becomes visible, with a characteristic black, gray or reddish velvety or slimy appearance. In the right conditions, it can quickly spread out of control.
Molds adversely affect human health through three processes: allergy, infection and toxicity. Allergy is typically caused by spores, with typical symptoms including asthma, skin rashes, headaches, respiratory problems, sinusitis and rhinitis.1
Infection involves the mold actually colonizing the body, like the skin or lungs, while toxicity is caused by mycotoxins rather than the mold itself. Molds have been linked to myositis (an infection of the muscle tissue)2 and possibly lupus, which is itself frequently linked with myositis.
Toxic mold exposure has been proposed as a cause of cancer,3 chronic fatigue,4 cognitive problems, memory loss and other neuropsychiatric problems.5
Molds have been linked to stunted growth in children6 and to fatal acute pulmonary hemorrhage and hemosiderosis (iron overload) in infants.7
A policy statement on the toxic effects of indoor molds by the American Academy of Pediatrics Committee on Environmental Health links the presence of toxic mold to sudden infant death syndrome (SIDS).8
Approximately 25 percent of the world's population is thought to be genetically susceptible to mold-related illnesses, which is why only one or two people living in a mold-infested home might show any symptoms.
However, some doctors specializing in the field of mold toxicity, like Dr Eboni Cornish, an integrative functional medicine practitioner in Leesburg, Virginia, believe the number of people suffering from mold-related conditions is much higher.
"I've had some patients who've had negative genetic markers, and yet when we've done an assessment of urine and mold toxicity, they are indeed positive," she says. "And when we start the mold treatment that is beneficial for someone suffering from mold exposure, their symptoms get better."
Mold toxicity symptoms vary wildly, mimicking conditions such as Lyme disease, heavy metal poisoning, "allergies," and even cold and flu. In addition, systemic mold infections can trigger other conditions that end up getting all the attention without the underlying cause ever being suspected.
"A lot of our mold patients seem to be gluten intolerant, and I suspect that the mold may trigger the gluten gene to become positive," says Dr Jennifer Armstrong, an environmental physician at the Ottawa Environmental Health Clinic in Ontario, Canada.
"It's not just that the mold makes you toxic. It may trigger you to become chemically sensitive, then you can't tolerate perfumes and other things, and eventually you end up totally disabled for the rest of your life."
Misdiagnosis of mold allergy and toxicity is standard. International mold guru Dr Ritchie Shoemaker, author of the book Surviving Mold, advocates getting laboratory tests such as the melanocyte-stimulating hormone test when mold is suspected. But many specialists have mixed feelings about relying on these tests.
In addition to being very expensive, Armstrong believes there are additional triggers other than mold that can drive Shoemaker's recommended test results to be elevated or out of range. And many patients with mold problems don't test positive anyway.
Many practitioners, like Oliver Barnett, an integrated medical practitioner at the London Clinic of Nutrition, find a thorough case history far more revealing. Vital questions to ask are: "Have you ever been exposed to mold?" and "Has there been water damage anywhere you've ever lived or in your work or school environment?"
Another telltale sign of mold is if more than one person in the household is chronically ill with respiratory problems and/or mysterious symptoms.
"I had one lady come in who wanted to get tested for Lyme disease," says Barnett. "But when I read her intake form, I saw she had lived in water-damaged buildings and that her son had had asthma ever since they moved into their current house. All the red flags were up that this woman was definitely dealing with mold."
It's not in your head
One of the most striking and disturbing aspects of mold-related illness is the mental component. Nowadays, "brain fog" is a ubiquitous symptom linked to everything from high blood sugar to low blood sugar, chronic fatigue syndrome and not drinking enough coffee in the morning.
Yet one of the primary symptoms of exposure to molds is brain fog, mental confusion and memory loss.
Brain fog, along with most other mold-related neurological symptoms, is driven by mold toxins altering the body's immune system. Psychiatrist and neurologist Dr Mary Beth Ackerley, who practices in Tucson, Arizona, poignantly refers to inflammation-based cognitive issues as a "brain on fire."
Clinical studies have linked indoor mold exposure to alterations in the brain's blood flow and electrical activity, along with dysregulation of emotions and problems in concentration, memory and balance.9
"Trichothecene mycotoxins such as those made by Stachybotrys actually kill off olfactory neurons," says Ackerley. "Perhaps that's one of the reasons that we see multiple chemical sensitivity in so many people with biotoxin-associated illness."
According to Ackerley, the T-2 mycotoxin from Fusarium mold kills normal brain cells indiscriminately, while ochratoxin, released byAspergillus, depletes the brain of dopamine, which is highly associated with mood disorders and movement disorders like Parkinson's disease. It also affects the hippocampus in the brain, which is involved with memory.
Cornish cites a particularly dramatic case of mold-related mental illness involving a patient who had been diagnosed with early-onset dementia. After Cornish diagnosed mold toxicity as the culprit, the woman discovered that the beach house she'd been living in for three years was ridden with toxic mold.
"In addition to dementia, she also had severe brain fog and joint pain," says Cornish. "Once she sold that beach house and moved, she felt better. Today she is back to being fully functional."
Mold can even drive suicidal thoughts. "I have patients who will walk into moldy places, and their first sign that something is wrong is that they start thinking about suicide," says Ackerley. "And it's not psychological. There's a state, probably of inflammation, associated with thinking suicidal thoughts.
"Research has shown that persistent activation of microglia, the resident immune cells in the brain, is highly associated with neurodegeneration, such as happens with Alzheimer's.
"It's also associated with bipolar disorder. Several patients I've treated are bipolar, and as we're treating for mold illness, they're finding clarity of thought and a release from their symptoms that they haven't had otherwise."
Research also shows that mold in a child's environment negatively affects cognitive ability and performance.10 Cornish says some of the saddest cases she's seen are the children with OCD, ADHD and other behavioral problems related to mold—conditions that are reversible if the child can be properly diagnosed (a big if) and if they can be removed from the moldy environment.
Unfortunately, although parents can control a child's mold exposure in the home, they can't regulate their conditions at school. Several of the doctors interviewed related stories of teachers suffering from acute mold toxicity because of the classrooms they taught in.
Cornish once treated a teacher who presented with diarrhea and unstable temperature. "Every year he'd go back to work after summer break and say he felt like he was losing his mind because he was having such difficulty concentrating."
After being treated, he changed rooms and started to feel better. Testing revealed that mold was present throughout his old classroom and the one next to it."
A pathway out of the moldy dark
The first and most unequivocal recommendation of physicians treating mold patients is to get out ofthe moldy environment as quickly as possible.
It is impossible to cure a mold infection if you keep getting re-infected. Get your home tested. If there is mold, see if it can be mitigated. If not, move out.
The traditional Western medical approach of treating an infection with antibiotics does more harm than good in the case of mold. In fact, mold is a major natural source of antibiotics, which they produce as a defense mechanism.
"Antibiotics definitely aren't the answer because they are grown in a mold medium," says Barnett. Even powerful antifungals are powerless to get rid of the mycotoxins left in a person's body after the mold is gone.
Barnett, Armstrong and Cornish all focus on healing the digestive tract and any mitochondrial dysfunction, hormone abnormalities, parasites and intestinal bacterial overgrowth accompanying the mold infection.
Then, they use natural mycotoxin binders such as activated charcoal, coconut charcoal, modified citrus pectin, zeolite and bentonite clays, gamma rizol (ozonated oil) and carbonized bamboo to pull toxins from the body.
Glutathione and N-acetylcysteine (NAC) are powerful antioxidants that can help remove mold toxins, and infrared saunas are also helpful to sweat them out. A Paleo diet is usually recommended, or at the very least, the elimination of processed foods, refined sugars, alcohol, gluten and fermented foods from the diet.
But the most time-honored and effective path to getting rid of mold toxins in the body once and for all is Chinese herbs and acupuncture. Over 3,000 years ago, Chinese doctors recognized mold toxins and parasites as the cause of chronic inflammatory diseases with autoimmune complications.
Called Gu Syndrome, it is a chronic inflammatory condition or super-infection involving many different pathogens including fungi, viruses and bacteria.
Olivia Liu, a licensed acupuncturist in California and Hawaii, says there are different kinds of Gu issues affecting digestion and the brain. Either way, the key symptoms to look for are the same: chronic digestive disorders, diarrhea and/or constipation, low energy and fatigue, brain fog, confusion, headaches and physical as well as emotional pain.
"Clients often have anxiety and depression and experience a 'stuck' feeling, like they're not themselves, as well as mood swings and personality changes," she says.
Liu uses ancient, highly specific Chinese herbal formulas that gently kill the parasites while strengthening the body that's been chronically deprived of nutrients and support.
"Some systems starve off the parasites, and it's true that people do better on gluten-free, sugar-free diets," she says. "But this is managing the situation, not providing a cure. You have to get at the root of the problem and then everything really shifts and changes.
"I've had so many people have that breakthrough moment of shifting and feeling like they've come out of a prison. And when they come awake, it's like, 'Wow!'"
Toxic molds to watch out for
• Releases the mycotoxin aflatoxin B, a known carcinogen and the most toxic liver cancer-causing natural compound on the planet
• Tested and stockpiled for use in biowarfare
• Second leading cause of aspergillosis (a fungal overgrowth that is a major cause of death among immunocompromised patients with diseases such as HIV and some cancers)
• Exposure symptoms include: chronic sinusitis, keratitis (inflammation of the cornea), skin and wound infections, and osteomyelitis (bone infections) following trauma and inoculation
• Releases mycotoxins called gliotoxins, which suppress the immune system and affect the brain
• Often found in homes and commercial buildings
• Leading cause of aspergillosis
• Releases the mycotoxin ochratoxin A, which inhibits protein synthesis and cellular respiration and stimulates free radical damage to cell membranes in the body
• Ochratoxin A is carcinogenic, toxic to the kidneys and liver, a cause of birth defects and an immune suppressant
• One of the most common molds found on food, affecting soils, seeds, plants, nuts and dried fruit
• Releases the mycotoxin ochratoxin A (see Aspergillus ochraceus for effects)
• One of the most common molds found in water-damaged buildings
• Releases the mycotoxin sterigmatocystin, classified as a class 2B carcinogen (possibly carcinogenic to humans) and linked to pulmonary and liver tumors in animals
• Found in buildings subject to water damage, high humidity and dampness
• Produces the mycotoxins chaetoglobosin A and C, which are highly lethal to cells, inhibiting cell division and motility
• Spores are large and not easily released into the air
• Over 40 species are found in the soil and on plant material, and wind-dispersed spores are very abundant outdoors, with as many as 50,000 spores per cubic meter of air
• Spores also common on building materials exposed to dampness, such as dry wall, carpeting, surfaces with acrylic paint, wood, wallpaper, HVAC units and insulation
• Major source of airborne allergens
• Release mycotoxins called simple trichothecenes (including T-2, deoxynivalenol), fumonisin and zearaleone
• Infect cereal crops such as wheat, barley, oats
• T-2 can cause immune suppression, nausea and vomiting, and is a known chemical warfare agent
• Releases the mycotoxin ochratoxin A (see Aspergillus ochraceus for effects)
• A black mold, the most often associated with 'toxic mold' that releases mycotoxins including trichothecenes
• Spores are lightweight and float in the air attached to dust particles
• Easily inhaled, it directly affects the brain and the rest of the body by interrupting protein synthesis
• Symptoms of exposure include loss of muscle control, dizziness, nausea, vomiting, burning skin inflammation, diarrhea, chills, fever, brain fog and confusion
• Produces compounds like walleminol, walleminone, and wallemia A and C
• Creates 'off' flavors and clumping in ground spices and is commonly found in high-sugar foods, cakes, condensed milk, cereals, bread, milled rice and flours, as well as settled household dust
• Chronic exposure causes allergies, allergic sensitization and inflammation, increased risk of rhinosinusitis, bronchitis and respiratory infections
Sometimes mold looks like a dirt smear or a crayon mark on the wall. Sometimes you can smell it. But just as often, you can't. If a building is old or has known water damage from a flood or leak, it's likely mold is present.
Where to look if mold is suspected:
• Basements, especially basements with subflooring over concrete, are especially vulnerable to mold.
• Attic insulation
• Bathrooms—check around the toilet base, beneath the sink and beneath the tub and shower stall. Never carpet a bathroom. The moisture from showers provides perfect conditions for mold to grow in the carpet and pad.
• Ventilation and HVAC ducting
• Air conditioners and swamp-cooling systems
• Humidifier pans
• Behind wallpaper, within and below carpeting and around ceiling tiles
Testing your house for mold
Self-awareness and the Mold Sabbatical Method
Do you feel better when you leave the house? Do you get sick when you arrive at work? School? The gym? Pay attention to your symptoms and where you experience them. These places could very well be making you ill.
A tried-and-true method of mold testing is to get out of the environment where your symptoms are the worst for at least a week.
If it's your house, take as little from your home environment as possible when you leave. Clothes, suitcases, toothbrush—all can be contaminated with mold spores, and it takes very little to keep the symptoms raging.
This is a mold test for the five most dangerous molds, Aspergillus penicilloides, Aspergillus versicolor, Chaetomium globosum, Stachybotrys chartarum and Wallemia sebi, costing around $150.
The Environmental Relative Moldiness Index (ERMI) was developed by the US Environmental Protection Agency to assess the overall mold burden in a space by quantifying 36 molds and comparing their levels against a reference database. The ERMI runs from about $200 to $350, depending on testing factors.
Companies offering HERTSMI-2 and ERMI testing include:
• Mycometrics: www.mycometrics.com
• EnviroBiomics: www.envirobiomics.com
• EMLab P&K: www.emlab.com
• EMSL Analytical: www.emsl.com
Petri dish tests
Home test kits can be purchased at home improvement stores or online quite cheaply ($10-$80).
Disadvantages: They attract many different molds, so test results are difficult to interpret. Many toxic molds, including Stachybotrys, don't readily show up in these tests.
These detect the presence of spores from different species of mold in the air. Usually conducted by indoor air quality professionals.
Disadvantages: These tests miss mold fragments and other genetic material indicating the presence of molds. They also tend to miss Stachybotrys, which releases a heavy spore that quickly falls to the floor. And they're expensive, costing $1,000 and up.
Testing for mold/mycotoxins in humans, in most cases, requires only a urine sample. Sometimes nasal and sputum tests are done. Rarely, a tissue biopsy may be required. The following are tests recommended by Dr Ritchie Shoemaker:
Vasoactive intestinal polypeptide (VIP)
Vasoactive intestinal polypeptide is a hormone with receptors in the hypothalamus, the brain area that regulates the autonomic ('fight-or-flight') nervous system and the pituitary gland. Dr Shoemaker claims that every mold patient he's ever worked with had low VIP scores.
Melanocyte-stimulating hormone (MSH)
Alpha melanocyte-stimulating hormone (MSH) has multiple anti-inflammatory and neurohormonal regulatory functions. Most (95 percent) of Shoemaker's patients present with low numbers.
Transforming growth factor beta-1 (TGF beta-1) TGF beta-1 is a protein that regulates immune pathways, controlling the growth and division of cells. If levels of this growth factor are too high, it can act as an autoimmune suppressant.
C4a is an inflammatory marker indicating immune responses to mold exposure.
Oliver Barnett also recommends:
• Great Plains Laboratory mycotoxin test: www.greatplainslaboratory.com
• Chronic Inflammation Response System test: www.chronicinflammationtest.com/the-test
• Visual contrast test (a free online test of contrast sensitivity, linked to neurotoxin exposure): www.vcstest.com
What to do if you have a mold problem in your house
If you do have mold in your environment, here are the best things to do, according to the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA):
Fix all plumbing leaks and other water problems within 24-48 hours. Regardless of the type of mold present, the key is to clean up the mold and fix the water problem. If you clean up the mold but don't fix the water problem, the mold will come back.
To clean up mold:
• Scrub mold off hard surfaces with detergent and water. Any type of detergent can be used to clean up mold.
• Absorbent or porous materials, such as ceiling tiles and carpet, should be thrown away if they become moldy. Mold can grow on or fill in the empty spaces and crevices of porous materials, so the mold may be difficult or impossible to totally remove.
• Make sure all items are dried completely.
• If a large area is contaminated (more than 10 square feet), it is recommended to bring in a professional cleaner.
The EPA recommends using detergent and water to clean up mold, rather than biocides (substances such as chlorine bleach that can destroy living organisms). When immune-compromised individuals are present, use of biocides may be necessary. But, in most cases, it is not possible or desirable to sterilize an area because a background level of mold spores will remain, and mold may still cause allergic reactions. So it is not enough to simply kill the mold using biocides. It must also be removed using detergent and water.
• If using disinfectants or biocides, always ventilate the area and exhaust the air to the outdoors.
• Never mix chlorine bleach solution with other cleaning solutions or detergents that contain ammonia because toxic fumes can be produced.
For more information, visit: www.epa.gov/mold
For information on detergents, visit: www.epa.gov/saferchoice/safer-ingredients
How to recover from mold
• Get out of the mold environment
• Try Traditional Chinese Medicine
• Detox: Use mycotoxin binders such as activated charcoal, coconut charcoal, modified citrus pectin, zeolite and bentonite clays, ionic foot baths and infrared saunas
• Eat healthy: Avoid grains, sugar, alcohol, processed foods and any other inflammatory foods, including dairy
• Supplement: Try glutathione, NAC, vitamin B12, vitamin B6, vitamin C, vitamin D, coenzyme Q10, magnesium, selenium, zinc, alpha lipoic acid
Dr Jennifer Armstrong, Ottawa Environmental Health Clinic: www.oehc.ca
Dr Mary Ackerley:
Dr Eboni Cornish: www.fivestoneswellness.com/provider/dr-eboni-cornish
Olivia Liu, L.Ac.:
Dr Ritchie Shoemaker:
For information on mold exposure:
International Society of Environmentally Acquired Illness: www.iseai.org