Behind all the sensational headlines about the health risks associated with toxic black mold, and the news stories about elementary schools having to be evacuated due to black mold contamination, there is this simple truth: you can die from black mold.
In reality, the source of your health problems, and possible demise, may not only be the black mold spores, but also the toxic gasses (known as mycotoxins) that are released as the spores propagate and the colony expands. Technically speaking, molds are members of the Kingdom Fungi, which is an extremely diverse kingdom containing over 1 million unique species of mushrooms, molds, mildews and yeasts (although both fungi, and similar in appearance, molds and mildews are distinctly different species).
Before you begin to suffer any of the health effects of black mold exposure, the mold spores and/or mycotoxins must first enter your body. There are three basic routes of entry for these allergens and each is responsible for a different variety of exposure symptoms. The three routes of entry are inhalation, ingestion and absorption through the skin.
Inhalation is the most common route of entry since we will inhale any and all allergens that are suspended in the air we breathe. In the case of areas of mold infestation, there are both individual mold spores and mycotoxin gases generated by the mature mold colony. Regardless of whether you breathe in through your nose or mouth, the ultimate destination of the inhaled allergens is your lungs. These will trigger the same symptoms associated with more common allergic reactions, such as hay fever, asthma and conjunctivitis (commonly known as pink eye).
The second most common route of entry associated with molds is ingestion. Though not a common route of entry for black mold, there are many species of mold that thrive on fruits, vegetables and other foods. We’ve all seen fruits and vegetables that have been in the supermarket just a little too long, and possibly even bread that’s been forgotten in the back of the refrigerator – it turns moldy. However, before the mold colony becomes large enough to be visible, the spores start to germinate invisibly on the skin. This is why it is critical to not only wash fruits and vegetables before eating them (especially those that are to be eaten raw), but also to not eat those that are no longer ripe. All it takes is one bite into a contaminated apple, and you’ve ingested potentially hazardous mold.
The final route of entry for molds is by absorption through your skin. When black mold is detected in your home, the possibility of physical contact is greatly increased. If a protective barrier is not provided between your skin and the mold (most commonly in the form of gloves and long sleeve shirts), contact dermatitis is almost guaranteed as the mold is absorbed through your skin. The severity of the ensuing rash, and other exposure symptoms, will depend on the species of mold, amount of exposure and your individual sensitivity.
The quantity of mold particles (technically known as colony forming units or CFU’s) or airborne spores that a person comes in contact with is known as the level of exposure. The higher the level of exposure, the greater the risk to your health. Unfortunately, there is no well defined exposure level, below which you would be considered to be safe from the hazardous health effects of toxic mold exposure. There are four main reasons for this. First, there is a wide variety of toxicity among the thousands of different species of mold that you can be exposed to, so any critical exposure level would vary from species to species. Second, what exactly are you measuring the level of, the CFU’s or the airborne spores? Since mold toxicity results from the combined exposure of the CFU’s and airborne spores, it is necessary to measure both, so a single exposure level number may only tell you half the story. This is especially true when trying to measure an airborne spore count, as airborne levels are also known to vary significantly with time. So, third, not all measurement methods are created equal. When trying to measure the level of airborne spores, the culture medium (the nutrient surface onto which the spores are deposited so they can grow and be counted) will directly effect your results. Not only are not all airborne spores viable (capable of growth), but they may not be detectable by the chosen detection medium. Additionally, the mold spores that are detected may not be toxic, while those that remain undetected pose the most serious health risk. For these reasons, you are more likely to detect a mold problem in your home visually, than with any single exposure level measurement.
The fourth reason that there is no well defined exposure level, is that everyone has a different sensitivity to mold (just as some people are highly allergic to pollen and others are not). People who will have the most adverse reaction to toxic mold exposure will typically fall into three distinct categories, infants/young children, the elderly, and the immune compromised. This is not to imply that these are the only factors that will determine the severity of adverse health symptoms displayed by a person who is exposed to black mold toxins or mold spores. There is also the possibility that the exposed person will have a highly adverse, anaphylactic reaction, similar to the 50 – 100 people who die yearly from bee stings. Unfortunately, aside from the higher risk categories previously mentioned, it is impossible to predict an individual’s sensitivity until they are actually exposed.
Aside from the unfortunate few that may die from an immediate anaphylactic reaction to mold, most healthy people will experience much milder primary symptoms of mold exposure. The most commonly reported symptoms of toxic mold exposure are:
- Watery and itchy eyes
- Skin irritation (rash)
You’ll notice that these symptoms are identical to those that you would expect anyone to display who has any type of allergy. This is one of the reasons why it is so difficult to accurately diagnose mold exposure (especially if the mold is not visible in building – home or workplace – where the exposure takes place). Unless properly diagnosed, these common allergy symptoms can easily progress to more advanced symptoms upon continued mold exposure.
There are a very wide variety of advanced symptoms of mold exposure and it is very difficult to predict which one, or ones, you will display. The reason, as previously mentioned, is that there are thousands of different species of molds, and their related health effects will depend on both your level of exposure and individual sensitivity. Following are some of the advanced health effects that you may experience (but are not limited to) that are (loosely) grouped by affected area.
- Respiratory symptoms include: sudden asthma attacks, breathing disorders, chronic bronchitis and a feeling of constant fatigue.
- Neurological symptoms may include: constant headaches, short term memory loss, and nervous disorders.
- Physical symptoms may include: nose bleeds, coughing up blood, nausea, diarrhea, vomiting, weight loss, hair loss, ear infections, chronic sinus infections, skin rashes, open sores, swollen glands in the neck and armpits, sexual dysfunction, and painful joints and muscles.
Finally, if the exposure is long term, and at sufficiently high levels, the most severe symptoms of mold exposure will develop. Late symptoms of mold exposure may include, but are not limited to;
- Long Term memory loss
- Brain damage
- Bleeding lungs
The health risks associated with mold exposure will vary in severity based on several factors, which include the species of mold, the exposure level, route of entry, the individual’s sensitivity and the length of exposure. Although early exposure symptoms may be as mild as those associated with common allergies, over extended periods of time, and at elevated exposure levels, the associated health hazards may result in serious injury – including death. So the next time you see a sensational headline about how a school or office building was evacuated due to the discovery of toxic mold, don’t dismiss it as just someone over-reacting because the reality is that you can die from black mold exposure.