My company has been performing Indoor Air Quality (IAQ) assessments for mold in homes and public buildings for several years. During that time, we have encountered people with a number of health problems living or working in environments that contain mold. It’s only natural to wonder whether or not the presence of mold is a contributing factor to these people’s health problems.
A Mold “Primer”
First, mold is everywhere and is a natural part of the environment. It’s job is to breakdown dead organic material and in the process, release nutrients into the soil where they become available for living plants. Although molds are everywhere, they only grow where there is a food source and moisture. This is the reason you usually find mold growing in damp areas due to plumbing, roofing, or other types of leaks.
Molds grow in colonies and there are thousands of different types. Once a colony finds a food source and becomes established, it defends it’s “territory” by spreading chemicals called mycotoxins in order to prevent other molds from moving in. The most familiar example of this is bread mold, which produces what we call penicillin in order to keep other molds away.
Molds become a problem indoors for several reasons. The first is physical. According to the EPA’s “Mold Remediation in Schools and Commercial Buildings,” molds destroy the materials they are growing on. This can eventually lead to structural problems if the mold – and the underlying moisture problem – is not properly addressed.
Secondly, molds can create, or contribute to, health problems. Molds are microscopic and mold spores easily become airborne when disturbed. As a result, anyone living or working nearby can introduce them into their lungs through normal breathing. In many people, this can create allergic symptoms due to the mold spore itself, or chemical symptoms due to the mycotoxins.
The Link Between Mold and Depression
Although mold has been implicated as the probable cause for a number of health problems, solid proof has been difficult to come by, mainly because people can react to mold exposure in many different ways. This makes it very difficult to determine a cause-effect relationship. However, one study performed in late 2007 found a connection between mold (along with the damp conditions necessary for mold growth) and depression in the inhabitants of moldy buildings.
In an article titled “Dampness and Mold in the Home and Depression: An Examination of Mold-Related Illness and Perceived Control of Ones Home as Possible Depression Pathways” and published in the American Journal of Public Health, researchers found “…a solid association between depression and living in a damp, moldy home.” Although the study does not prove that mold causes depression (a cause-effect relationship), it does show that there is a connection, or link, between the two.
The researchers think that there are two reasons for this link. The first is the effect that mold has on a person’s physical health. These can include the allergic symptoms already mentioned. When you’re not feeling well, it’s easy to get depressed. The second reason comes from a perceived lack of control over the housing environment, the feeling that you can’t afford to fix the mold problems or move altogether.
Edmond Shenassa, the research team leader, said, “Physical health, and perceptions of control, are linked with an elevated risk for depression, and that makes sense. If you are sick from mold, and feel you can’t get rid of it, it may affect your mental health.” Shenassa also stated that “What the study makes clear is the importance of housing as an indicator of health, including mental health.”
Healthy Homes Can Promote Healthy Lives
A final comment by Shenassa was that “Healthy homes can promote lives.” Amen to that. But how do you create and maintain a healthy home? Here are a couple of tips to prevent mold from growing indoors:
- Keep your home well maintained and in good repair. Immediately repair any water leaks or wet spots that may be caused by plumbing problems, roof leaks, condensation, or any other causes.
- Routinely check for damp or wet spots around all sinks, faucets, and plumbing fixtures as well as around windows and doors. Don’t forget to check dishwashers and ice makers, too.
- Clean up any liquid spills or water leaks immediately and make sure the surrounding area is thoroughly dry.
- Your HVAC regulates humidity in addition to temperature so make sure it’s working properly.
- Frequently inspect and dry areas around moisture sources such as potted plants, aquariums, pet drinking bowls, etc.
- Get professional help with repairs and/or clean up if you need it. See the EPA document referenced above for advice and tips.
The Next Steps
Understand that preventing mold from growing indoors is just one step towards creating a “healthy home.” Other steps can include reducing the amount of particulates in the indoor air, a topic I wrote about in “Indoor Air Quality and Heart Disease.” You should also address other potential hazards such as radon, carbon monoxide, volatile organic compounds (VOC) from glues, paints, or pesticides, as well as asbestos and possibly lead-based paints. You can find more information on these in the EPA’s “The Inside Story: A Guide to Indoor Air Quality.”
I can’t sum up the intent of this post any better than by quoting Edmond Shenassa: “Healthy homes can promote healthy lives.” Americans spend a significant portion of their day indoors. Doesn’t it make sense that your physical and mental health would be tied to, and affected by, your environment?
The Balanced Health Guy
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