Mold exposure is extremely common and can be extremely bad for your health.
Heck, even the Bible mentions the danger of mold (Leviticus 14)!
Yet, most of us are completely unaware of the common sources of mold (including some of our nation’s favorite foods!) and the symptoms that can indicate a serious problem.
Now, when I say a “serious mold problem,” I’m not just talking about common allergic reactions some people experience when they walk into an old home or damp basement (like sneezing, coughing, a runny nose, itchy eyes, etc.).
The truth is, the hazards of mold exposure can go way beyond these fleeting symptoms.
Mold is not only an allergen it’s also a toxin
Let me repeat: mold can be both an allergen—which is what most of us are familiar with and/or have experienced—and a toxin, which often poses a much greater and hidden health threat.
The mold toxins I’m referring to are technically known as mycotoxins, potent chemicals produced from certain species of mold in the “right” conditions.
These mycotoxins are attached to mold spores, mold fragments, and dust particles that wind up floating around the air and settling on household dust.
In other words, they can be very hard to get rid of once they find their way into your home, office, school, etc.
And it’s these chemical toxins that are at the root of, or a contributing factor in, a wide variety of chronic diseases.
So yeah, mold sickness is a real thing! I’ve observed and diagnosed it clinically in countless patients, and gone through my own personal hell of mycotoxin exposure.
Here’s my story of mycotoxin illness and recovery
Several years ago my husband and I embarked on a home renovation of our master bathroom. Once we got started we quickly realized there was mold all over the place. Unfortunately, I didn’t know how important it was to take serious precautions, and neither did our contractor. So, we continued the demo and reconstruction with no protection, abatement, or a care in the world.
That was one of the biggest mistakes of my life.
Around this same time I was struggling with mysterious health problems including digestive issues, food sensitivities, skin rashes, crippling headaches, nose bleeds, and recurrent miscarriages. To say we were devastated, frustrated, and frightened would be an understatement.
Here we were, both highly educated doctors (and committed health nuts) and we couldn’t figure out why my health had degraded so quickly. It was a dark and lonely time.
Fortunately, that’s also when I found functional medicine. And after much study, trial and error, and guesswork, I now have no doubt that mold and mycotoxin exposure played a central role in my fertility problems (and basically everything else).
Thankfully, integrative functional medicine taught me what I needed to do to recover my health and go on to have healthy babies.
However, there is some damage that you just can’t undo. And to this day I still struggle with mold sensitivity (and I’ll share how to deal with that coming up).
So, again, mold sickness and mold sensitivity is a very real thing. Don’t believe anyone who tries to tell you otherwise.
Symptoms of mold exposure
The number of health issues that could be rooted in mold and mycotoxin exposure is pretty darn extensive.
However, if you identify with the symptoms on this list I’d encourage you to get excited rather than overwhelmed or paranoid. Because if you do happen to have a mold problem, #1: it is fixable, and #2: it could be the answer (or a big part of the answer) to your mysterious health problems.
So while it can seem like a big scary hairy deal, recognizing a possible connection is actually a very positive and empowering thing for many people.
So let’s take a deep breath and dive in:
- Significantly higher rates of asthma in adults1 and in children.2
- Unexplained headaches, dizziness, nausea.3
- Chronic fatigue.4
- Excessive mucus, nasal congestion, sneezing, watery eyes, itchy eyes.5
- Chronic sinusitis6
- Chronic/ recurrent candida or fungal overgrowth.8
- Impaired immune function and susceptibility to infections.9
- Hormonal imbalances, endocrine disruption, miscarriage, precocious puberty, impaired fertility.10,11,12
- Skin rashes, in particular eczema. In fact, prenatal mold exposure is associated with development of eczema in infants.13
- Neurological effects including cognitive impairment, Alzheimer’s, autism and developmental issues in children.14,15
- Poor mental health including depression, anxiety, paranoia, social introversion.16
- Autoimmune disease like Rheumatoid Arthritis17 and Multiple Sclerosis.18
- Musculoskeletal ailments/ achiness.20
The first step to eradicating mold and mycotoxins: evaluate your environment
If you suspect mold in your home and/or have a positive urine mycotoxin test result (which I offer in my practice), determining the source (past or present) can be complicated, and is often a process of elimination.
In other words: this is not something that happens overnight. However, it is well worth the time and effort.
Ideally, you’ll want to have a trained inspector come and do a thorough evaluation.
I am a full member of ISEAI (International Society for Environmentally Acquired Illness) and typically refer people there to find an environmental/ mold inspector as they’ll have the appropriate training and equipment to detect many types of mold, and will also appreciate that mold can cause human illness.
Important note: most home inspectors are not trained or required to look for mold. So don’t presume your home is mold-free just because it passed inspection before purchase.
In the meantime, there are things you can do to observe potential problems yourself, including looking for any obvious water intrusion, musty smells, and powdery white stuff on basement or attic joists (sometimes you need a flashlight to see this).
Some common areas of concern include: crawl spaces (especially unsealed ones), swamp coolers, flat roofs, condensation on the inside of windows, negative slope for drainage, humidity greater than 50%, and improperly scaled HVACs, to name a few.
If you do happen to find mold, don’t panic.
It’s not uncommon and there are things you can do to reduce your exposure before it’s properly abated and removed, including:
- Opening your windows often
- Spending time outdoors
- Using ventilation fans
- Running an air purifier
- If you suspect mold in or near a bedroom (including underneath or above a bedroom), I’d recommend temporarily moving out of that bedroom until it’s taken care of.
Best mold and mycotoxin tests
A good inspector will typically perform a visual mold inspection, utilizing sophisticated equipment to detect moisture, humidity and fine particulate count.
They may or may not recommend additional testing to measure mold counts.
I endorse some of these tests, as they give us valuable information about species and mold counts. However, none of them are 100% perfect so it may take more than one test to uncover an issue (remember what I said earlier? This process doesn’t happen overnight).
Here are the mold and mycotoxin tests I generally recommend:
- EMMA—I generally recommend that people use the EMMA to test their HVAC filters, since the HVAC system is often overlooked. The EMMA test uses sensitive molecular detection technology to look for the presence of 10 of the most toxic types of mold, as well as 15 types of mycotoxins. This is a test you can order on your own, but it may be less expensive if you have a physician order it for you.
- ERMI/HERTSMI—ERMI stands for Environmental Relative Moldiness index and it was developed by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. ERMI analyzes settled dust in homes using PCR (polymerase chain reaction) to measure for 36 types of molds. From there you can calculate the HERTSMI (Health Effects Roster of Type-Specific Formers of Mycotoxins and Inflammagens) based on the presence of the “Big 5” molds: Aspergillus Penicilloides, Aspergillus Versicolor, Chaetomium Globosum, Stachybotrys Chartarum, and Wallemia Sebi. This is a test you can order on your own.
- Gravity Plate Testing—this is a simple, inexpensive and basic screening method that allows you to test for mold yourself. It is recommended that you test areas that are known or suspected of having water leaks, and keep windows closed for at least six hours prior to testing. This does not preclude the need to hire a certified environmental inspector to perform more extensive testing and inspection. It is not a perfect test and even if negative it does not rule out a mold issue. But if positive it may help guide you, and help identify specific rooms that are of concern.
If your inspector does confirm the presence of mold in the home, they will discuss the most effective professional abatement procedures with you.
I must stress it is SO very important that you do not attempt to DIY a mold removal project.
This is best left to the professionals who have all the protective equipment, ventilation tools, air purification systems, and abatement procedures in place so nobody gets sicker and your house doesn’t wind up more contaminated than when removal started.
Leave it to the pros lest you risk further degrading your health.
14 Things To Do If You’re Mold Sensitive or Have Been Impacted by Mold
- Your bedroom is a sanctuary! Keep it free of clutter and dust. Your bedding is important and should be protected with 100% organic cotton zippered mattress and pillow covers. If you need to replace a mattress, look at IntelliBED and MyGreenMattress.com for a few of my favorite non-toxic mattress options.
- Keep dust to a minimum (toxins cling to dust). Invest in a high quality true-HEPA filter vacuum like Dyson, NilFisk or Miele. Swiffers or microfiber cloths are also helpful.
- Use airtight plastic bins rather than cardboard boxes to store papers, albums, books, holiday items, etc. Unbox packages outside your front door and get rid of boxes immediately.
- If you have a front loading washer, be sure to clean it regularly (the boot gets nasty) and leave the door open to dry when you’re finished washing to discourage mold build-up. Better yet – get a top loader if possible.
- Add MicroBalance E3C or Citrisafe mold solution concentrate to your laundry.
- Use a high quality triple element air purifier including HEPA, carbon, and zeolite to minimize chemical exposures, especially in the bedroom. I recommend the Austin Air HealthMate Plus or Bedroom Machine for most people. IQAir and Air Doctor are also good.
- Change your furnace filter(s) regularly using a high-quality filter. If MERV rating is too high it can impede air flow. Various inspectors have suggested anywhere from MERV 11-16. I use the 3M Filtrete Ultra Allergen Air Filters in the purple package.
- Use the bathroom fan when you shower to help regulate humidity.
- A simple way to improve ventilation is to purge the air in your home by opening doors and windows for 5-10 minutes a day.
- If you have the resources, look into installing an air exchanger unit like ERV (Energy Recovery Ventilator) or HRV (Heat Recovery Ventilator). These units can help circulate fresh air by pushing stale indoor air out of your home while bringing in fresh air from the outside.
- There are also in-duct, whole home air purification systems, but you’ll want to avoid anything that produces ozone as a byproduct. We installed the Reme HALO-LED unit in our home.
- Fog using a non-toxic treatment like Haven by Biobalance Mist (monthly) and dry fog (yearly) to help minimize spore counts.
- Ditch the diaper genie. These can be a hidden source of mold. Take the diapers out right away. If you use cloth diapers, wash them often.
- Clean out the drains monthly using baking soda and vinegar.
Avoiding mold and mycotoxins in food
A low-mold diet can be helpful for those who are mold sensitive. Some foods can be contaminated with mycotoxin, or known to be triggers for people with fungal overgrowth.
Most people who are mold sensitive should limit or avoid the following:
- Packaged and processed foods
- Corn, grains, rice, sorghum, wheat, rye, barley
- Dried fruits
- Processed meats
- Vinegar except apple cider vinegar
And have caution with the following:
- Nuts– It’s best to buy these packaged vs bulk and keep them in the refrigerator. Peanuts, pistachios, and cashews are often contaminated.
- Chocolate—I know this is a bummer. And to make matters worse, I’ve yet to find a reputable brand that tests for mycotoxins. Thus, if you want to continue eating chocolate my best advice is to buy the highest quality dark chocolate that you can and experiment to see how you feel. And remember, even organic, dark chocolate should still be considered a once in a while thing…mold or no mold.
- Coffee– I recommend Purity or Bulletproof coffee which are tested for mycotoxins
- Tea—I recommend Pique Tea, which is screened for mycotoxins
A final piece of advice, don’t go it alone!
Getting to the bottom of any chronic mysterious illness can be an exhausting experience. Especially if you’ve been to all the “best doctors” with unsatisfactory results.
To top it off, most highly-trained and well intentioned doctors are still unaware of the signs and symptoms of mold/mycotoxin toxicity. Unfortunately, this is not something we learn a lot about in medical school.
That’s why it’s so important to find a quality functional medicine physician trained and experienced in mold and mycotoxin illness (which is not everyone) to help you navigate this bumpy terrain.
I wish I would have known more about mold and mycotoxins when I tackled that bathroom renovation years ago. However the experience, while painful, has allowed me to be a source of answers and hope to others.
And don’t give up. The truth is out there and you absolutely deserve to find the real answers you need to get your life back.