As a fan of green living for you and your children, you likely prioritize natural ingredients in your household products — and you know that synthetic chemicals can cause organ toxicity. Unfortunately, Mother Nature has its own toxins, and you need not venture into the jungle to find them. An estimated 70%-100% of U.S. homes contain mold, a huge detriment to indoor air quality (IAQ) and an alarming risk to your health.
We’re not just talking about the unsightly mildew in your bathroom or the blue spots on your bread. Mold comes in many forms, and some can cause serious neurological and respiratory damage. So while you’re ridding your home of parabens, glycols, and VOCs, check for mold as well. Here’s what to know.
What is Mold, Anyway?
Mold is a type of fungus. Overall, fungi are beneficial: they break down decaying matter and create a source of nutrients for countless species — including us! Mushrooms have amazing nutritional and medicinal benefits. Penicillin revolutionized disease treatment. Yeast complements our gut’s beneficial bacteria. (Pass the sourdough!) And beneath the forest floor, enormous fungal systems bring thousands of plant species into harmony.
Of course, like any group of organisms, some fungi are harmful. They are the primary source of plant disease. Certain types of mushrooms are extremely toxic when ingested. But where benign fungi become harmful is when certain types (i.e., mold and mildew) gain hold in an artificial environment. Without the natural diffusion they’d have outside, they reproduce out of control.
And when we can’t escape their presence, we experience toxic symptoms that we could normally ignore outdoors.
Mold’s Effect on Human Health
Often, we can smell mold before we see it. That classic musty odor in older homes is created by mold. In fact, it’s a natural source of Volatile Organic Compounds (VOCs) that can irritate our respiratory systems.
Rates of asthma have tripled over the past 20 years, and mold is likely to blame. As people have spent more time indoors and homes have become more airtight, moisture builds up. This is the perfect environment for mold, which reproduces via spores. As these spores enter our noses and lungs of our children, they trigger asthma, sinus infections, and allergies.
Recent studies have also implicated mold in indoor air quality (IAQ) problems. For decades, scientists have struggled to identify the mysterious cause of “Monday Fever,” which affects office workers with malaise, gastrointestinal distress, headaches, fatigue, and poor mood. Research now points to mold as a key factor in Monday Fever, which is more commonly called Sick Building Syndrome. Poor IAQ is known to contribute to SBS, but it seems likely that the neurological symptoms are caused specifically by mold.
One fruit-fly study found that exposure to fungal VOCs caused a drop in dopamine, leading to lethargy, disorientation, and oxidative stress. These are key markers of depression and anxiety disorders! While many people report that SBS symptoms fade when they leave the building, long-term exposure could cause lasting damage.
Types of Household Molds
Cladosporium is a common allergen that causes “hay fever” symptoms: itchy eyes, sore throats, and occasionally rashes. It tends to grow on smooth surfaces that retain moisture, such as your air ducts and toilets.
Alternaria thrives in dark, dim areas that tend to stay wet, such as your sinks and showers. It can trigger asthma attacks and allergies.
Aspergillus also grows in ducts. It can cause respiratory infections and inflammation.
Aureobasidium tends to grow on wooden surfaces and walls, especially wallpaper. This pink-and-black species also accumulates around windows and bathtubs, particularly in the caulk.
Chaetomium grows in drywall that’s experienced water damage, as well as damp paper or fiberboard. Known for its musty smell, this species has been linked to childhood asthma, skin irritation, and serious allergies. It can also exacerbate symptoms in immunocompromised people.
Cladosporium is a pervasive species that favors fabric and wood. It tends to grow in carpet, floorboards, old cabinets, and drapes/tapestries. Cladosporium causes allergy symptoms and can aggravate asthma or respiratory disease.
Fusarium loves damp carpets and thick fabrics such as drapes and rugs. While many molds enjoy warmth, this one thrives in cooler environments. It triggers allergies and respiratory illness.
Penicillium chrysogenum gives us penicillin, but when growing unchecked in water-damaged buildings, it can also trigger allergies.
Stachybotrys chartarum is also called black mold, an extremely toxic species. Its mycotoxins have been linked to respiratory distress, dizziness, memory loss, migraines, fatigue, depression, and rashes. It’s also insidious: because its spores are not readily airborne, typical testing may not find it. It is often hiding within poorly maintained HVAC systems or water-damaged walls, especially if the material contains a lot of cellulose (e.g. fiberboard, gypsum). The good news is that black mold requires constant dampness, and solving your moisture problems can inhibit its growth.
Trichoderma longibrachiatum grows on surfaces that retain moisture, such as wallpaper-covered walls, damp carpeting. Like black mold, it produces mycotoxins that cause respiratory infections, as well as toxic peptides that interfere with our excitable cells, i.e. nerves, muscles, and endocrine organs. Unfortunately, it is very difficult to kill, so prevention is crucial.
How to Get Rid of Mold — The Green Way
After learning about mold’s serious health effects, you may be tempted to reach for the fungicide. Hold on, though: many fungicides are synthetic chemicals with their own list of health risks. You could be swapping one form of toxicity for another.
As with any organism, the best way to get rid of it (or at least control it) is to remove its favorable environments. Mold and mildew love dampness. The drier you keep your home, the better.
Keep your HVAC system well maintained to avoid pooling condensation.
Always turn on the exhaust fan or blower after showering.
Wipe up any damp surfaces as soon as possible. Then, disinfect to remove any spores and prevent mold growth:
- Tea tree oil is a potent anti-fungal cleaner that’s 100% natural. In one study, it outperformed industrial fungicides at killing Aspergillus fumigatus and Penicillium chrysogenum
- A simple vinegar solution can kill Penicillium chrysogenum but few others.
- If you need to go a bit more hardcore, use a diluted bleach solution, but always wear gloves, a mask, and goggles to avoid irritation. (But NEVER mix vinegar with bleach or use in the same space. The reaction creates toxic chlorine gas.)
- A 3% hydrogen peroxide solution can inhibit the growth of 6 common species (Alternaria alternata, Aspergillus niger, Chaetomium globosum, Cladosporium herbarum, Penicillium chrysogenum, and Stachybotrys chartarum) but only on hard, non-porous surfaces. (Again, NEVER mix hydrogen peroxide with bleach, as the combination creates toxic peracetic acid.)
- Note: Ethanol does not kill mold at all.
For serious mold issues, a thorough cleaning of your ducts, bathroom and kitchen surfaces, and carpets can remove any lingering spores.
Consider using an air purifier and/or a HEPA-grade filter to capture spores circulating your home.
Overall, prevention is the best cure. Most common household species of mold reach toxic levels because there are so many dark, damp places to thrive within your home. Keep everything as dry and bright as possible. Improving air circulation can also help disperse spores outdoors.
Mold is nothing to mess with. While some types of mold are beneficial, they don’t belong indoors! Constantly breathing in the spores is what causes us and our families to get sick. And species such as Stachybotrys chartarum and Trichoderma longibrachiatum produce literal toxins that can affect the nervous and respiratory systems of our children.
The good news is that we can recover from many mold species once we’re no longer breathing in these spores. So, take the time to inspect your home and spruce up your cleaning regimen. Mold spores will always be a threat, but with proper prevention, you can prevent them from taking hold and causing illness.