Toxic mold, sometimes called black mold, is a term used to describe a variety of fungi that can grow indoors. Despite the names, the mold comes in many colors and is not itself toxic; rather, it releases substances called mycotoxins that can cause toxic reactions, including flu symptoms, respiratory problems, headaches, skin irritation and cognitive problems. Mold also releases spores that commonly cause an allergic reaction in humans, and can less commonly cause a fungal infection of the sinuses, digestive tract, skin or lungs. It can live on drywall, wood and carpets and is exacerbated by darkness and poor ventilation. Toxic mold is more common in buildings constructed after the 1970s, which are more airtight, and is more likely to occur in buildings with persistent water leaks or flooding.
Toxic Mold — An Overview
Molds are a part of the kingdom of organisms called fungi and also include mushrooms, mildews, and yeasts. No one knows exactly how many fungi species exist, but estimates are between 50,000 and 250,000. Of these, fewer than 200 have been described as causing infections in humans, or as human pathogens. Molds can be found almost anywhere indoors and outdoors where the following exist: food (any organic matter), oxygen, temperature (different types of molds grow in different temperatures), and moisture (different types of molds grow in different levels of moisture from dry to very wet conditions). Molds play an important role in the natural environment as they function to break down dead organic matter such as fallen leaves and dead trees. Molds also grow indoors where moisture or wet conditions occur. More than 1,000 different kinds of molds exist indoors.
The term “toxic mold” is scientifically inaccurate, since mold itself is not toxic. Toxic mold is a general term that is being used to refer to a number of different molds. The terms toxic black mold and black mold are also used. One of the most common types of toxic mold is Stachybotrys chartarum. Although this specific mold is a greenish black, mold can be one of many different colors including brown, red, blue, orange, pink, white, or green. Other types include members of the genera Aspergillus, Candida, Cladosporium, Myrothecium, Penicillium, and Trichoderma.
Toxic Mold and Mycotoxins
The term “toxic” in toxic mold actually refers to chemical substances, called mycotoxins, released by molds. Several reasons for their release have been postulated: (1) mycotoxins may prevent other molds from growing in an area since mycotoxins from a specific mold are poisonous to other molds; (2) mycotoxins could prepare a surface or substrate so that a mold can use it for food; and/or (3) a mold may produce mycotoxins when it is under stress. Thus technically molds are toxigenic but are not toxic.
Toxic Mold and Spores
Molds reproduce and grow by producing microscopic spores. These spores then float in the air-indoors and outside-until they find an appropriate substrate or surface on which to grow. Until spores find a place where they have oxygen, food, and moisture at the right temperature, they can survive dry environmental conditions for a very long time. Mold and mold spores generally need a wet or moist environment in which to grow. Warm, damp, and humid conditions are ideal for growing mold. Mold spores can enter a house from the outside through a variety of ways including open doorways, windows, and heating, ventilation, and air conditioning systems with outdoor air intakes. Since mold spores are just floating in the air outside, they can land on people-on their clothing, shoes, bags, etc.-and animals and be brought inside when people and animals go indoors.
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Toxic Mold: An Emerging Health Crisis
Mold is one of the earliest organisms on this planet. It is ubiquitous; it can be found almost anywhere indoors and outdoors. Molds grow at different temperatures and humidity conditions. However, many species of molds grow the best in humid climates and in areas of high humidity. This is why mold growth is common in bathrooms, since invariably the air there is warm and moist. However, mold can grow in quite cold temperatures as anyone who has forgotten about a food item in the refrigerator knows.
However, if mold is practically everywhere and has been around for forever, why then is the problem of toxic mold relatively new? Due to the energy crisis of the 1970s, building construction techniques changed. Buildings, residential (homes) and retail/commercial (stores, offices, factories, schools), became more airtight so as to prevent warm air from escaping in the wintertime through and around windows and doors. Building materials have also changed over time. Newer building materials, those made of paper and/or cellulose such as drywall, insulation, wallpaper, fiberboard, and ceiling tiles, give spore-producing mold a place to grow and thrive, and a source of food. These paper-based building materials can provide mold a perfect growing environment when they become wet or moist. This is why toxic mold can become such a problem when flooding occurs as is the case for those parts of the southern United States hit by Hurricanes Katrina and Rita. But minor water releases due to plumbing failures, condensation, residential water leaks and excessive moisture due to leakage in roofs, pipes, walls, and plant pots can also provide ideal growing conditions for mold and toxic mold.