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April 3, 2006

A University of Michigan Health Minute update on important health issues.

It's dark, it's dangerous, and it's alive: Mold can cause serious health problems, U-M expert warns

Wet, mild winter may lead to difficult springtime for allergy sufferers

ANN ARBOR, MI – Geri Isaacson’s son first noticed that something was wrong in their basement. Earlier this year, he discovered a problem with the carpet – a squishiness, a sign of moisture in the house that Isaacson hadn’t noticed previously because of the dark color of the flooring.


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That early sign of trouble was a bad omen of things to come. When fans and dehumidifiers didn’t take care of all of the moisture in the house, the family began to pry off the trim on a wall. Behind it was something no homeowner wants to see: black mold.

An excavator discovered the drain from the gutters was the source of the moisture, and the Isaacsons fixed that problem. But they still needed to repair the pervasive damage to the basement. After all, nothing less than the family’s health was at stake.

“I started to notice a cough and a sinus problem” with her son and daughter, “so I didn’t let them come downstairs,” she says. “And I’m just getting over bronchitis.”

Expect more symptoms like those this spring, says an expert from the University of Michigan Health System. Because of the wet and relatively mild weather this winter throughout much of the country – particularly the Northwest and parts of the Midwest – mold and other spring allergies could be especially bad this year.

“With the dampness and lack of snow cover we’ve had, we may have more molds this year than in years past,” says Andrew Singer, M.D., clinical instructor in the Department of Internal Medicine’s Division of Allergy and Immunology and in the Department of Pediatrics and Communicable Diseases at the University of Michigan Medical School.

While nobody knows exactly how many people are sensitized or allergic to mold, it is known to be a common problem, Singer says. Of the patients he sees who have hay fever or nasal allergies, 20 to 30 percent also have sensitivities to various molds, he says, and mold can be a big problem for people with asthma in particular.

Symptoms of a mold allergy, he says, may include a running nose, lots of sneezing, red and itchy eyes, as well as symptoms in asthmatics that may include increased coughing, wheezing, shortness of breath and a greater need for rescue medications used to control asthma.

Mold can grow outside and indoors, often in places people don’t think to look for it. Outside, it can be found in wet leaves in the fall, in gardening soil and in mulch. When it is relatively dry outside, it may be drifting in the air as mold spores.

Health Minute ImageIndoors, even people who seem to have clean homes can have problems with mold. It often is found in showers and other parts of the bathroom, in houseplants and on window sills, as well as anywhere affected by burst pipes or other deluges of water.

“Mold can be very difficult to get rid of once it has gotten into your house. I think first and foremost, you should make sure you eliminate the source of the water, fix any leaky pipes and keep the internal environment as dry as you can. Then you should use a bleach solution to clean the obvious mold that you see,” Singer says. “The problem a lot of times is with porous things such as wall board, fiber board and insulation, where you may clean only the surface mold and not touch the mold that’s deep down below the surface.”

He also recommends that they see their allergist, internal medicine provider or family medicine provider to make sure a chronic sinus infection isn’t causing the symptoms.

As for Geri Isaacson, she’s had enough of the mold and its effect on her family’s health. She plans to have a professional cleaning company remove the mold from the walls and carpets in her basement.

Seven things you should know about mold and allergies:

  • People with sensitivities or allergies to mold should limit camping and walks through tall plant growth, limit their exposure to disturbed plant materials, seal off moisture sources and use humidifiers indoors, beware of cool-mist vaporizers that can harbor mold if not cleaned daily, and remove visible mold by scouring with a bleach solution.
  • Mold allergies can trigger a person’s asthma, as well as causing symptoms such as sneezing, or a stuffy or runny nose.
  • Signs of a mold problem in the house include: moisture or water damage such as leaks, stains, discoloration on the walls; growths that are black, yellow or other colors and have a texture like leather, cotton or velvet; and musty or earthy odors.
  • While some mold is visible, mold growths also can hide under flooring, behind furniture, or inside of walls.
  • There are more than 100,000 types of mold. Varieties of black mold can be particularly harmful to one’s health.
  • When mold is growing on porous materials such as drywall, plaster, paneling, ceiling tiles or carpet, completely remove the material, bag it, and discard it. Non-porous materials, such as metal and glass, do not need to be discarded.
  • If you have allergies, asthma or emphysema, check with your doctor before cleaning an area that has mold, or have someone else do the cleanup.

For more information, visit these Web sites:
U-M Health Topics A-Z: Avoiding Molds

U-M Health Topics A-Z: Allergies

Michigan Department of Community Health: Information about mold

EPA guide to mold in your home

CDC facts about mold and dampness

CDC information about molds in the environment


Written by Katie Gazella


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