The microscopic fungi known as molds have always been among us, but we are learning more about the harm they can do.
These tiny plants live on plant or animal matter. The number of mold species is not known and estimates range from tens of thousands to hundreds of thousands. They are a vital part of the environment, helping break down plant and animal matter as part of the decomposition process.
Molds are found almost everywhere, both indoors and out, on surfaces such as decaying leaves or damp basements. Most of us are familiar with the appearance of mold on outdated leftovers in the refrigerator, and the fact even unseen molds can cause food poisoning.
Mold can also be a serious respiratory hazard when the airborne spores are breathed in, causing irritation to the nose, lungs and eyes.
Histoplasmosis, for example, is an infection caused by inhaling the spores of a fungus found in accumulations of bird manure or bat droppings. A chronic lung disease resembling tuberculosis can develop, and it can be fatal. Histoplasmosis can affect poultry workers, maintenance workers and even cave explorers who encounter bat roosts. The risk of histoplasmosis is one of the good reasons for discouraging birds and bats from colonizing buildings such as industrial plants and warehouses. Cleanup should involve a good HEPA vacuuming system and the approved respiratory protection.
Another potentially fatal illness is caused by a black mold called Stachybotrys chartarum. The lungs bleed chronically, causing a cough, congestion and anemia. In the past seven years 16 infants, most under six months of age, have died in Cleveland, OH, apparently from exposure to this mold in their homes.
Fungi is also a common suspect in building related illness, with complaints of fatigue, headache and respiratory problems.
So how can you protect yourself from exposure to an infectious mold?
Learn about the risks related to your region and industry, as well as risks related to your own state of health. Find out how to protect yourself by avoiding exposure and using personal protective equipment.
Try to eliminate mold in your home and workplace. A moldy, musty smell is good evidence mold is present. Physically searching for mold is recognized as the most useful first step rather than attempting air monitoring for mold spores.
Scrub non-porous surfaces with a mixture of one cup of bleach to one gallon of water. Protect your lungs, eyes and skin during this work.
Discard moldy materials that are porous because you won’t be able to get them clean. Upholstered furniture, books and wood should be thrown away.