Due to the influx of rain experienced in floods globally, there's no surprise the rising damp and mould levels have skyrocketed. Read on for our expert guide on staying healthy during the rainy season.
What are mould and rising damp and how can they impact health
Mould organisms are members of the fungus family, along with mushrooms and yeasts. Species number in the 100,000s and inhabit a wide variety of both indoor and outdoor environments. They like to grow in damp, poorly ventilated areas, especially where humidity is high, such as bathrooms, laundries and kitchens, or near wet locations, such as watercourses. Ceilings and cupboards collect mould if they are damp and air circulation is limited; underground levels and basement areas are quite prone to mould growth, especially with damp seepage from any exposed rocks (as was the case in one funky converted warehouse that I used to live in).
Exposure to moulds can be either by direct contact or inhalation of their spores. Indoor moulds have been categorised into three tiers according to their toxicity1:
Class A Hazard: Highly toxic and require urgent removal from dwellings.
Examples and common locations:
Aspergillus fumigatus – kitchens, bathrooms
Aspergillus versicolor – mattresses, carpets
Aspergillus niger and flavus – indoor plant soil
Fusarium spp - wallpapers
Class B Hazard: May induce allergic reactions with prolonged exposure
Examples and common locations:
Cladosporium cladosporioides – kitchens, bathrooms
Penicillium spp – mattresses, carpets
Trichoderma spp, Scopulariopsis spp - wallpapers
Class C Hazard: Not hazardous to health but may cause economic damage to property. They may be hazardous to individuals with low immunity, such as the elderly and those on immunosuppressant or corticosteroid drugs.
Examples and common locations:
Cladosporium sphaerospermum, Ulocladium botrytis, Chaetomium globosum – kitchens, bathrooms
Wallemia sebi – mattresses, carpets
Rising dampness can occur on walls after wet weather or where there is poor soil drainage, as the water rises inside tiny porous cavities within building materials such as brick, stone and cement. It promotes mould growth, causing a “musty” odour to develop in indoor spaces, like the smell inside old terrace houses by the harbour, caused by volatile toxic metabolites secreted by moulds called “mycotoxins”. These substances can induce various chronic health issues, such as respiratory allergies and infections and trigger asthma episodes.
Signs of a rising damp problem in a building, such as blistering and peeling paint or discolouration of painted surfaces, must be treated immediately once recognised; mould infestation can lead to serious damage if not treated, not only to masonry walls but more importantly to your health. Toxic black mould (Stachybotrys chartarum) is the most poisonous species, requiring immediate removal. Greenish-black in colour with a glistening surface, you may have seen it on the rim of your long-opened tub of yoghurt or tomato paste or the tip of papaya, as it thrives on food sugars. When it becomes dry this mould may become powdery and easily inhaled.
What causes mould and dampness and how to avoid it
Mould spores are naturally occurring and moisture-seeking. It is impossible not to inhale them as they are suspended in both indoor and outdoor air, transported by people and animals and travel in airflow when released by their parent moulds. Some strategies for preventing mould growth in your home include:
1. Managing water entry into the house to reduce dampness – seal windows and doors, repair any leaks, unblock drains and clear gutters
2. Remove any water-damaged materials such as furnishings, carpets (especially with jute underlays), and building materials, such as particle board
3. Improve ventilation of all areas of the house – install exhaust fans in bathrooms, kitchen and laundry; open windows for cross ventilation in fine weather
4. Sub-floor ventilation must be created to avoid rising damp developing, by keeping air vents at the base of walls clear, or by installing a damp course or waterproof barriers in walls
5. Use de-humidifiers to capture moisture from indoor air, especially in bedrooms and living areas.
6. Invest in a high-quality HEPA/UV air filter for your home and office.
7. Avoid having indoor plants in areas with poor ventilation – some would say avoid keeping plants indoors at all due to the risk of mould spores disseminating from their soil
Symptoms of mould toxicity
Mould exposure can cause an enormous array of health conditions, with obvious through to insidious symptoms, producing both acute and chronic diseases, ranging from life-threatening (such as penicillin allergy), to mild in severity. It may not be immediately evident that moulds are contributing to an illness, but they must be suspected in individuals presenting with:
· Respiratory allergies: coughing, wheezing, sneezing, runny nose, itchy watery eyes
· Aggravation of respiratory conditions such as sinusitis, asthma and bronchitis, causing persistent nasal congestion, cough and shortness of breath
· Recurrent respiratory infections or low immunity
More subtle presentations of mould exposure could be
· Chronic fatigue and lethargy
· Mental fogginess, poor concentration and light-headedness
· Altered peripheral sensations – tingling, numbness in extremities
· Joint pain, muscle cramps
Long term impacts of living in a mouldy building or home
It is quite easy to become chronically exposed to moulds in the home, especially through lack of awareness or lack of resources to remove the hazard, such as living in affected rented premises with an unco-operative landlord. Symptoms of mould toxicity can develop very subtly and seem unrelated to the source.
Some diseases potentially related to long-term mould exposure are:
· Mast Cell Activation Syndrome (MCAS)
· Balkan nephropathy
· Reye’s syndrome
· Kashin-Beck disease
· Hepatocellular carcinoma
Mast Cell Activation Syndrome (MCAS)
Recently a clinical disease complex known as MCAS has been recognised in the medical literature. Its symptoms are episodic, caused by excessive histamine release from mast cells in specific tissues and affecting two or more organ systems. For example, MCAS can present with skin allergy (urticaria), wheezing, itchy eyes/nose, dizzy spells, rapid heart rate, nausea, vomiting, diarrhoea or abdominal cramps. It responds to treatment with drugs that stabilise mast cell activity, such as sodium cromoglycate, a frequently used asthma preventer. Moulds are now recognised as significant contributors to MCAS and should be identified in the diagnostic process for elimination3.
Treatment of mould-related illness
It is important to mention that the majority of Australian general practitioners and medical specialist doctors are not educated in identifying mould-related illnesses, as it is not part of the standard medical curriculum. This limitation can lead to delays in diagnosis and receiving appropriate, timely and effective treatment for sufferers. On the contrary, medical practitioners trained in Functional Medicine and specifically Building Biology are your best resources for investigating and treating mould-related illnesses and can be located through the Australasian College of Nutritional and Environmental Medicine (www.acnem.org)
How to deal with mould toxicity
· Eliminate exposure – remediation of home. For removing mould from most surfaces, use a mild detergent or vinegar diluted in a water solution (4 parts vinegar to 1 part water).
· If the mould is not easily removed and the item cannot be discarded, use a diluted bleach solution (250mls of bleach in 4 litres of water) to clean the surface, wearing gloves and protective goggles.
· Carpets may need to be professionally cleaned to effectively remove mould from them.
· Avoid dietary mycotoxins – mould coating on soft cheeses and any blue cheeses; mouldy fruits, vegetables and bread; yeasted foods and supplements with Brewers yeast; fermented alcohols (beer, wine, champagne), kombucha; old peanuts, walnuts and pecans with black mould inside shells; coffee – mycotoxins have been found in up to 45% of coffee samples4.
· Eradicate internal fungi, e.g intestinal/vaginal candidiasis, fungal sinus infestations. This will require naturopathic or medical treatment, such as antifungal herbs and drugs.
· Detoxification under practitioner supervision - follow a herbal/glutathione liver detox protocol; undertake a graded exercise program, have infrared saunas, and focus on lymphatic drainage massage.
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*Always read the label and follow directions for use. If you experience any symptoms or if symptoms persist, talk to your health professional. Vitamin and/or mineral supplements should not replace a balanced diet.
2. Mast Cell Activation Syndrome: Proposed Diagnostic Criteria, Cem Akin, M.D. et al,
Published online 2010 Oct 28. doi: 10.1016/j.jaci.2010.08.035
4. The occurrence of ochratoxin A in coffee, Studer-Rohr I et al, Food Chem Toxicol. 1995 May;33(5):341-55. doi: 10.1016/0278-6915(94)00150-m. PMID: 7759018.