Mold doesn’t get a lot of respect as a health threat, generating much less notoriety than things like pesticides, heavy metals, processed foods, and sedentary lifestyles. But it should – particularly after the major flooding caused by Hurricanes Harvey and Irma.
“Mold is the biggest health problem in the country,” declares Dr. Rick Sponaugle, a functional medicine physician who specializes in the treatment of brain disorders due to toxins. “The research is out there from all over the world. I don’t know why we’re so far behind.”
Mold can affect anyone’s health, but Sponaugle notes that about 25 percent of us are especially vulnerable to the fungi’s toxins due to genetics.
And the toxins can trigger a wide range of chronic diseases over time, including liver disease, chronic fatigue, autoimmune disorders, gastrointestinal issues, recurring infections, sleep disturbances, hormonal disruptions, and breathing problems.
Mold is also ubiquitous. It thrives in houses, workplaces, schools and any other type of building that has ever suffered any water damage. Estimates of water-damaged buildings in the U.S. range between 25 percent and 40 percent.
And that doesn’t take into account the damage caused by Harvey and Irma.
“If you have a water leak and don’t notice it for 48 hours, you have bio-contamination,” says Dr. Alan Vinitsky, an internist and pediatrician who specializes in disease related to molds and other environmental factors. “It’s a severely underappreciated problem.”
And mold isn’t all you have to worry about.
“Where mold starts to grow, you also get bacteria and other kinds of organisms,” says Vinitsky, who runs Enlightened Medicine in Gaithersburg, Md. “They all generate a variety of harmful products. How they affect a person depends on the kinds of organism present and the susceptibility of the person who’s exposed to them.”
Mold has microscopic spores with potent mycotoxins that can affect anywhere in the body when inhaled or ingested.
But Sponaugle notes that the toxins cause a lot of neurological disorders because they have an express route to the brain through the olfactory system and also target fat cells, which are abundant in brain tissue as well as the sheath that protects nerves.
Despite its widespread presence and harmful effects on the body, mold is one of the last things primary care physicians typically check-in trying to diagnose an ailment. But if you have a chronic condition that standard medical care is not helping, the experts suggest consulting a mold toxin specialist.
Sponaugle says an effective urine test to detect the toxins is available. And there are a variety of treatments.
“The first treatment is avoidance,” says Vinisky. “You have to recognize water damage and clean it up.”
Water stains on walls or ceilings are dead giveaways of a leak, but other water intrusions may be hidden. If you smell a musty odor, that’s mold. But some varieties, including toxic black mold, aren’t easy to detect by the nose. A water-damaged building is likely a job for experts, who can find hidden leaks with specialized equipment and clean out the mold properly.
Treatments for mold exposure vary, but they all are designed to remove the toxins.
- One of the best detoxifiers is the powerful antioxidant glutathione.
- The cholesterol drug Cholestyramine is often used because it forms a strong bond with biotoxins and escorts them to the bowel for excretion.
- Bentonite clay and diatomaceous earth are also commonly used detoxifiers.
- Other things that may help are infrared saunas, which mobilize toxins and working up a good sweat, which facilitates their excretion.
- Air purifiers and filters can help reduce exposure to spores in a contaminated building, but Vinirsky warns that they don’t replace the need for remediation if mold is present.
“When it comes to mold, a lot of people think of it in terms of an allergy, but it’s much more than that,” says Vinitsky. “The organic particulates you inhale produce inflammatory responses in the body that can result in multisystem illness.”
Adds Oldsmar, Fla.-based Sponaugle: “My patients usually come to me after seeing dozens of other doctors. The problem is we weren’t taught about mold in medical school. It’s a real health crisis.
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