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Health Effects of Mold & Other Airborne Contaminants


Health Effects of Mold
Exposure to damp and moldy environments may cause a variety of health effects, or none at all. Some people are sensitive to molds. For these people, molds can cause nasal stuffiness, throat irritation, coughing or wheezing, eye irritation, or, in some cases, skin irritation. People with mold allergies may have more severe reactions. Immune-compromised people and people with chronic lung illnesses, such as obstructive lung disease, may get serious infections in their lungs when they are exposed to mold. These people should stay away from areas that are likely to have mold, such as compost piles, cut grass, and wooded areas.

In 2004 the Institute of Medicine (IOM) found there was sufficient evidence to link indoor exposure to mold with upper respiratory tract symptoms, cough, and wheeze in otherwise healthy people; with asthma symptoms in people with asthma; and with hypersensitivity pneumonitis in individuals susceptible to that immune-mediated condition. The IOM also found limited or suggestive evidence linking indoor mold exposure and respiratory illness in otherwise healthy children.

In addition, in 2004 the IOM found sufficient evidence to link exposure to damp indoor environments in general to upper respiratory tract symptoms, cough, and wheeze in otherwise healthy people and with asthma symptoms in people with asthma. The IOM also found limited or suggestive evidence linking exposure to damp indoor environments in general to shortness of breath, to respiratory illness in otherwise healthy children and to potential development of asthma in susceptible individuals. In 2009, the World Health Organization issued additional guidance, the WHO Guidelines for Indoor Air Quality: Dampness and Mould[PDF – 2.52 MB]. Other recent studies have suggested a potential link of early mold exposure to development of asthma in some children, particularly among children who may be genetically susceptible to asthma development, and that selected interventions that improve housing conditions can reduce morbidity from asthma and respiratory allergies, but more research is needed in this regard.

A link between other adverse health effects, such as acute idiopathic pulmonary hemorrhage among infants, memory loss, or lethargy, and molds, including the mold Stachybotrys chartarum (Stachybotrys atra), has not been proven. Further studies are needed to find out what causes acute idiopathic hemorrhage and other adverse health effects.

Health Effects of VOCs
Most people don’t give this topic much thought until VOC related symptoms seem to not go away and doctors give a diagnosis like “Most likely environmental” your environment is where you spend your time. Unless you live in a tepee or tree fort this primarily means your home. Some of the health effect of VOCs on humans is eye, nose, and throat irritation; headaches, loss of coordination, nausea; damage to liver, kidney, and central nervous system. Some VOCs from testing are known to cause cancer in animals and are suspected or known to cause cancer in humans.

Key signs or symptoms associated with exposure to VOCs include conjunctival irritation, nose and throat discomfort, headache, allergic skin reaction, dyspnea, declines in serum cholinesterase levels, nausea, emesis, epistaxis, fatigue, dizziness. Volatile organic compounds appear also to be significant risk factors for asthma and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD).

Varying Effects of VOC’s
The ability of organic chemicals to cause health effects varies greatly from those that are highly toxic, to those with no known health effect. Some have a strong smell and some no smell at all. The extent of health effects of VOCs on humans will depend on many factors including level of exposure and length of time exposed and where they are exposed i.e. floors, bed mattresses, play toys etc.

Eye and respiratory tract irritation, headaches, dizziness, visual disorders, and memory impairment, unconsciousness and death are among the immediate symptoms that some people have experienced soon after exposure to high levels of VOC’s. When I was young and stupid, I was doing some wood repairs using high VOC contact cement (no longer sold) working in a basement, the fumes were pretty strong, after about 15 minutes I felt light headed and started up the stairs for some fresh air, I staggered and almost collapsed, was close to loosing consciousness and barely made it up the stairs.

Strong Evidence Linking VOCs to Asthma and COPD
Asthma is the most common chronic disease of childhood in the developed world and its prevalence appears to have increased significantly over the past 30 years. Observations indicate that the rising prevalence has coincided with modifications to the home environment such as the introduction of soft furniture, fitted carpets, air conditioning, and central heating. The indoor environment should be of crucial importance since infants  and elderly often spend more than 80% of their time indoors at home. The newer the home and the more insulated and air sealed the home is the greater the concern because the VOC’s are effectively trapped inside.

At present, not much is known about at what levels health effects of VOCs on humans occur. Many organic compounds are known to cause cancer in animals; some are suspected of causing, or are known to cause, cancer in humans. To better understand the links from VOCs to asthma and COPD, doctors are using a new type of testing in which they measure the VOCs exhaled from patients lungs. This tells them what VOCs are present and at what levels in their bodies to help diagnose or determine the cause of asthma and COPD.

Health Effects of Allergens

Allergens are substances that are foreign to the body and can cause an allergic reaction in certain people. Allergens are everywhere in the world around us. Examples of common allergens are pollen, foods, and mold.

Your living environment may contain a variety of animal and plant life, most of which can become a source for allergens, the triggers of allergic reactions. Pollens are the main cause of seasonal allergic rhinitis. However, if your nasal stuffiness, sneezing, watery eyes, and constant postnasal drip bother you year-round, then you most likely have nonseasonal hay fever, sometimes referred to as perennial allergic rhinitis. This condition is typically caused by indoor allergens such as dust mites, cockroach parts, mold, and animal dander.

Allergies are exaggerated immune responses to environmental triggers known as allergens. Allergies are very common, and about 50 million people in North America suffer from allergies. One of the most common forms of allergy is allergic rhinitis ("hay fever"), which produces symptoms like nasal congestion, itchy and watery eyes, sneezing, stuffy or runny nose, scratchy or sore throat, throat clearing, cough from postnasal drip.


The symptoms of hay fever can, in turn, lead to fatigue and lethargy. Other types of allergic reactions can involve the skin (hives and itching). Anaphylactic shock is a severe form of allergic reaction that can be life-threatening. In anaphylactic shock, there is swelling of the throat and difficulty breathing. Asthma is also related to allergies in many cases.

The symptoms of allergies can sometimes resemble those of other conditions. The common cold and the flu can cause respiratory symptoms similar to allergies. Typically, allergy symptoms are associated with a specific time of year or exposure to an allergen.

Health Effects of Bacteria​

Certain types of bacteria can cause diseases, such as, typhoid fever, syphilis, cholera, tuberculosis and foodborne illnesses. Antibiotics are used to kill harmful bacteria and the diseases they cause.


Fecal coliform are bacteria that can cause hepatitis, dysentery, cholera, ear infection and typhoid fever, according to the North Dakota Department of Health. The bacteria are commonly found in natural bodies of water, but also in buildings where water intrusion has occured, such as toilet back ups, sewage back ups, floods, etc. Indoor mold and bacteria pose health risks. As they grow indoors, mold and bacteria produce spores and/or chemical compounds into the air. The health effects associated with these spores (see picture on the right) and chemicals may include runny nose, eye irritation, cough, congestion, aggravation of asthma and respiratory problems, headache, flu-like symptoms, fatigue, and skin rash and other allergic reactions.

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