Iris Harden knew that something in her Harlem, Georgia house was making her sick. “I wasn’t educated. I didn’t know it was mold,” she says. “All I knew was that something in that house was doing it to me.” She had a good idea of the cause after environmental testing found elevated levels of mold spores in her kitchen and bedroom. Her discomfort, headaches and a burning sensation around her eyes became so acute that she had to move out of the house.
— Paul Gleason, The Menace of Mold, Emagazine.com
Some doctors say that molds and fungus are at least indirectly responsible for 65% of all illnesses. You don’t have to smell or see mold for its effects to harm your health. Toxic molds and fungi may be hidden within your home and making you, your children, or your pets sick. We learned the hard way about molds, and the damage they can do to health and quality of life. This is the first part in my ongoing “Mold Monologues” blogs. The whole purpose of me writing this series is to help others by sharing the experience and wisdom that we gained through our struggles to regain health. I will share both our failures and successes in the hopes that others may learn from our experiences, and it will help them to avoid suffering and to maintain or regain health.
A “musty” smell means mold—always! A moldy smell means lots of mold, though some molds are highly toxic and others not nearly as dangerous. However, just because you don’t see or smell mold in your home does not mean it is not there. You may be healthy for years and find that a mold-related downturn in your health has slowly crept up on you without your having realized it. If you are totally healthy and don’t have any musty or moldy smells around your home, and no reason to suspect that mold might be invading your home, that’s terrific—you might as well skip this series of articles. However, if you or someone you know suffers from any of the following list of symptoms, I suggest you read on:
- The most common effects are respiratory ailments, including shortness of breath, wheezing, chronic sinusitis, and asthma.
- Burning or itchy eyes.
- Rashes and/or spontaneous bruises on the skin (when first struck with Stachybotrys poisoning, my wife developed spontaneous bruises that looked like she had been severely beaten). Also itching, welts, or hives. If I wear clothing that is contaminated, or lie on a couch contaminated with mold, my skin gets a burning sensation.
- Headaches and nervous system disorders such as tremors and poor night vision. Migraines and spotty vision, or migraine-like vision issues (such as the center of my vision blanking out into a shimmering area or a black hole) are symptoms both my wife and I have experienced many times.
- Dizziness and/or nausea. Foggy thinking and the inability to concentrate.
- Feelings of dread or panic and paranoia. You may feel like you are “going crazy.”
- Behavior changes, such as restlessness, hypersensitivity, and irritableness.
- Low-grade fever (can feel like a flu that seems to never go away).
- Compromised immune system (a normally healthy person suddenly starts “catching everything”).
- Chronic fatigue and/or hair loss.
- Fungi and molds can cause related lung diseases and cancers.
- In severe cases, toxic mold poisoning can lead to lung and brain hemorrhaging, permanent brain damage, and death.
On a clear, blue, Sunday afternoon in February 2004, Josie (my wife) and I had a nearly perfect afternoon snorkeling in the warm ocean waters of Maui, and paddling our ocean kayak to within 50 yards of two large humpback whales. When we arrived home later that day, we found my wife’s mother lying on the couch, deathly ill and barely able to move. After a few days of caring for her mother, my wife also fell ill with similar symptoms. As Josie’s condition deteriorated, she developed severe headaches and an ugly rash and bruises that looked as if she had been severely beaten. We took her to see a doctor at the local Kaiser clinic. When we showed him her rash and bruises, we asked if he thought that toxic mold might be the culprit. He assured us that mold could not cause a rash like that. Desperate to find answers, we extended our search for clues to the Internet and found photos of identical rashes and spontaneous bruises on people suffering from black mold poisoning caused by the highly toxic Stachybotrys black mold. At this point, we cultured the air in our rental home with petri dishes, finding that Aspergillus, Stachybotrys, and Fusarium, three of the four most infamous toxic molds, were prevalent in our rented home. We quickly moved into a temporary apartment until we could find a long-term rental to move into. It turned out that the spontaneous bruising that Josie saw on her body was a sign of internal hemorrhaging and that she was just one small step away from brain and lung hemorrhaging, permanent brain damage, and potential death. Had we listened to our first doctor and continued to stay in the mold-contaminated home, Josie may well have died. Thus began a long saga of dealing with mold-generated health problems that eventually caused me to close down my building business, purge almost all of our personal possessions (due to mold contamination), and return to the mainland so my wife could recuperate in a climate less conducive to mold growth. These toxic molds problems came a hair away from killing both my wife and mother in-law, and nearly bankrupted us.
In some cases, like the flooded homes in New Orleans with black mold growing all over the place, mold is an obvious problem that commands attention, and its obviousness makes it clear that drastic measure, such as the use of respirators and Tyvek protective clothing (including Tyvek booties and hoods) are mandated. In other cases, like our rental home on Maui, the mold is a hidden demon, devastating the home’s occupant’s lives without leaving obvious clues to the cause of their misfortune.
Our first winter in this beautiful older island home, on the normally dry side of Maui, was fine. However, our second winter was a different story. It was the wettest winter in 100 years, flooding our downstairs guest room and my wife’s office twice. In these areas, we noticed a smell like cat urine, but figured that the prior occupants must have had cats and that the moisture was just bringing out old smells. What we did not know was that this smell was not from prior pets, but was actually the smell of a highly toxic black mold known as Stachybotrys, which was given new life by the record-breaking rains and was thriving hidden within the walls and around the foundation of our home.
I am not a mold remediation expert, but I am a licensed general contractor, and I have considerable firsthand experience gained from my own family’s personal battle with toxic mold poisoning. My intention is to share what we have learned, and point you toward sources for expert information, effective health services, and mold remediation, should you identify the need.