You may have heard that airborne mold may cause health concerns such as allergic reactions and asthma-like symptoms. However, many people who have tested negative for mold allergies still react to mold. Allergic reactions aside, mold may sometimes cause illness through infection, chronic inflammation or even toxicosis. This article will describe mycotoxins, where they are found and their possible effects on health and indoor air quality.
What are mycotoxins?
Simply put, mycotoxins are chemicals produced by fungi. These chemicals are toxic to other organisms including plants, other microbes and animals — including humans. This article will focus on mold, a fungus that may be found in homes under moist conditions, and the mycotoxins it may produce.
No one is quite clear as to why mycotoxins exist. Anywhere from 20,000 to over 300,000 mycotoxins may exist, and 3,200 have been identified as of 1983. While they are not required for mold to grow (Fox & Howlett, 2008), some speculate they act as a defense mechanism for mold, allowing it to more easily infect a host — whether it be plant, animal, or human. Mycotoxins can harm any organism that competes with the mold itself for space or nutrition; this includes other molds. When you have various molds competing for an environment, mycotoxin production may increase.
According to WHO, only a handful of mycotoxins are currently of concern to humans and animals, and include:
- Aflatoxin family
- Ochratoxin A
- Fumonisin family
- Deoxynivalenol (DON)
With upwards of tens to hundreds of thousands of unique mycotoxins, we will not know for sure how many are dangerous: the reality is that we do not know until the research has been done.
Although mycotoxins are very concerning, many of our modern day medicines are based upon these mold metabolites. Penicillin, cholesterol-lowering statin medications, some antifungal medications and many others are available today because of our study of mycotoxins.
Where are mycotoxins most commonly found?
Mycotoxins are found where there is mold; however, not all molds produce dangerous mycotoxins. Certain species produce more than others, with both indoor and outdoor molds having the ability to do so. Mold needs three things to grow: viable spores, the right level of humidity and a “food source” or material for it to grow, which is usually organic or comes from living matter.
Molds thrive in varying conditions and produce different mycotoxins, though prevalence and mycotoxin production may overlap when considering different molds. For example, some Aspergillus species thrive in lower humidity and produce the aflatoxin family of mycotoxins. Places with higher humidity tend to be the perfect breeding ground for water-loving Stachybotrys chartarum, which produces other families of mycotoxins (Andersen, 2003).
Outdoor mold and mycotoxins have impacted the agriculture industry worldwide. Since the 1960’s when aflatoxin was first identified, the bulk of the attention paid to mycotoxins has come from the agricultural industry. Afterall, the United States spends upwards of $932 million dollars every year to combat mycotoxins in the food chain. The WHO is part of an international body that evaluates the health impact of natural toxins, including mycotoxins. Mycotoxins emerge in the food chain when crops become infected with mold, either before or after the harvest.
Molds that produce mycotoxins can grow in stored food products (WHO, 2018) including:
Mycotoxins may also be found in beer, wine, cheeses and moldy fruits and vegetables. Keep in mind, some food grown in the agricultural sector is then fed to livestock, and people can be indirectly exposed through contaminated feed given to animals. It is not uncommon to find mycotoxins concentrated in eggs, dairy, meat and milk. Many people in underdeveloped nations are exposed to mycotoxins through contaminated food because of poor handling and storage practices, as well as limited regulation. However, some developed nations have less stringent regulations when compared to their global counterparts.
In the 1990s, research on mold expanded beyond the agriculture industry to the presence of mycotoxins indoors. Though the most common concern around indoor mold is allergies, people may be exposed to mycotoxins by breathing in mold spores, fragments or contaminated dust. Some of the molds that potentially produce mycotoxins may be found in moisture-damaged buildings.
What are the top symptom concerns of mycotoxins?
When people think of mold illnesses from inhaling mold spores, allergies usually come to mind. Mold allergy symptoms may include headaches, sneezing, runny nose and red eyes.
Mycotoxin exposure through airborne particles, on the other hand, may present with toxicity symptoms instead of allergic symptoms. The majority of information on toxic health effects have come from existing case studies or animal studies, as it is unethical to create a study of mycotoxin toxicity in humans. These studies have documented or suggested that long-term exposure to mycotoxins may cause detrimental impacts to the kidney, liver, lungs, gastrointestinal system, immune system, and nervous system.
Please note that you may hear differing opinions in the scientific community, such as the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) or the Institute of Medicine. The consensus on the health effects of indoor mycotoxins in damp buildings is mixed, and the topic is controversial, as some people may differ in their opinion of whether the concentrations of indoor mycotoxins from mold growth would be high enough to produce these health effects.
Health effects from animal research and case studies
As seen from research on animal models and certain case studies, exposure to high levels of mycotoxins over a long time may produce the following highly severe symptoms:
- Kidneys: Hemorrhage, poor functioning leading to eventual kidney failure, and in some cases, even cancer may possibly occur.
- Liver: As for the liver, mycotoxins have been known to cause capillary damage (including hemorrhage), necrosis, fatty liver changes, bile duct hyperplasia and liver cancer in some cases.
- Lungs: The lungs may be prone to hemorrhage and edema.
- GI tract: The gastrointestinal tract may suffer from ulceration and hemorrhage.
- Nervous system: Mycotoxins are so small that they easily pass into cells, especially the fatty cells of the nervous system. Thus causing nervous system dysfunction, including seizure-like behavior, convulsions and paralysis.
Again, the above symptoms are very severe and may not be representative of what could occur in the average indoor environment where there is limited mold growth.
As a physician who specializes in mold and mycotoxin illness, I have seen the greatest impact on the immune and nervous systems. Research has shown that the immune system may become suppressed after exposure to mycotoxins, along with increased inflammation.
The combination of immune suppression and inflammation may cause a host of complaints, including:
- Non-allergic reactivity
- Autoimmune-like conditions
- General poor immune system functioning
From a day-to-day standpoint after chronic exposure to mycotoxins, clients have reported that they have experienced:
- Brain fog
- Volatile moods
- Decreased appetite
- Unintentional weight changes
- Nerve pain
- Vision changes
- Muscle pain
- Joint pain
- Increased urination
- Increased thirst
- Difficulty breathing
- Night sweats
This may seem like quite a long list, though clients have reported more than a few of these symptoms following exposure to mycotoxins.
How should you avoid exposure?
To avoid mycotoxin exposure through contaminated food, some choose to follow a low mycotoxin diet to minimize risk. The WHO recommends to inspect whole grains, buy grains and nuts as fresh as possible and store food properly. However, exposure should be minimal in the US because of agricultural protections and the protective aspects of good bacteria in the gut that may help with the degradation of toxins.
However, what about the indoor environment? There are no legal protections in place for acceptable levels of mycotoxins in an indoor environment, and I consider indoor mycotoxin exposure, or inhaled exposure, to be more of a detrimental factor when compared to food exposure.
Correct water damage to prevent mold growth
To help avoid exposure to mold and mycotoxins, you can:
- Be mindful of signs pointing toward water damage — staining, shading, standing water, musty smells, condensation, warped floor and walls, peeling paint, etc.
- If you know a space is water damaged, and you can avoid it, then you should make every effort to do so, or to minimize your time in said space.
- If your home happens to be water damaged, you should always remediate and repair as your first priority.
Mold remediation is not complete without proper repair of the water intrusion, so that you prevent it from happening again in the future.
Air purification can help remove airborne mold
Once the threat of continual mold growth is addressed and humidity is well controlled, you may want to consider other preventive methods as part of a holistic approach. Air purification is often used as a method to help support a healthy indoor environment of a home. Depending on the technology, air purifiers can help remove mold spores and other fragments from the air. The Molekule PECO technology can destroy airborne mold, unlike traditional HEPA systems that simply trap particles. Traditional filters leave the possibility for mold growth on the surface of the filter and reentry into the airstream, and the Molekule PECO technology is a way to solve for this problem in the air purification industry.
When considering purification systems, you should always be wary of systems that generate ozone. Ozone is a known respiratory irritant, and it is not uncommon for people who have a history of mycotoxicosis, or toxicity due to mycotoxins to have a heightened sensitivity and reactivity to chemicals, including ozone.
Mycotoxins are on the rise when it comes to their awareness by the general public. Although they do have a track record of being beneficial in certain instances — especially in the development of novel medications, they are known for their harmful impact on living organisms. Toxicity as a result of mycotoxin exposure may have far-reaching health implications. As a result, much work has been done in the agriculture sector to minimize its impact. However, similar protections from mycotoxins found in the indoor environment have been found wanting. It is therefore very important to minizine exposure to mycotoxins found in the indoor environment through dealing with any mold growth in your home.
Please note that while Molekule is a science-based company, we do not replace your physician. Always consult your doctor before determining a diagnosis or coming to a final medical decision. This is a contributing piece from a guest writer. Dr. Lauren Tessier is a licensed Naturopathic Physician practicing in Waterbury, VT, and New York, NY. She specializes in treating mold-related, biotoxin and other complicating illnesses and is CIRS-certified. Learn more about her practice “Life After Mold” by visiting www.lifeaftermold.com. You can also find her on Twitter, Instagram and Facebook.