The fiction surrounding 'toxic' mold is costing us all

Gailen D. Marshall, University of Texas Medical School at Houston

What do wine, penicillin, cheese, beer and mushrooms have in common? Here’s a hint: It’s also the latest dubious health scare, costing Texas consumers millions of dollars in higher insurance premiums and needless home “health” testing, and it’s being used as a get-rich-quick scheme for some personal injury lawyers. Ah, now you know – it’s mold.

So how did this common fungus, present in all sorts of good things we use daily and ever-present in our environment, grow into a major consumer crisis?

As a board certified allergist-immunologist, I have taught, done research and seen patients with a variety of immune-based medical conditions for the past 14 years. Frightened, sometimes angry, individuals have increasingly populated my clinical office lately, believing – or having been told – they have “toxic mold disease.” But do they really?

First, mold is everywhere, and there are at least 10,000 common types. In high-humidity environments such as Texas, mold easily finds comfortable growth sites and is especially prosperous. It is not possible to “get rid of mold,” nor would we even want to.

Can molds cause memory loss, fatigue or brain damage? For most people, the answer is a resounding “no.” The world is filled with mold spores – we breath it, we eat it in our foods, and we drink it in our water every day with no ill effects. Some people do develop allergies and experience asthma or hay fever symptoms when exposed to certain mold spores. The few mold-related diseases that can be serious are extremely rare.

There is absolutely no proof to support claims by “experts” who “diagnose” all sorts of mold-related illnesses such as memory loss or learning disabilities. In fact, the term “toxic mold” seems to have been manufactured to arouse panic and fear among otherwise normal people. Some molds do produce “mycotoxins,” but these are mostly of concern in the agriculture and food industries.

Still, most people would rather not have visible mold in their homes. It looks bad and has an unpleasant odor. Mold indicates excess moisture which needs to be eliminated, whether it is a roof leak, a shower leak, condensation or from some other source. Often the mold can simply be cleaned off, and will not return if the moisture is removed.

The nations’ most reputable experts, including the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the reigning mold expert from Harvard’s School of Public Health, do not support most home mold testing. Remember, in a place with high humidity like the entire Gulf Coast, you will find at least some mold in virtually 100 percent of homes more than a couple of years old. If you see or smell mold in your home, clean it up and stop the source of water. It’s that simple.

The presence of mold in a home or office does not automatically mean someone has done something wrong. Unfortunately, society today seems to be about everyone suing everyone else for things that used to be considered part of life.

It’s important to react to mold based on the facts, not on hype and hysteria. Texas insurance rates are double the national average and rising based in part on mold-related claims. Individuals and families are being moved out of their homes by testers and remediators and are having their lives disrupted – most for no legitimate reason.

The bottom line: If you are ill, see a physician. If mold allergies are suspected, ask to be tested by a reputable specialist who has the credentials to provide calm, reliable medical information – then follow your doctor’s orders. Check the physician’s credentials to determine expertise in the diagnosis and management of mold-related allergic diseases. If you find mold in your home, clean it up and plug the water leak. If you need an expert, find a reputable person or company trained in moisture management to find and fix the water source.

And, if someone comes to you to try and assess blame for the mold “exposure,” consider whether you want the aggravation, expense and frustration associated with trying to get compensated for the everyday risks associated with living on our planet. Is the stress, anxiety and guilty conscience really worth it? You be the judge.

Marshall is director of Allergy and Clinical Immunology at the University of Texas Medical School at Houston and Chief of Allergy Immunology Service at Memorial Hermann and Lyndon B. Johnson General hospitals.

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