Sounds like a 1950’s horror flick, but it’s been no Hollywood experience for this family-of-five in the United Arab Emirates of Sharjah. They’ve been living in a hotel since September 4 when they returned from vacation to discover the havoc wreaked by mold in their Al Majaz apartment. Incidents like this are increasingly common in hot and humid Gulf states, causing stress, expense, disruption to homelife and litigation. But the real damage is to our health.
Illnesses caused by mold exposure are a growing problem that few people, including most physicians, are aware of. Prolonged exposure to high spore concentration can cause serious chronic illness and a syndrome called Mixed Mold Toxicosis. I read this while eating a salad, slathered in blue cheese dressing. I don’t know much about mold.
The father of this family told Gulf News,“When I opened the apartment door I was shell-shocked. Everything was covered in black mold. I’m a pharmacist and know the health risk mold poses, especially to kids. I asked them to stay back while I stepped inside to inspect the extent of the damage. It was far worse than I’d imagined. We immediately decided to move to a nearby hotel.”
“Everything is destroyed. My TV, sofa, bedroom sets, washing machine and all our clothes,” he said. The mold was likely caused by a poorly executed paint job. A second coat was applied before the first had properly dried and the moisture trapped on the walls and ceilings created a perfect environment for fungus to colonize. The 20-story apartment building is just four years old.
Mold is a fungus that thrives in warm, humid conditions, making most Middle Eastern nations especially susceptable to outbreaks, which is why moisture control and ventilation are critically important. Once established in a building, it spreads quickly. Washing machines are a common haven for spore growth, as are poorly ventilated bathrooms and air conditioning systems. Mold loves gypsum wallboard and fibrous ceiling tiles: add moisture and it spreads across the surface’s cellulose face.
Molds are categorized by their ability to grow at a certain water activity requirements. The organism creates tiny spores to reproduce just as plants produce seeds. Once airborne, spores are difficult to filter out. That black mold around the shower curtain can blow to the ceiling, from the ceiling to the carpet, then onto your bed, and into your body. It’s incidious and fast, and some molds produce toxins.
The World Health Organization recently published a report on mycotoxins, or toxic mold. It warned that “exposure to mycotoxins can produce both acute and chronic toxicities ranging from death to deleterious effects on the central nervous, cardiovascular and pulmonary systems.”
You’ve heard about “sick building syndrome” (SBS) where people suffer a range of symptoms related to a certain building, often their workplace, with no specific identifiable cause. This poorly understood phenomenon grabs frequent headlines (test Google to find examples in your neck of the woods). Workers in modern buildings with inoperable windows and mechanical heating and air conditioning are most at risk, and mold is a major culprit.
SBS symptoms include:
- headaches, dizziness
- aches, pains
- poor concentration
- shortness of breath, chest tightness
- eye, skin, throat irritation
- irritated, blocked or running nose
What to do if you spot mold? Do not Google this one, it’s too risky to depend on bogus guidance. If you can see mold on the outside of a surface, it’s likely on the backside too. Don’t discount the invisible spores in the ether, either.
Instead, take a peek at this (PDF) excellent guide from the US Environmental Protection Agency. Try some of their DIY tips, or call in your building manager or a mold specialist.
The best tip is prevention. Keep your spaces sparkling clean. Read the labels on the paint can. Open windows on drier days and let the spaces breathe. And hang up your wet towels.
Image of moldy wall by Shutterstock