Updated: Sep 6, 2021
Mold Illness and Water Damaged Buildings
Did you know that exposure to moldy, water damaged buildings has the potential to make you really sick? Mold is part of nature, and serves an important role in recycling dead organic material into soil and nutrients for new things to grow. It needs a little moisture and food in the form of cellulose, starch or other organic matter to grow. The mold species common in the outdoor environment rarely cause serious health issues for people. Mold can grow indoors though, and the species of mold that grow in water damaged buildings tend to be much more problematic for human health, and because they are in a closed space can occur in much higher concentrations. Most people don't realize that mold can take root and form a colony within 24-48 hours of water damage happening. Continued growth of some of the most toxic molds only requires high humidity (>60%) or slight, consistent dampness (a slow drip that never quite dries out).
There is a short list of mold species that are known to be toxic to nearly everyone (the famous one is Stachybotrys), but for about 20% of the population exposure to a much larger list of molds (and other organisms that thrive in water damaged buildings) can cause a pattern of chronic immune dysregulation called Chronic Inflammatory Response Syndrome (CIRS). CIRS affects many systems of the body, with the primary symptoms manifesting in mucous membranes and the nervous system (see below). Those who are genetically susceptible to CIRS who are exposed to toxic microbes in water damaged buildings will experience a progression of multiple symptoms, gradually getting worse. They will also become more and more sensitive to other irritants over time (EMF, allergies, food reactions, etc). Like other chronic, multi-system illnesses (like Lyme), CIRS is not commonly recognized by most of the healthcare profession. Because developing CIRS requires genetic vulnerability, it can be quite difficult to identify that the source of illness is a particular building. Since 75-80% of the population does not have this severe immune reaction, it is common that only 1-2 people in a family will become ill, the others will just have mild allergies with the same exposure. Symptoms of CIRS overlap with symptom of Mono, IBS, SIBO, Lyme, Chronic Fatigue, Fibromyalgia, MS, and often include psychological / psychiatric manifestations.
Symptoms of CIRS:
Fatigue (progressive and deep)
Brain fog / Spaciness / Disorientation
Coordination problems / issues with balance
Respiratory issues (chronic sinusitis, chronic cough, SOB, wheezing, sore throat)
IBS or SIBO like symptoms (cramping, diarrhea, bloating)
Fake UTI (urinary frequency, urgency, burning, but no infection)
Unexplained weight gain or loss
Muscle cramps, muscles feel wiped out with slightest effort
Increased bleeding times (easy, severe bruising, bleeding gums, nose bleeds)
Immuno-suppression (more vulnerable to infections, and more likely for infections to become chronic)
Increase in "static electricity" shocks (watches and electronics may be short lived or glitchy)
Increased sensitivity to EMF, food sensitivities, other chemical exposures
Prevalence of Water Damaged Buildings
It is estimated that around 50% of the buildings and homes in the US are water damaged enough to cause illness. Austin is a particularly moldy city, nearly as moldy as a coastal city. My personal experience leads me to believe that Austin's moldy building rate is far higher than the average US city. I attribute this to a combination of several factors:
1) It is really hot, moderately humid and all of our buildings have air conditioning. The intersection between the hot, humid air and the cold AC ducts means condensation. HVAC ducts collect dust if they are not cleaned every few years. Dust + moisture = mold. Here in Austin AC ducts are one of the first places that mold grows, and 2 years without cleaning is generally enough to provide enough food for the mold colonies to get going. If there is mold in the AC ducts, then every time the AC kicks on, mold spores are sprayed out with the flow of cold air, and distributed throughout the dwelling.
2) Many of the buildings in Austin were thrown together using low quality materials, and lax regulations on building techniques and codes. Poorly designed buildings built with cheap materials are much more likely to develop water damage. Related to this is the abundance of buildings with flat roofs. A flat roof allows water to accumulate on the roof, and find a way into the building (usually inside the walls) creating a perfect environment for toxic mold to grow invisibly.
3) Inadequate maintenance: Let's be honest, Austin is a bit of a "slacker" town. The relaxed, carefree culture that people love about Austin has a downside when it comes to both building quality and building maintenance. AC units tend to not get regular maintenance. Roof, window and plumbing leaks tend not to get fixed promptly. With property values and taxes skyrocketing, it can often mean funds for major repairs become scarce, and the risk of acknowledging a mold issue can become a legal and financial nightmare for building owners so they choose "plausible deniability" over truly fixing the problems.
What to do
Getting away from the mold and into a clean environment is absolutely essential to resolving CIRS symptoms. Finding well trained inspectors and remediators can be tricky in Texas due to our unusual building regulations, but it is worth doing the extra work to make sure that the mold is not only identified, but the cause is found and addressed. Working with a mold / CIRS literate practitioner is also important as detox, supplementation, neurological and immune repair can be complex and tricky.