Breaking the mould for healthier buildings

It may not be a popular topic of conversation at business meetings, social functions or even most health conferences but experts know that mould can pose a significant threat to human health.

Even short-term exposure in places such as hotels, temporary mine site accommodation and resorts can cause health problems.

Mould is often invisible to the naked eye and can be found everywhere, most particularly in damp and poorly ventilated environments.

Mycologia’s Director and Mycologist Dr Heike Kemp said adverse health effects can happen when someone ingests, inhales or has skin contact with mould spores and fungal by-products.

“These by products include microbial volatile organic compounds (MVOC) and mycotoxins,” Dr Kemp said.

“They can cause a range of problems including throat irritation, skin rashes, upper respiratory tract problems, irritable bowel syndrome, behavioural changes, chronic fatigue syndrome and depression.”

A recent study* in China found that children exposed to mould in classrooms suffered more symptoms associated with sick building syndrome, which became worse when at school and improved when they stayed away.

Symptoms included itchy eyes, sore throat, skin rash, headache and fatigue.

In people who have compromised immune systems it may be possible for mould to actually grow inside the body, but this is rare Dr Kemp said.

There is some evidence that exposure to high levels of mycotoxins can lead to serious neurological damage and even death.

Dr Kemp said products advertised as mould killers are often just bleach, which simply changes the colour of mould to make it invisible and rubbing the mould to remove it can make the spores airborne so they grow somewhere else.

“Even dead fungi is still toxic, so it’s not enough to kill the mould – you have to remove it in a way that doesn’t cause cross contamination,” she said.

“The best way to deal with mould is to address the underlying causes such as humidity or poor ventilation and remove the mould using white vinegar and a microfiber cloth.”

Once that’s done, Dr Kemp said the next step is to arrange a thorough inspection and clearance testing by a professional who has had formal training in mycology (mould science) and can collect air and surface samples for assessment.

“You shouldn’t wait until mould is visible,” Dr Kemp said.

“Buildings with split system or ducted air-conditioning need to be maintained regularly by a mould inspector every six months.

“Mould is not just a health hazard for humans.

“It can also make your building very sick.

“Mould can stain windows, carpets and soft furnishings and because it is acidic it also corrodes metal- both structural steel and components of fittings like air conditioning units and fan blades.”

SOURCE: A longitudinal study of sick building syndrome among pupils in relation to microbial components in dust in schools in China http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/21943723