Health Effects of Mold: What's Real and What's Not

Patient Expert

While at the American Academy of Asthma Allergy & Immunolgy conference in Philadelphia, I attended a learning session with two mold experts: Dr. Jay M. Portnoy, the former president of the American College of Allergy, Asthma & Immunology and Dr. James Seltzer. My goal was to follow up with my previous mold story with some more specific mold advice.

Detecting Mold in The Home

Dr. Portnoy's discussion was particularly compelling on the issues of mold testing and mold misperceptions. On mold testing, both doctors stressed that getting a mold detection kit from Home Depot was not a valid measuring tool as every home has airborne mold in it that the test will capture, but doesn't necessarily mean that your home has a mold problem.

There are several valid ways to detect mold in your home:

  1. Observation. Simply seeing and smelling the mold is your first line of detection.
  2. Moisture testing. Where there is moisture and dampness there is usually mold.
  3. Air or grab sampling. These samples can give you a gradient number of mold spores in your home (whether the number is increasing or decreasing).
  4. Surface or bulk testing. This testing can give you an indication of where the mold is coming from in your home.

All of these, minus the observations, can and should be done by a reputable home assessment company in your area.

Can Mold Really Make You Sick?

Why, you might be wondering, does one need assessing for mold anyway? Can mold really make you sick?

The answer is complex: both "yes" and "it depends". A number of studies show that excessive dampness and mold are highly correlated with upper and lower respiratory allergy and illness. However, many studies also group mold with other irritants thus clouding the exact cause of a particular illness.

Many patients come in to allergists' practices having seen many other doctors and complaining of vague symptoms and/or immune issues and believe this is all due to mold. That is not necessarily the case. For more discussion, see this article published by American College of Allergy, Asthma & Immunology (ACAAI) about mold allergy versus toxic mold.

Then there is also the so-called "black mold", stachybotrys, or "stachy" (sounds like stah-key), the one that we've all been hearing stories about over the last ten years or so. (See a CNN story from 1997). Dr. Portnoy said about 20% of homes in the U.S. have stachybotrys and that it is a marker for an unhealthy environment in general, but not the sole cause of a mold related allergy or illness.

The upshot: if you SEE mold growing in or outside of your home and/or SMELL that musty smell and have felt an increase in your asthma, occurrences of bronchitis or other upper/lower respiratory illnesses then it might be time to see your local allergist to talk about mold allergy and getting a mold house assessment.

Quiz: Can You Bust 10 Mold Allergy Myths?