DEAR DR.PAUL: I am concerned because my child goes to a very old school and there is a moldy smell. Are molds a health risk and what can be done about them?
DR.PAUL ANSWERS: This is a very important and timely issue of concern to parents and school personnel. It seems that we hear stories about mold and poor indoor air quality at an increasing rate. Molds are tiny organisms that are found naturally in the environment. There are hundreds of different types of molds and we know that they tend to grow in moist and humid areas.
What are the health risks of mold exposure? This depends on the situation. Exposure to low level of molds is probably harmless. However, we do know that certain individuals such as: those with respiratory allergies (asthma), young children, the elderly and people with weakened immune systems are at higher risk for developing complications related to mold exposure. There are two types of effects of molds. One is an allergic reaction to the molds whose symptoms include:
- Nasal or sinus congestion
- Sore throat
- Rash or skin irritation
- Worsening or new onset of asthma symptoms
- Runny eyes
The other way molds harm humans is by the production of toxins. Mold toxins can cause symptoms in both children and adults. In rare cases, mold toxins have been related to very serious lung damage in infants, even resulting in death. The more common symptoms of mold toxin exposure include: fatigue, headache, nausea, diarrhea, skin and eye irritation. These symptoms are very non-specific and can be caused by other conditions too. However, if in the presence of these symptoms there is evidence of mold exposure, then molds are the probable cause.
Testing for molds can be quite difficult. Sophisticated and costly tests are usually needed to detect hidden mold and toxins in schools or other buildings. When we perform allergy skin tests to molds, we can only test for about 10 of the hundreds molds in existence. A skin test confirming an allergy to mold does not confirm the presence of molds at school or at home. It just confirms that a child is allergic to molds. On the other hand, a negative allergy test does not mean that there has been no mold exposure (allergic or toxin related).
The best way to determine mold presence is by following your suspicions logically. In many cases it’s easy to find mold. They are either visible or there is a moldy smell in the suspected area(s). If molds are found, the area has to be cleaned professionally. In many cases, there needs to be major reconstruction in order to properly disinfect the premises. Sadly, this is especially true in older schools with limited (shrinking) resources which are unable in some cases to afford regular maintenance, let alone costly mold removal.
On a final note, here some tips to help ensure a mold-free environment:
- Respond rapidly to water leaks or floods
- Dry wet building materials and other objects within 48 hours
- Make sure that ventilation is in working order at all times
- Regularly inspect high risk areas such as roofs, ceilings, walls and carpets for water leakage and mold growth or odor
- Water damaged carpeting must be replaced
For more information on mold control please visit: www.epa.gov/iaq/molds
Pediatrician DR.PAUL Roumeliotis is certified by the American Board of Pediatrics and Royal College of Physicians and Surgeons of Canada. The information provided above is designed to be an educational aid only. It is not intended to replace the advice and care of your child’s physician, nor is it intended to be used for medical diagnosis or treatment. If you suspect that your child has a medical condition always consult a physician.