‘Toxic Mould’ A con of the highest magnitude.
As we approach another autumn and winter, condensation and damp derived mould problems will begin to top the table of all damp proofing enquiries, for me, my firm and most others in the preservation industry.
This happens every year at this time, so I thought I’d share my growing concern, that consumers are being mislead, lied to and preyed upon by those whom they seek advice from, when it comes to mould in homes.
If you are worried about mould in your home, especially if there is lots of it, then you are right to be concerned; a home shouldn’t have environmental conditions which support widespread mould growth, so if there is mould, something is wrong. This could be simple excessive humidity, due to poor ventilation or inadequate heating. It could be due to a leak or ingress of water through walls or ceilings and many other causes.
What counts, is getting good damp diagnosis so that the cause of the mould can be found and then fixed with straightforward heating, insulation, ventilation or building repair. This is relatively easy and there are hundreds of competent surveyors and specialist contractors who can help you with this. Once the damp problem is rectified and the home is dry, simple removal of the mould without any drama or expensive chemicals or so called ‘decontamination protocols’ as the pseudo ‘certified’ mould inspectors call it, will do. The mould will not return to grow again, though in any house in the UK, the spores of many many mould species will always be present, if you look hard enough – mould is ubiquitous.
How is it that mould and mould problems are so suddenly in the news? Well the reasons for that are partly due to fiction and partly due to facts…
Lets deal with the truth about the rise of mould in homes first:
Two big changes have revolutionised the way we live and the way we build houses.
Social and economic change
Since the war and even since the last few of decades, we as families have changed. I remember when I was a child we had a bath night and I shared a bath with my brother – imagine that now, with most houses having one or more showers which are used daily. Clothes are worn once and no more, before being washed – that was also not the case. Most homes did not have the money for domestic appliances to wash and dry clothes, so often this was done in communal launderettes and similar establishments, so the humidity produced from the washing was also ‘outdoors’.
This means that a family of say three or four will produce much more humidity per head, than would a larger family back in the day. Drying clothes is done on the radiators all over the average house or via tumble dryers at home these days.
Larger families obviously produce more humidity via washing, cooking and such and whilst the average family size has fallen, with the growth of prosperity, this is different in many immigrant families who culturally favour a larger family, though with the same higher standards of cleanliness which produces much more water vapour.
The house I grew up in had three bedrooms and a total of 6 chimey flues in two chimney stacks. All of these were used daily. The water vapour we produced went up the chimney with the combustion gasses and was replaced with make-up air dragged in via the loose fitting sash windows. Ventilation via constant air changes was the norm.
Now these houses are still standing and the fireplaces are bricked up and the windows and doors are sealed, double glazed and very tight fitting.
Of late, as a result of rushed and ill considered environmental standards, even the small trickle vents in double glazed windows are being removed. We live in sealed boxes. Whilst building regulations do address extraction needs in bathrooms and kitchens, owners are not informed on the crucial role these fans play, in keeping a home dry and healthy. The fans wear out, are switched off and even removed entirely when a house in modified.
So the facts are clear; our houses cannot cope with our modern lifestyle and this has not been addressed by the building regulations, or by the refurbishment standards as homes have been modernised. Mould growth is on the rise and that is the fact.
What is needed is action to raise standards in the control of the internal environment of new and refurbished homes to take account of the above, so that except in exceptional cases the growth of mould indoors becomes rare, or at least confined to the odd bit of mould growing temporarily, on grout behind a well used sink – that never hurt anyone.
The fiction of Toxic Mould
Now that we’ve established the reasons for the growth of mould lets look at the hysteria surrounding it and the birth of ‘Toxic Mould’. For starters what is toxic mould?
The answer is there is no such thing. The term ‘toxic mould’ was coined by reporters and printed in newspapers and on line because it sounds good and catches the attention. That sells papers and on-line advertising.
Mould is a fungus and it produces spores – there are many thousands of different species of mould. Some species of mould can produce chemicals to fight off other moulds it is in competition with. So if we have a mouldy patch of wallpaper and mould A is happily growing over it, then mould B will be repelled, so the chemical is ‘toxic’ in that sense.
When humans compete we may do that by punching or kicking each other, but humans are not referred to as ‘fighting humans’ no more than they could be called ‘loving humans’ ‘car driving humans’ or ‘philosophical humans’. Thus mould, like a human, can do many many things, it can cure you of illness and we’ve all heard of penicillin, which is a mould. I like the sort that grows in Rockfourt cheese.
That said, some of us are allergic to penicillin, so much so that this allergy could kill – peanuts, pollen and latex, amongst many hundreds of other plants and substances can have the same effect – where are the stories of ‘toxic peanuts’ and ‘toxic trees’, or ‘toxic gloves’?
So is mould toxic or not? Well it may sound like a step back but yes some mould can produce ‘toxic’ chemicals. However, to use the term toxic mould, as if there is some bogey man mould growing in your home, which can harm you and of which you should be fearful about, is a gross exaggeration of the truth.
The rise of The ‘Certified Mould Inspector’.
The following is a short hypothetical tale of a homeowners experience with mould, as now supported by the growing band of ‘mould remediation’ specialists. Lets say we have half a square meter or so area of mouldy wallpaper in a bedroom… As it happens it’s your house so we call for help and see what develops…
The Mould Survey
A Certified mould inspector will get very excited when shown him this mould. Sometimes they’ll reach for their respirator (probably the full face type like off a Hollywood germ warfare movie), they’ll explain that mould is toxic and they will be very concerned about your health. The fact that they are there usually means you’ve been ill or read something about toxic mould or maybe you’ve been frightened by reading one of their mould consultant web sites, or other on-line mould groups (which are the last thing anyone who wants to know about mould should ever read).
Once the inspection is done you’ll be asked about your symptoms – brain fog? Dizzyness? Blurred vision? Tremors? Memory loss? Irritability? Mood swings? Loss of libido? Excessive libido? Loss of appetite? Short of breath? Runny Nose?
… by this point the guy in the mask is backing away as if you have the black death… (I was told of one expert who will even tell you his lips are tingling, which is a sure sign of toxic mould – though why if he is so effected he doesn’t get another job I’ll never know). You are probably feeling quite worried by now – your fears are confirmed, the symptoms you have and even the ones you didn’t know you had are there… god help you.
Where’s the catch?
Now then, what our fictional mould inspector needs to find now is an angle to make some money. How he does this will depend on the answers you give to the following questions….
Do you own the house or do you rent it from a landlord? This matters because if there’s a landlord this is the opportunity to make you the victim of unfair and uncaring others – ie the Landlord and most likely his insurers. It’s the landlord’s fault that you have mould in your house – it’s the mould, which has made you ill – therefore the landlord made you ill!
If on the other hand you own your house then the tack changes… when did you buy it? Did a professional survey it before you bought? Was the mould mentioned? If not then have you had any building work done recently,? Who did that, maybe we can blame them!
Once convinced that you are the victim of toxic mould syndrome (another made-up phrase), you can be persuaded to appoint said mould inspector as your expert. This will mean paying him more money and once you do this you are bound into the following cycle of expensive, stressful and wasteful events.
There will be more detailed testing and an exhaustive survey, along with lab results; sputum and blood samples and all sorts of queasy medical language will be used to make you feel well and truly ill.
The report and it’s damning findings will go off to the hapless landlord or surveyor, in the hope he or his insurer will just pay up in panic – this sometimes works because the report will be baffling and long with tables and many Latin species and spore counts included.. it must mean something mustn’t it?
What it means is the mould man is very keen to get your and then the insurers money that is all.
The facts are that the toxins in the mould are present in such vanishingly small quantities that you cannot ever get a harmful amount into your system, by any reasonable means (please tell me you don’t harvest the mould every week, by carefully scrapping it off and mixing it into your baby’s milk?).
But the tests prove that you have X.Y or Z in your blood and sputum, so you are poisoned the mould man says. The fact is that every person in the UK has toxins of many kinds in there blood and with the advent of modern forensic science the smallest trace can be found, so because it is there it doesn’t point to it causing the symptoms Mr Mould made a list of.
For example – the blood of most people in the UK contains tiny amounts of Lead, Dioxins, various gender warping chemicals and of course alcohol, nicotine and trans fats – this is normal, though not that good for our health.
No wonder we have blurred vision. The fact is that the dose of a toxin is what matters and the tiny amounts of the above do us little known harm, though through a cocktail of ‘toxins’ we may be heading for trouble. One of my least favourite ‘mould experts’ likes to use the phrase ‘toxic soup’ when describing how poor our standards of decontamination are, when dealing with mould. It should be pointed out that these decontamination ‘protocols’ are the most flawed and wasteful endeavors imagined; if you buy into the toxic mould myth. The facts are that these moulds are everywhere, in every air sample we breath indoors or outdoors. Thus if you clean a house of every conceivable spore, the whole procedure is busted once you open the door and the dog runs in….
But what about my symptoms?
Ah yes, the blurred vision and such…
Well of course that is for a doctor to investigate. Preferably one of your own trusted contacts and not a doctor on some sort of panel the ‘mould expert’ has recommended. That would be like going to the whiplash specialist doctor the whiplash claims company recommended wouldn’t it? I mean we are not being dishonest are we?
Here’s the thing about toxic mould symptoms.
They don’t exist! OK so the symptoms do, but there is no evidence linking the symptoms to mould. There is only presence of mould in houses where people with symptoms live. This is what is known as an association. So the mould expert can say with honest conviction that ‘mould in houses is associated with these symptoms”. What is not ever explained is that an association is the very weakest of all scientific terms and means next to nothing. For example, having read the above it can be seen that there needs to be damp to give rise to mould. Thus ‘damp houses are associated with ill health’. Now let’s expand on that… we know that damp houses are usually poorly maintained or designed or the household may be underfunded.. so ‘poorly maintained housing is associated with ill health’ and ‘poverty leads to ill health’.
These associations are all true so where does mould fit in?
Well we can show that many people in damp houses get ill. But not many damp houses have any significant mould so actually the mould, despite getting all the publicity is probably not a major cause of ill health in poor or damp households.
To underline this and after chatting to a friend of mine (you know who you are… Graham), I took down the medical basket we have for all our various tablets and concoctions and for once actually bothered to check the leaflets within, for side effects;
For the mixture of painkillers, contraception pills, allergy tablets and other such innocuous and very commonly prescribed drugs, I compiled this list:
Remember that these symptoms are proven side effects from clinical trials, whereas side effects from mould are fanciful anecdotal opinions and have not been scientifically established at all:
Swelling of the mouth
Lack of concentration
Anxiety, depression, panic attacks and crying
Loss of appetite
Increased heart rate
Yellow discoloration of the skin
Strange dreams, nightmares or hallucinations
Reduced red blood cells
Reduced white blood cells
Low sodium levels in the blood
Feeling less alert
Reduction in weight
Visual focusing problems
Pins and needles or numbness
Runny or itchy nose
Low blood pressure
High blood pressure
Inability to obtain orgasm
I got sick of reading by now and felt quite ill myself so I put the leaflets in the bin. These drugs are common and are taken in doses, which are orders of magnitude higher than any quantity of mould derived micotoxins which could possibly get into the body……without constant mouldy wall licking.
The real threats to health
Let’s also consider the very common poisons consumed, handled or applied to the skin every day by many people (including me).
Alcohol – chemical food preservatives – application of anti-perspirants and deodorants, perfumes, soap, detergent, shampoo, hair conditioner and sun creams or moisturisers…
Then there are the other biological organisms which we share our damp houses with…
Bugs and other such creepy crawlies, not to mention Dogs, Cats, Rats, Budgies and Rabbits…
It’s been known for hundreds of years that we are very sensitive animals and our physical well being is firmly linked to our mental state. Thus in clinical trials it has been proven that stress is a real causal factor in very many symptoms of ill health including many of those listed above. Then there is our modern diet of chips and processed food – with all this in the picture why is it that mould is singled out? Now then; who are the most stressed people with the poorest diet? That’s right, those who have less financial means and coincidentally live in the damp, underfunded, poorly maintained houses we spoke of… another association? This is how complex human health is – it is not for self styled mould experts, trying to make a few quid to even comment on – or me for that matter. Doctors are under enough pressure these days, without me talking a tenant into asking their doctor about ‘mycotoxins’! This is what the mould experts do – why is that?
Mould in perspective.
The facts are that mould is an easy target because it is visible and unsightly, but in truth the chances of the mould being the cause of anyone’s sickness – other than seriously immune depressed or sick people, is tiny and the symptoms are probably the result of something else, or a combination of factors.
Of course invasive infection by mould is a real problem in hospitals and occasionally, people outside hospital, who are otherwise healthy can and do come down with ‘farmers lung’ or some other problem associated with mould. Before panicking over the mouldy patch in the corner of the bedroom, get some advice from a qualified damp specialist or surveyor and get rid of the mould for good. If your symptoms go away – then that’s that; forget it. If they remain then it probably wasn’t mould anyway, (remember that mould is everywhere, even if you can’t see it). See a Doctor and look around with open eyes – don’t let the mould experts con you.