Mold is often little more than a nuisance found in your bathroom or basement, but it can also prove to be extremely dangerous – even deadly in some cases.
In November 2022, a high-profile case concluded two-year-old Awaab Ishak died as a result of exposure to mold in his family’s flat in Rochdale, UK. The tragic story raised all kinds of social issues – from poverty to institutional racism – but it also highlighted the underappreciated impact of mold-related health impacts.
While the potential threat of mold to human health is nothing new, it’s apparent that it could be even more dangerous in the coming years as a result of climate change and growing instability in the world's energy markets.
What is mold?
Mold is a structure that some fungi can grow, often taking on a dark fuzzy-like appearance with a musty odor.
It thrives in places where there’s a lot of moisture, such as leaky roofs, windows, water pipes, flooded areas, and damp rooms like bathrooms. If the corner of a room has a flurry of dark splodges over it, there’s a good chance this is mold.
The problem arises from the spores they emit. To reproduce and disperse, mold pumps out microscopic airborne spores into the surrounding space.
For most people, exposure to these spores can lead to symptoms such as stuffy nose, wheezing, and itchy eyes; annoying, but nothing too serious. However, exposure to mold can prove more serious for people with asthma, respiratory conditions, weak immune systems, or specific allergies.
Some of the health impacts come from inflammatory responses to mold spores, which the body recognizes as foreign bodies. To make matters worse, some molds also produce mycotoxins that can be harmful or lethal to humans when exposure is high enough.
Some common types of indoor mold include Cladosporium, Aspergillus, and Penicillium (the same stuff penicillin comes from). There is often a lot of concern around black mold – Stachybotrys chartarum – because of the potent mycotoxins it can produce. However, color is not a solid indication of how dangerous a mold may be, and there is no widely available test to prove whether S. chartarum is present in a house.
These kinds of fungi can be found in up to 47 percent of houses in the US, according to some estimates. There’s some decent evidence that climate change will heighten this risk further.
Flooding, damp weather, balmy temperatures, and water intrusion into homes are already on the rise due to the climate crisis, and these conditions are ideal for mold growth.
There is also evidence that fuel poverty can up the risk of mold contamination because it will discourage people from putting on their central heating, making it more likely that their homes will foster damp, mold-friendly conditions. This is something important to consider given the ongoing global energy crisis that's set to impact millions of homes this winter.
How To Get Rid Of Mold
There are a few simple things you can do to lower the risk of mold exposure in your home, as highlighted by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
For starters, try to address the issue of moisture or dampness underlying the problem. You can also remove moldy items from living areas, including carpets, tiles, etc. If possible, attempt to keep the space as dry and well-ventilated as possible.
If your house is flooded, attempt to clean up and dry out the space thoroughly within 24-48 hours. This can be done with soapy water and a bristle brush or a weak solution of bleach (no more than 240 milliliters [1 cup] of bleach in 3.8 liters [1 gallon] of water).
Beyond these measures, there’s often very little people can do to prevent mold from taking root in their homes. This is especially true for people struggling with money or those living in social housing, as seen in the recent death of Awaab Ishak in the UK.
Following this historic case, there have been serious calls to increase awareness of mold exposure, which many are anticipating is set to become a growing burden in the coming decades.
“The tragic death of Awaab will, and should, be a defining moment for the housing sector in terms of increasing knowledge, increasing awareness, and a deepening of understanding surrounding the issue of damp and mold”, senior coroner Joanne Kearsley said at the inquest into Ishak’s death.