Millions of Americans are living and working in toxic environments. In the first of this two-part series, the Emerald investigates the prevalent, and severely under-diagnosed set of environmentally acquired illness caused by exposure to toxic fungi.
In 2001, as America reeled from the 9/11 terrorist attacks, Kelly Desmore had just begun to battle her body’s own saboteur.
“I Misdiagnosed You”
That fall, her health took a sudden and serious decline. She started to experience recurrent urinary tract infections (UTIs), which she says “wouldn’t go away.”
Desmore continued to get sicker throughout the year, and into 2002. She eventually became bedridden. Despite multiple doctor’s appointments, she had no answers for her rapidly deteriorating condition.
“I thought I was dying,” says Desmore, a graphic designer and producer.
One day, she passed out while riding her bike. There was blood between her legs when she awoke. She went back to her doctor, again.
Her physician ran more tests, and finally—after nine appointments—discovered the cause for her symptoms.
Desmore recalls her doctor breaking down, tearfully delivering the news. “I misdiagnosed you,” she said. “You have toxic mold illness.”
Toxic Mold: What is it?
Toxic mold illness is one term used to describe environmentally acquired sicknesses caused by exposure to water damaged buildings, or structures with excess indoor moisture, explains Dr. Janette Hope, board certified environmental medicine, and integrative medicine specialist.
There’s no universally accepted name for the illnesses—which are also called mold poisoning, or sick building syndrome.
Hope runs her own environmental medicine practice in Santa Barbara, CA where she sees patients from all over the world. She also serves on the board of directors for the American Academy of Environmental Medicine, American Board of Environmental Medicine, and the Global Indoor Health Network.
Mold is just one agent in water damaged buildings that’s making people sick, Hope explains. “There’s bacteria, cell walls, fungal cell walls [chemicals, and more],” aka microbial pollution.
Microbial pollution is a major cause of indoor air pollution in public and private buildings, according to the World Health Organization (WHO).
“It’s caused by hundreds of species of bacteria and fungi, in particular filamentous fungi (mold), growing indoors when sufficient moisture is available,” reports the WHO’s Guidelines for Indoor Air Quality: Dampness and Mould.
These biological agents are “a major cause of morbidity and mortality worldwide.” Despite this, the WHO estimates that, “10%–50% of indoor environments in Europe, North America, Australia, India and Japan” have issues with indoor dampness.
Mycotoxins = Bioterrorism
Certain fungi release mycotoxins, naturally occurring toxins which are known to cause disease and death in humans, other animals and crops, reports the WHO.
Toxigenic molds are commonly found in leaky roofs, windows, pipes—or where there’s been flooding, according to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). It also grows on paper and wood products, cardboard, ceiling tiles, in dust, paints, wallpaper, insulation, drywall, carpet, fabric, and upholstery.
Mycotoxins are also present on food, like nuts and cereals. In fact, multiple studies report that contamination of foods and feeds with mycotoxins is a significant, worldwide problem.
When ingested, animals—including livestock—can suffer from acute or chronic mycotoxicoses, a form of toxicity.
These chemicals are a form of warfare, which plants produce to defend against other plants, explains Dr. Hope.
Interestingly, humans have also used these agents as biological weapons. According to a 2017 study published in the Biomedicine and Prevention journal. “There is evidence that between the early 1970s and ‘80s, mixed mycotoxin-based weapons were used in South-East Asia, Cambodia and Afghanistan.”
According to according to Mycotoxins: The Hidden Danger in Foods, Serious Mycotoxin Outbreaks Worldwide Include:
- [In] 1967, 26 people were poisoned because of the consumption of moldy rice […] in Taiwan.
- An outbreak of aflatoxicosis affecting humans, reported in India, led to the death of 100 people in 1974.
- Officials reported another outbreak in India in 1995. [This time, it affected] 1,424 people due to sorghum and maize contaminated with fumonisin.
- During January–June 2004, an aflatoxicosis outbreak in eastern Kenya resulted in 317 cases and 125 deaths.
Exposure to mycotoxins has a number of direct neurologic, and immunologic effects—including causing cancer.
Most notably, these toxins inhibit protein synthesis, explains Hope.
To oversimplify, protein synthesis is essential for cell function. When toxins inhibit that process, cells cannot regulate themselves, or do their jobs properly—like create antibodies.
Those exposed to mycotoxins experience a wide range of symptoms. Those commonly include: fatigue, lethargy, digestive issues, muscle aches, and respiratory and sleep issues. Another common symptom: recurring UTIs, says Hope.
Her patients also frequently experience depression, anxiety, and difficulties with memory and concentration.
In fact, Hope continues, “There are very few organ systems that are spared in people who are exposed to indoor water damage, or mold.”
Scientists have so far identified more than 200 different types of mycotoxins. Many of which are classified according to the organs they affect, i.e.: hepatotoxins (liver), nephrotoxins (kidneys), neurotoxins (nerve tissue), etc.
Because they affect certain organs; they’re also known to play a significant role in cancers in these organs, according to the authors of Mycotoxins: The Hidden Danger in Foods.
Mycotoxin-Producing Fungi, Susceptible Foods, and Mycotoxin Effects on Humans and Animals:
“Not Until We Found One Little Splotch…”
Dr. Hope is a leader in the field of environmental medicine, an expertise she gained after her own experience with mold poisoning.
In 2005, her health took a dramatic decline. She experienced daily fevers, had eight organs biopsied, and over a dozen CAT scans. Ultimately, doctors hospitalized her twice.
Tests revealed a number of abnormalities. However, Hope discovered no underlying cause for what was making her so sick.
“Not until we found one little splotch of black on a wall behind a bookcase in the house we were living in at the time,” she says.
“It turns out, everyone in the household was having symptoms,” says Hope.
The experience was life altering. Not only did it temporarily derail her health, it inspired her to pursue a new path of medicine.
Not All Fungi are Dangerous
Fungi are one of the oldest living organisms on earth. Researchers believe the organisms are closer to animal life than plants. However, fungi is neither—it’s in a kingdom of its own.
So far, scientists have discovered tens of thousands of species—though they estimate that millions exist. Those include yeast, mold, rusts, mushrooms and more
Not all are toxic.
According to The State of the World’s Fungi report, organisms in the fungi kingdom, “underpin products and processes that we rely heavily on in aspects of everyday life, from critical drugs […], to synthesis of biofuels, to cleaning up the environment through bioremediation.”
Other species, like Penicillium, are used as antibiotics and cheese production.
But, Penicillium, in addition to Cladosporium, and Aspergillus, can also pose serious risks to animal health.