The truth about moulds and your health

Whether it is in images on the news of abandoned homes in Attawapiskat or a creeping fungus that has just appeared in your own basement, mould may be a relatively new problem to the north but it can have a huge impact on both your home and your health.

According to Dr. Elizabeth Robinson from the Cree Board of Health and Social Services of James Bay (CBHSSJB), mould has only become an issue with homes in the north since the 1970s when home construction changed as a result of the then energy crisis and homes became airtight. While draughty houses may have accounted for high energy costs, they did allow for air to circulate and humidity to escape.

“Now that our houses are airtight, it’s a whole new ballgame,” said Robinson.

Mould problems have made some Cree homes unlivable, and recently, it was the reason why the new Mistissini hospital project had to be delayed by a year.

While that situation has since been remedied, the lesson to be learned here is that if the appropriate steps are taken, mould growth can be stopped as it is an easy-to-fix problem if caught early enough.

At the same time, Robinson said that gaining an understanding of the basics of the impact of mould on human health, what it is, how it can grow in your home and what to do about it is the first part of tackling the problem.

“Moulds are microorganisms which means that they are living things, but they are too small for us to see. Bacteria and viruses are also microorganisms, and we can’t see them either,” said Robinson.

In buildings where there are mould problems, the air quality is poor because of the chemicals and the spores (think tiny invisible seeds in the air) released by the mould.

People living in homes with significant mould problems can experience a number of different health issues, starting with irritations of the eyes, nose, throat and skin. As Robinson explained, while these symptoms are not life threatening, they can certainly be annoying. She also said that other issues like headaches and some fatigue are quite common, but mould isn’t the only air-quality issue that can have these effects.

Moulds can also trigger an allergic response in some individuals. For someone whose respiratory system might already be compromised, as in the case of an asthmatic, mould can aggravate pre-existing asthma and that is well proven. When faced with mould, asthmatics tend to get sick and this can get worse and so they tend to use more medication if there is mould in the air.

According to the CBHSSJB’s Public Health department, it has been shown that mould growth in homes can cause new cases of asthma in adults and it is well known that damp and mouldy houses lead to more respiratory infections in children, like ear infections (otitis), colds, bronchitis, sinusitises (sinus infections) and other related problems.

Sometimes the air quality in a mouldy home is so bad that the effects on a child’s respiratory health can be compared to that of a home where the adults smoke indoors; in other words, it can have a measurable impact.

In rarer cases, moulds can get into people’s lungs and cause pneumonia where the mould is actually growing in an individual’s lungs. However, according to Robinson, this kind of thing is not common and has been seen more in cases in hospitals where patients already has issues with their immune systems. It can also happen in workplaces, like a barn where you have a ton of mould.

You don’t however need to work in a barn to have issues with mould in your workplace as it is a common problem in all sorts of buildings up north, from homes to businesses to band offices.

The problem is so common that the Public Health department is now trying to help the people of Eeyou Istchee deal with it before it becomes an issue.

“People are more afraid than is really warranted, but it is because they don’t know and they hear all of these things,” said Robinson.

“There needs to be more information out there about what moulds can and can’t do to your health and how to get rid of them because it isn’t all that complicated.”

The first step is getting an understanding the origins of mould in buildings. Mould occurs naturally outside and so the mould you find inside your home originated from spores that came in through the air from outside.

It is natural to have lots of mould in the outdoor air, not so much in the winter but during the other seasons.

For mould to start growing in a building however, the circumstances have to be just right. As Robinson explained it, mould needs “food and water,” and so in this case that is a porous surface, such as wood, jip rock, ceiling tiles, insulation or paint. Mould can also grow in dust as well, but will not form on other kinds of surfaces where it can’t breathe so they won’t grow on pyrite or metal.

To attract mould, those surfaces need to get wet and remain wet. In as little as 48 hours, mould can start to grow. If left unattended, a tiny bit of mould can turn into a major problem.

“If there is any kind of a leak, you have to clean it up within 48 hours. If anything has stayed wet for more than 48 hours you should remove it. Change those ceiling tiles, and cut out the jip rock that has gotten soaked if your basement was flooded,” said Robinson.

Just because you don’t have a leaky roof or leaky pipes doesn’t mean that you are not going to experience a mould problem. Overcrowding in a home, a frequent issue on many Native reserves, can also be a major source of a mould problem.

In homes where there are several individuals living, Robinson said it is necessary to make sure that the air exchangers or fans are running as often as possible and that they are run for at least 20 minutes after each person takes a shower.

A common mistake many people make is that they won’t have the exchangers on because they can be very noisy, but they are absolutely necessary to ensure that a mould problem doesn’t develop. Maintaining these systems is equally important as vents can frequently become blocked or filters are not changed which can render a system useless. It is these filters that will trap the mould that is naturally occurring in the air and keep it from growing on your surfaces.

“You have to make sure that that a fan is vented to the outside because sometimes people take shortcuts when they are building and don’t vent it to the outside. In a transit that the Health Board owns in Mistissini, the kitchen fan just blew the air back into the house,” said Robinson.

In the event of a major spill, it is necessary to tackle the problem right away to ensure that there is no stagnant water left to develop any issues. And if you discover any mould in your home, take immediate action.

Robinson said that small amounts of mould can be cleaned up with regular dish soap and water and a little bit of scrubbing. A small amount of mould would be about a square metre. If larger amounts of mould are discovered on a porous surface like jip rock, the square should be cut out and replaced.

But, if you discover that you have a major mould problem, calling in a professional is necessary. Find a company that can deal with the issue and if you are in band-council housing, contact the necessary authorities to take care of it immediately.