The prevalence of afflictions associated with life in quarantine are on the rise, from noise pollution to air pollution—the realities of inhabiting an urban environment 24/7 are having a compounding influence on our health. Architects are designing solutions for new builds to address many of these issues, but for most of us living inside houses up to 50 years old, the solutions are not so simple.
Spores in the environment propagating inside your home can cause mental or physical symptoms like headaches, brain fog, breathing issues, or allergies. Our first thought maybe to associate the symptoms with covid virus, but biotoxin illness can also cause any of these conditions.
Special Report by Architectural Scientist and Lecturer, Tim Law, PhD UTAS.
In this article Law examines the conditions of built ecosystems that support spore growth, and shares one mans unconventional approach to managing mould and reducing his exposure to biotoxins.
Of tents and houses
One of the earliest mentions of mould can be found in the Bible. In this account, the children of Israel, having left Egypt in the exodus, wandered the wilderness for 40 years. Throughout this time they dwelled in tents and were now on the cusp of entering and occupying Canaan. They were given instruction on how to assess whether mould in a house was in a germinative stage, and if so, to take remediation actions. If those actions failed to prevent the recurrence of mould, the house was to be demolished.
“If the defiling mold reappears in the house after the stones have been torn out and the house scraped and plastered, the priest is to go and examine it and, if the mold has spread in the house, it is a persistent defiling mold; the house is unclean. It must be torn down—its stones, timbers and all the plaster—and taken out of the town to an unclean place.” Leviticus 14:43-45 (NIV)
For a period, the industrialised world forgot about mould in buildings. As long as plumbing and cladding were free of defects, we could keep away water from building materials and there was no chance for mould to propagate.
In Australia, it was not until the last 10-15 years that mould emerged with disconcerting frequency. With mandatory energy efficiency came the possibility and propensity for round-the-clock heating of houses in cool climates, and an accompanying need for greater air-tightness. Warmth enables air to carry more moisture in the form of vapour, and in houses without a ventilation system, that vapour precipitates into condensation when it meets a cold surface. Left for a few days, mould grows on any of the plethora of cellulose-based building materials commonly found in houses. Mould spores are ubiquitous in the built environment. We cannot escape spores, but we can avoid creating conditions where those spores germinate into colonies, because once active, each colony can release thousands of spores daily.
Mould germination requires persistent damp and is the reason we do not get mould easily on tents. Dew can form in the tent, and rain can fall on it, but the fabric being highly permeable allows water to dry off before the spores have that all important window of opportunity to come out of dormancy.
Of mould and man
Richard Barry has been recovering from prolonged mould exposure and subsequently avoids buildings as much as possible. He shares his harrowing discovery that mould was the trigger for his Myalgic Encephalomyelitis (ME/CFS) and severe cognitive impairment.
“When I lived in Bondi, black mould aggressively sprawled across my bathroom ceiling the year and a half I was there. My time in that apartment was akin to a nightmare. I was at my absolute worst. I could barely walk or talk, I had crippling, debilitating insomnia & exhaustion, my adrenals were shot, and my brain had completely shut down. My short-term memory was nonexistent. I couldn’t remember what year it was, what my car rego was, what my address was. When I would go shopping, it would sometimes take me 45 minutes to find my car again after, despite a concerted effort to remember where I’d parked, and sometimes I would come close to chucking the towel in—it seemed so futile. I would stammer and slur my words, and my legs had begun to atrophy and barely supported my body. It was hell. Meanwhile, I was doing many conventional and alternative treatments to recover, eating extremely healthily, fasting, juicing, doing various detox regimens, but I just wasn’t getting anywhere—it was like being stuck in quicksand.”
Mould thrives in dark and damp spaces, and because condensation occurs in the concealed interstitial wall and ceiling spaces, you often will not see mould even though it is just behind the plasterboard. Trust your sense of smell, if you detect a musty odour, there will be mould. Mould creates a variety of health problems. It can be allergenic and exacerbate asthma, it can invade and colonise the lungs of people who are immunocompromised, and it can create chronic inflammation in individuals with a genetic predisposition. Inflammation is complex; it is multi-symptom and multi-organ. Only some physicians are familiar with the presentation of these complex inflammatory symptoms amongst mould patients. I asked Richard how one could recognise a severe response to mould.
“I think the main clue is if you have been trying to heal from a chronic condition and you haven’t made any progress, or have even regressed, despite taking all the right steps, then you need to look at your environment. I don’t so much view mould as the catalyst for conditions, so much as the trigger. It’s a trauma the body has to deal with, and can suppress your immunity enough to allow any background issues that might’ve been lying around to get a grip. It’s hard to pinpoint any one set of symptoms as at the end of the day it’s very individual, but generally neurological symptoms like twitching, speech impairment, memory loss & loss of motor skills appear to be commonly reported, as is repeated viral flares or ongoing viral issues, insomnia, fatigue, weak adrenals, and a whole spectrum of psychological disorders like depression, bi-polar, anxiety, & symptoms like anger, irritability, listlessness & suicidal ideation. If you notice you feel better out during the day, but crash when you get home, or sleep fine in other people’s homes and terribly at yours, or get depressed or anxious when you get home—they’re all telltale signs. A lot of buildings don’t have visible water damage, yet have terrible mould problems.”
Got mould, so what?
A useful way of determining if your house is presenting a mould health problem, is to take a break from it, and go camping in a pristine environment. Some find the difference instantaneous, some take up to two weeks for symptoms to unmask. Upon returning to your house, if you feel symptoms of fatigue and brain fog crashing down, you have uncovered one root of your problems: biotoxin illness, a condition investigated at an Australian Parliamentary Inquiry in 2018. The Inquiry uncovered that there were systemic shortcomings in the regulation of the cleaning and remediation industry, as well as inadequacies in the construction code that have resulted in persistent building dampness arising from condensation.
If you have cleaned up the visible mould and it still recurs, then there is a moisture problem that requires further investigation by a professional such as a hygienist. However, if a professional remediated the problem and it still recurs, I am sorry to be the harbinger of bad news. There is no easy fix for that. It could well be a more complex issue of condensation for which there is insufficient guidance in the construction code or Australian standards. The best international construction practices, such as in Canada and the UK, have arisen only after the health impact of mould was recognised. If mould is not a health problem, mould is not a problem. The legislative framework in every Australian state has general requirements that buildings be safe and healthy for its occupants. If you have a mould problem, be certain to report this to the council, the department of health and your state building regulator. The authorities need to know that the built environment is failing the health of its people.
For those who suffer severe mould illness, their only recourse is to minimise time in buildings. Richard explains how he arrived at this difficult decision to live nomadically, “I’ve been trying to find a safe home for myself for quite some time now, but given limited finances and what I consider shocking building standards in this country, that has been extremely challenging, especially with my current level of sensitivity. I exist very much on the fringes of society as a result, as it’s rare for me to encounter a building I don’t react to or instantly deteriorate in. If you know mould is an issue for you and you are chronically ill and have means, build or find yourself a safe home in the countryside somewhere to recover. A sense of home and stability are crucial to recovery. I ended up in a tent because I didn’t have that luxury.”
I appreciate where Richard is coming from. After all these millennia since the Exodus, the risks posed by mould to human health have not changed. Better to live healthily in a tent than to be cripplingly ill in a mouldy house.