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Adverse Health Effects & Your Exposure To Mould & Water-Damaged Buildings

There is a wide body of literature available regarding human exposure to water-damaged buildings and the range of adverse health effects that can be attributed to it.

The New York State Toxic Mold Task Force - Final Report to the Governor & Legislature (2010), states that the primary factor of moisture is itself, not the cause of ill health, however, the secondary effects of persistent moisture on and in materials in the built environment can give rise to the demise of not only indoor air quality but the integrity & effectiveness of materials where the moisture resides.

These secondary influences can result in physical, biological & chemical degradation of materials, emitting hazardous chemical agents and result in the proliferation of microorganisms, such as bacteria and fungi and their by-products, such as spores, fungal fragments, mycotoxins, endotoxins, volatile organic compounds (VOC’s) and microbial volatile organic compounds (MVOC’s). (WHO, 2009) (J.D. Thrasher & S. Crawley, 2009)

Furthermore, moisture may promote the survival of viruses and can create ideal environments for various pests such as arachnids (dust mites), insects, rodents and bats, which can introduce more bacterial agents and allergens into the environment. (National Institute of Medicine, 2004), (WHO, 2009)

The resulting ‘chemical stew’ of biological agents and chemical emissions can result in allergic responses, infections, irritations and inflammation within the human body (Australian College of Environmental Studies, 2019) (WHO, 2009)

In fact, numerous studies have found a correlation between exposure to water-damaged buildings including; the development & exacerbation of asthma, upper & lower respiratory infections, mucous membrane irritation, the common cold, wheezing, coughing, sinusitis, rhinitis (hay-fever), allergies, pneumonia, bronchitis, a decline in lung function, and non-respiratory conditions such as rhino- conjunctivitis, eczema, atopic dermatitis, sleep disorders, gastrointestinal symptoms, such as nausea, vomiting & diarrhea, fatigue, headaches & neurological impairment. (New York State, Toxic Mold Task Force, 2010), (National Institute of Medicine, 2004), (C.G Bornehag et al, 2001) (Mendell et al, 2011) (J.D. Thrasher & S. Crawley, 2009) (Fisk et al, 2010) (Norback et al, 2013)

J.D. Thrasher & S. Crawley (2009), suggest that occupants who are exposed to the biocontaminants found in water-damaged buildings can develop multi-organ symptoms, which indicates a systemic inflammatory response, and that when the synergism and interactions of the biocontaminants are taken into account, it can only be concluded that multiple systemic health effects are not only occurring but are scientifically and medically explicable.

According to Dr. Richie Shoemaker (Shoemaker et al., 2013; Shoemaker & House, 2005), 24% of the population are genetically susceptible to biotoxin illness and cannot create the necessary antibodies to fight the antigens found in a water-damaged building. Consequently, setting up an inflammatory response that will not stop, and develop to a point where multiple systems in the body are affected, resulting in autoimmune, neurodegenerative, and chronic fatigue-like symptoms which Shoemaker refers to as “Chronic Inflammatory Response Syndrome” (CIRS).

The WHO document, Guidelines for Indoor Air Quality: Dampness & Mould (2009), mentions that while various studies have found that atopic and allergic people are particularly susceptible to the biological and chemical agents associated with damp indoor environments, adverse health effects in non-atopic populations have also been noted and therefore the elderly, children and those who are immunocompromised may be more at risk.

Exposure standards

Whilst air quality is recognized as an important risk factor for human health and adverse health effects arising from exposure to water-damaged buildings has been well documented, no exposure limits have been set in Australia.

The WHO (2009), identifies that “As the relationship between dampness, microbial exposure and health effects cannot be quantified precisely, no quantitative health-based guideline values or thresholds can be recommended for acceptable levels of contamination with microorganisms. Instead, it is recommended that dampness and mould-related problems be prevented.” This viewpoint is also shared by the New York State, Toxic Mold Task Force (2010).

Consequently, there are guidelines and standard of care documents that outline certain expectations relating to the control of dampness in buildings. Additionally, documents and guidelines also exist for protocols on mould testing and remediation of contaminated environments, including the personal protective equipment required to prevent harm from exposure to mould and its by-products. Some relevant documents are listed below:

• National Construction Code (NCC) – outlines performance requirements to deal with dampness & weatherproofing, surface water and ventilation of buildings according to the specific classification of the dwelling. These requirements are set to ensure that the roofing and external walls of dwelling do not harbor moisture and cause unhealthy or dangerous conditions. or loss of amenity. These measures appear in the Building Code of Australia (BCA).

• Australian Building Codes Board (ABCB) – have produced a number of non-mandatory guidelines, handbooks and protocols to address expressed concerns by the government, industry and community that relate to the built environment, covering various topics including Condensation in Buildings (2nd edition, 2014) and Indoor Air Quality (2nd edition, 2018).

• Worldwide Exposure Standards for Mold and Bacteria, by Brandys RC & Brandys GM. (10th edition, 2017). – outlines various exposure standards that have been adopted in different countries around the world.

• ATSM International. D7338-14. (2014). Standard Guide for Assessment of Fungal Growth in Buildings. – provides some guidance and options for assessing and evaluating fungal contamination in buildings.

• Australian Mould Guideline by Kemp P & Kemp H. (2nd edition, 2010). – sets guidelines for assessment, classification and remediation of microbial contamination in buildings.

• ANSI/IICRC S520 – Standard for Professional Mold Remediation. (3rd edition, 2015) – sets guidelines for assessment, classification and remediation of microbial contamination in buildings.