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A Hidden Health Hazard

Dec 4, 2001 Deena Karabell had lived in her New York City apartment for 15 years, so when she fell ill in 1983, she never suspected that her apartment itself could be to blame. Over the next 15 years she grew progressively weaker. Finally, in the spring of 1998, she lost 30 pounds and went into anaphylactic shock three times. She literally lay dying in her bedroom when a hired nurse noticed a strong odor of mold in the closet. Suddenly things clicked. Karabell's family moved her out immediately. Today--at a safe distance from the mold--she is almost back to normal. "People are amazed at my recovery," she says.

Molds have been an under recognized health problem, but that is changing. Health-care professionals now know that molds can cause allergies, trigger asthma attacks and increase susceptibility to colds and flu. Anyone with a genetic predisposition can become allergic if exposed repeatedly to high enough levels. Last year Dr. David Sherris at the Mayo Clinic performed a study of 210 patients with chronic sinus infections and found that most had allergic fungal sinusitis. "The prevailing medical opinion has been that mold accounted for 6 to 7 percent of all chronic sinusitis," says Sherris. "We found that it was 93 percent--the exact reverse."

More rarely, molds appear to cause problems like Karabell's. These aren't just allergies but reactions to toxins. Certain molds produce poisons in order to kill off competing fungi and bacteria. Risks of toxicity increase with the amount of mold--and flooding and leaks can supply the moisture that molds need to thrive.

If you believe you have a mold-related illness, consult an allergist or an environmental-health specialist. (If you can see or smell mold, that's a good clue.) They will at least be able to confirm the diagnosis and proceed accordingly. The best remedy of all is simply to get rid of the mold. Small blooms on the surface of walls can be removed with a weak solution of chlorine bleach. Wear rubber gloves, open the windows for ventilation and throw out the sponge afterward. A face mask could also be a good idea. "Dead or alive, mold still contains the proteins that provoke allergies," says J. David Miller, a mold specialist at Carleton University in Canada.

If your home has more extensive water damage, remediation may be the only answer. Seek professional help. You need to fix leaks, replace moldy drywall and improve ventilation. Beware of built-in humidifiers in forced-air heating systems. "Molds and slime build up there and never get cleaned out," says Jack Spengler of Harvard. New York City has guidelines on remediation at moldrpt1.html. California state also has fact sheets at to help you to a healthier home environment.

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