Understanding The Role Mycotoxins Play In Mold Remediation Projects

woman sneezing

Many mold remediation consultants and contractors have the mistaken idea that the industry exploded onto the public consciousness 20 years ago, stabilized within a few years, and has remained rather static since then. Nothing could be further from the truth. Our understanding of fungal organisms, their by-products, the health issues they cause, proper remediation techniques, and specialized chemistry to deal safely with mold all are continuously expanding.


Mycotoxins And Mold Sensitized Occupants

For example, the understanding of mycotoxins, their impact on people, and the various techniques available to remediate those chemical compounds secreted by fungal organisms has taken some great leaps forward over the past few years. The ability to efficiently, and cost-effectively, test for mycotoxins in the environment and in people is starting to change the approach for cleaning spaces occupied by mold sensitized individuals.

Many restoration professionals have learned that mold can cause allergic reactions, some quite serious, based on the concentration of inhaled or ingested mold spores. This basic medical connection between a moldy environment and health has been recognized for some time.

In contrast, many in the restoration industry do not understand the difference between individuals that have an allergic reaction to mold and then recover, to those who become sick after being exposed to a moldy environment yet never seemed to get better. What is truly frustrating for the restoration professionals are the clients that continue to complain about health effects after the mold source has been remediated. The number of such customers seems to be growing; and they can be devastating to restorers with continual demands and negative on-line reviews. That is why everyone in the restoration profession should realize that some of their clients may have become sensitized to mold.

As the understanding of the medical aspects of mold sensitized individuals grows, it is becoming clear that a small, but substantial, percentage of the population have a genetic structure that does not allow them to break down mycotoxins in their system as efficiently as most people. In some of the more severe cases, hardly any of the mycotoxins are broken down by the person’s immune system. This leads to a buildup of these poisonous chemicals in their blood and body systems. The poisons themselves, and their body’s ineffective attempts to remove them, results in a number of illnesses. This process is also a main component of the mold related disease known as Chronic Inflammatory Response Syndrome, CIRS.


The Twofold Challenge Facing Mold Sensitized Individuals

The first issue faced by individuals who think that their previous, or existing, mold contaminated environment has caused some health problems is to figure out whether their symptoms are related to a mold allergy, a mycotoxin induced illness, or something else. Generally, the type and severity of symptoms are the main determinants to categorize the potential exposure. According to numerous medical professionals, individuals with mold allergies generally have symptoms related to the respiratory system, eyes, sinuses, and general fatigue. In contrast, individuals who are suffering from a buildup of mycotoxins in their system often report the same type of problems but with the addition of hormonal imbalances, problems with multiple systems in their bodies, and neurological issues which makes it difficult for them to remember and think clearly.

For the mold sensitized individuals who develop an overabundance of mycotoxins in their system it is critical that they make progress on both the medical front in conjunction with improving their living environment. Many sensitized individuals do not have a complete understanding of their situation and believe that, somehow, more cleaning of their home or office will lead to an improvement in their health. The reality is that excellent remediation of the living area often does not translate into improved health until the underlying illness is effectively treated so that the mycotoxins stored in the body are removed.

In contrast, the mold sensitized individuals who are being treated by knowledgeable medical professionals often come to realize that the “standard” remediation performed in their home or workplace was not good enough to prevent continued exposure to mycotoxins. In our experience, this is frequently due to restoration contractors addressing source material1 but ignoring the secondary deposition of spores, mycotoxins, and other mold byproducts still in the structure because of the natural dispersion of the fungal material on air currents and through the HVAC system2.

In simple terms what this means is that sensitized individuals have to be focused on two different “battlefronts” at the same time. They have to work to identify and correct any contamination issues in their environment while simultaneously taking steps to improve their health with specific treatments to purge the body of the mycotoxins.


Dealing With The Mycotoxins

One of the significant components of this secondary fungal contamination is the mycotoxins. The physical nature of many of those poisonous compounds means that they are “sticky”, making them difficult to remove from surfaces. Because of that stickiness even standard remediation techniques, such as HEPA vacuuming, is often not enough to remove the mycotoxins from walls, floors, HVAC diffusers, and counters.

Given the growing awareness that mycotoxins can be a significant contributor to the health problems sensitized individuals suffer, even after standard mold remediation projects are completed, the critical question is “How do we eliminate mycotoxins from structures?”  In an effort to answer that pressing question one group, BioRisk Decontamination and Restoration, conducted a controlled study to document the success of a particular deactivation process.

In their description of the process entitled: CASE STUDY HVAC MYCOTOXIN ASSESSMENT & DEACTIVATION (Mycotoxin Sampling, Decontamination & Deactivation Report)3, the group details their mycotoxin deactivation procedures. In their efforts to remove mycotoxins they additionally performed standard mold remediation cleaning and then concluded with the application of ionized hydrogen. The results of that remediation process and post deactivation treatment resulted in 100% deactivation of mycotoxins. While other methods may be equally effective, at least this one approach has significant documentation of effectiveness.


Why Proper Testing Is So Important

Now that such information is available, restoration contractors dealing with sensitized individuals should utilize the process described in the restoration white paper, or test their existing procedures to confirm that mycotoxin removal actually occurs. Which then leads to the next critical question, “What is the best way to test for mycotoxin residue on surfaces?” Fortunately, that question was comprehensively answered by the efforts documented in a white paper entitled:  Mycotoxins: Critical Information for Mold Remediation Contractors and Occupants4.

That scientific discussion offers a wealth of information related to mycotoxins. One of the key pieces for restoration contractors and their clients is the discussion of the different sampling techniques that can be utilized to assist mold sensitized individuals. In the description of current sampling techniques a newer sampling process known as the Environmental Mold and Mycotoxins Assessment (EMMA) sampling system is explained. This sample procedure is available from Real Time Labs in Texas5 at a reasonable cost. According to the white paper:

The EMMA test uses the newer analytical techniques to identify and quantify 10 mold species. The 10 mold types are known to produce the mycotoxins confirmed by various scientific studies to be some of the most dangerous to human health. To complement that analysis of mold spores and fragments, the same EMMA sample is used to identify 16 of the most poisonous mycotoxins.

For restoration contractors dealing with sensitized individuals, the EMMA test seems like a dream come true. One quick surface sample can be used to identify the presence of both physical molds and mycotoxins. Just as importantly, the environmental mycotoxins, if any are recovered from the EMMA test, can be easily compared to mycotoxins levels in a person’s body as determined by biological tests of the urine.


The Right Approach For Contractors Assisting Sensitized Individuals

Because of the potential health implications, any mold remediation project is serious. The level of significance rises to a whole new level when restoration contractors are helping sensitized individuals. Understanding how mold and mycotoxins impact such clients is the first step in developing a proper remediation plan.

That plan should include the detailed completion of standard mold remediation procedures with an attention to detail including; installation of proper isolation, complete source removal, identification of Condition 2 areas, comprehensive cleaning, and post cleaning treatment with a hydrogen peroxide product.

After the completion of the work, meaningful testing needs to be completed so that the environmental component can be separated from the medical treatment component of the sensitized occupant. Although traditional samples can play a role in a confirmation of the effectiveness of the work, specialized mycotoxin sampling such as one or more EMMA surface samples are highly recommended to prove the effectiveness of the restoration efforts.

Integrating all of the available information and utilizing some of the newer proven techniques for the remediation and the sampling will help to ensure that sensitized individuals can recover and that the restoration contractor is protected from unreasonable demands.


End Notes

  1. The visible sources of mold are known as Condition 3 in the mold remediation standard put out by the Institute of Inspection, Cleaning, and Restoration Certification (IICRC).
  2. The same IICRC standard has this description of Condition 2; which they label as “settled spores or fungal fragments”: an indoor environment which is primarily contaminated with settled spores or fungal fragments that were dispersed directly or indirectly from a condition three area, and which may have traces of actual growth.
  3. Available for review on the Wonder Makers website at: https://www.wondermakers.com/Education/Wonder-Makers-News-and-Updates
  4. Available for review on the Wonder Makers website at: https://www.wondermakers.com/Education/Wonder-Makers-News-and-Updates
  5. Learn more about the EMMA test at: https://realtimelab.com/emma/
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Michael A. Pinto

For 30 years Michael A. Pinto has held the title of Certified Safety Professional in Comprehensive Practice (CSP). His further accreditation in the field is as a Safety Management Specialist. In addition to his safety certifications Michael has earned a number of titles in the restoration industry including Certified Mold Professional (CMP), Registered Third-Party Evaluator (RTPE), Forensic Restoration Operator (FRO), and Fire Loss Specialist (FLS). Nor does Mr. Pinto just accumulate knowledge, as he has shared his expertise through the publication of numerous textbooks and over 250 published articles. For this work Michael has been recognized by numerous groups including being honored with the RIA’s Phoenix award and Martin L. King award. Michael can be reached at Wonder Makers Environmental by phone (269) 382-4154, or e-mail map@wondermakers.com

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