Toxic Mould & Mycotoxins

Aspergillus niger mould

Aspergillus, like many other moulds, can produce highly toxic chemicals known as mycotoxins. Some of these are useful and well known e.g. alcohol & penicillin. Others are gaining recognition for less useful purposes as they contaminate food and animal feeds, making them unusable or uneconomic, and forcing the value of a crop downwards. This is particularly painful in developing countries when food is short. It is true to say that there is a fair amount of research available on the effect of mycotoxins on the productivity of farmed animals, but very little on the effect of mycotoxins on humans.

What do we know about the possible health effects of inhaled mycotoxins produced by fungi growing in damp buildings? This has been a source of great debate over the last 20 years and more than one vested interest has given its opinion. The debate gets very technical, so in a few simple points:

  • Toxins are present in an airborne form in at least some damp buildings or buildings with poorly maintained air conditioning
  • The AMOUNT of toxins ingested by breathing will usually be too low to cause an acute (immediate) toxic effect on health, though these figures are based on toxicity in animals other than humans. Some humans may be more sensitive than others.
  • We do not fully understand all of the potential sources of mycotoxins
  • Repeated exposure to low doses of mycotoxins has been shown to affect health in animals
  • Different mycotoxins can work together to cause health problems in animals, such that neither has an effect on its own, but together they can. Mycotoxins or other types of toxins/irritants may well be present in combination in damp buildings – this is a risk whose extent isn’t yet well understood.

All in all, there is more than adequate evidence that shows damp buildings are a risk to our health.

We also know that foods that have become mouldy while in storage can also cause damage to our health, so much so that many counties screen vulnerable foods (e.g. nuts, cereals, spices, dried fruit, apples & coffee beans) for mycotoxins both if they are produced within the country and as they are imported. Only safe levels of mycotoxin are allowed before sale.

Whether mycotoxins that are inhaled in a damp building contribute to health problems is debated. We do not know enough to say that they don’t have a major effect on health. We do know that in living conditions that would promote their production (i.e. damp buildings), there are clear associations of damp living conditions with health problems, and that when the houses are cleaned up and well ventilated those health problems improve. However there are many factors that may be causing this in a damp home, consequently, we cannot conclude that mycotoxins are causing those illnesses.

Health symptoms that are consistent with exposure to fungal spores and other allergenic dust would most commonly be allergy-related (cough/sneeze, post nasal drip, wheeze/breathlessness, itchy eyes/nose, tummy pain/nausea, bloating, skin rash, chest tightness/throat closing, feeling faint, anxiety/depression, eczema, sinusitis and more…).

These will of course be worse for some people who have eg asthma, pre-existing allergies/sensitivities, people being treated for some cancers/transplants/heavily immunosuppressed, babies, and the elderly.

The symptoms that relate to people who have been poisoned by eating food containing mycotoxins include vomiting, nausea, stomach pain & discomfort. These symptoms can be most obvious after a single large (acute) exposure. If exposure is lower level but goes on for an extended period of time (i.e. chronic) then there can be an increased risk of cancer and other serious illness. It is worth saying that exposure eating contaminated food usually results in an ingested dose that is hundred of times higher than what we might inhale in a damp home, even for chronic exposure.

Symptoms of inhaling mycotoxin in a damp home are said to be sinus congestion, cough/wheeze/breathlessness, sore throat and as exposure continues the following are reported: headache, fatigue, generalised pain, depression, foggy brain, rashes, weight gain, and sore gut.

It is easy to see that there are large overlaps in the symptoms that characterise allergies and those from inhaling or eating mycotoxin in a damp home. Add in severe anxiety symptoms (uncomfortable stomach, dizziness, pins and needles, headaches, other aches and pains, irregular heartbeat, sweating, tooth pain, nausea, difficulty sleeping, panic attacks and things get very confusing indeed.

Clearly, in order to treat an illness effectively It is important that a diagnosis is accurate, and also we have seen that it is obvious that similar symptoms can result from very different health problems. To get to the correct diagnosis for you it is best to work with your doctors as they will have to systematically rule out a series of possible diagnoses before they arrive at the correct one – it is not simply a case of finding a group of symptoms & circumstances on an internet community that sound like yours.