Ireland's Mold Controversy

The issue of damp indoor air conditions is truly a global one. Ireland is currently in the middle of a controversy surrounding housing conditions for residents of Dublin's Dolphin House flats.

At a hearing conducted by the Irish Human Rights Commission last May, residents of the 1950s housing complex reported water dripping down walls and windows, sewage backing up into sinks and baths, and mold growing on walls, curtains, and clothes.

According to an article in the Irish Times, tests carried out by the National University of Ireland Maynooth's biology department found "the level of fungal contamination in the flats represented a significant threat to health and could prove fatal for those with lung disorders."

The article goes on to report:

A survey of the residents of 72 flats found 84 per cent regularly experienced sewage coming up through pipes and sinks, 72 per cent had damp in their flats, 64 per cent had mould growing in bathrooms and bedrooms, 93 per cent reported foul smells, 91 per cent of those who had damp or sewage problems said it was affecting their health, and 86 per cent said they were dissatisfied with the response from Dublin City Council.

The article further states:

Adults and children had a number of medical conditions associated with their environment including asthma, respiratory infections, skin infections and stomach bugs.

Recent tests in a number of flats carried out by NUI Maynooth microbiologist Dr. Kevin Kavanagh found evidence of Aspergillus fumigatus, a fungus known to cause lung disease.

"The fungal contamination evident in these houses is far greater than I have ever recorded in domestic dwellings [and] is a significant threat to the health of the occupants," he said.

Dr. Maurice Manning, president of the Irish Human Rights Commission, believes these living conditions put the State and its agent, Dublin City Council, in breach of the UN Convention on Economic Social and Cultural Rights.

The City Council responded that it would "continue to work through the options with the community, until solutions acceptable to the community, and which the council could afford to implement, were reached."

To read the Irish Times article in its entirety, click here.

Hazards of Increasing the Mutagenic Load

As we consider the health implications of the Gulf disaster, compromised indoor air quality, pesticide exposures, and more, we must also consider the mutagenic load discussed in this previous blog post. In the following 3-minute video, internist and toxicology specialist Dr. Michael Gray explains the dangerous consequences of increasing this load.

Health Implications of the Gulf Disaster

The Institute of Medicine is hosting an event this week in New Orleans called "Assessing the Human Health Effects of the Gulf of Mexico Oil Spill: An Institute of Medicine Workshop." (The meeting can be viewed live on Wednesday, June 23 at the IOM website.)

There is great reason to be concerned for the health of residents in coastal areas as well as the workers involved in the cleanup. Not only is it a terrible tragedy for the families of the 11 killed in the disaster, it is a tragedy for those already complaining of respiratory problems, fatigue, and a myriad of other symptoms which mirror a toxic mold and/or chemical exposure.

Consider the Exxon oil spill of 1989. In that cleanup, one in ten workers suffered a serious injury, and most beach cleanup workers were made sick by exposure to the weathered oil and other hazardous materials.

Riki Ott is a marine biologist who says we failed to learn our lesson in 1989. Born and raised in Wisconsin, where her father led a movement to ban the use of DDT, Riki became a marine biologist and found herself in Alaska at the time of the spill. She has since dedicated her life to environmental issues.

In her May 19th blog, Riki talks about the Gulf disaster this way:

Fishermen responders who are working BP's giant uncontrolled slick in the Gulf are reporting bad headaches, hacking coughs, stuffy sinuses, sore throats, and other symptoms. The Material Safety Data Sheets for crude oil and the chemical products being used to disperse and break up the slick -- underwater and on the surface -- list these very illnesses as symptoms of overexposure to volatile organic carbons (VOCs), hydrogen sulfide, and other chemicals boiling off the slick.

When the fishermen come home, they find their families hacking, snuffling, and complaining of sore throats and headaches, too. There is a good reason for the outbreak of illnesses sweeping across this area.

Last weekend, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) posted its air quality monitoring data from the greater Venice, Louisiana, area. The data showed federal standards were being exceeded by 100- to 1,000-fold for VOCs, and hydrogen sulfide, among others--and that was on shore. These high levels could certainly explain the illnesses and were certainly a cause for alarm in the coastal communities.

Another key person watching this disaster unfold is Dr. Gina Solomon MD, MPH, Senior Scientist with the Natural Resources Defense Council. She recently visited the Gulf coast and talked with people who are experiencing health issues since the spill.

People are worried, smelling things, feeling sick. It’s déjà vu for me – I’ve been through this drill before with patients who arrive in my office worried about feeling sick after being exposed to a chemical. When I try to get the scientific information I need to advise them, I hit a wall. That’s the situation in the Gulf – it’s been a month now, with no information, just layers of secrecy.

To read more on a press conference held recently by Dr. Solomon and others, see the Safer Chemicals Healthy Family blog.

In many ways this story is just beginning. There will be political and health implications for years to come. We can only hope that this tragedy will help wake us up to the reality that poisons in our air and water are indeed hazardous and life-threatening.

Mold, Asthma, and School Attendance

Environmental awareness can prove cost effective for school districts. Take San Antonio, Texas' North East Independent School District, for instance. Faced with state education funding cuts in 2005, Superintendent Richard Middleton set out to maximize revenue. He looked at the attendance rate. Increased attendance rate means increased money for the district. Middleton knew that if he could increase the number of kids coming to school every day by just 1 percent, NEISD would get an additional $3.4 million in funding.

What caused kids to miss two to three weeks (or more) of school each year? Asthma. What is one of asthma's contributing factors? Exposure to toxic mold. (A 2004 study conducted by an Institute of Medicine expert panel concluded that an association exists between damp buildings and upper respiratory tract symptoms, wheeze, cough, and exacerbation of chronic lung diseases such as asthma.)

In 2002, mold was discovered in three of NEISD’s elementary schools. The cause: a combination of flawed construction, contractor error and failure of maintenance to notice. “It became clear to me that the construction management and maintenance departments did not share the common goal of understanding environmental health,” recalls Middleton.

Ironically, the mold discovery was the first of three events Middleton calls “a positive perfect storm” toward NEISD’s wellness overhaul. From there, Middleton created a new Department of Environmental Health to oversee air quality issues and advocate and maintain a healthy environment for staff and students. He promoted Ron Clary, his first-in-command custodian, to executive director for facilities and maintenance to run that department. Says Middleton, “We then had departmental leadership that equally understood both their role and responsibility in building health.”

Clary’s department conducts classroom evaluations, removes mold on ceilings and handles teacher concerns regarding more absenteeism or respiratory-related issues among students. In 2008, the district was honored by the federal Environmental Protection Agency for implementing successful indoor air quality programs.

In 2006, Rhodes approached Middleton about state and nationwide data showing how asthma affects school attendance and shared ideas for how to combat the district’s condition. Middleton hired her that year as the district’s director of asthma education for the new department.

Under Rhodes’ guidance, communitywide “Asthma Blow-Outs” would inform parents and students about asthma and fostering wellness at home. School nurses, physical education teachers and asthma professionals ran those evening information sessions.

The effect of the Middleton-Clary-Rhodes trifecta of asthma prevention has been staggering. According to Rhodes, in early fall 2006, the number of inhalers used districtwide due to asthma during the first six weeks of school was more than 9,000. After implementing education outreach and classroom strategies, in early fall 2007 inhaler use dropped to 4,500.

Surprisingly, these changes and improvements haven’t increased NEISD’s overall budget. “We’re the ninth-largest district in the state,” Middleton says, “and of 100 districts in Texas, 97 spend more than we do on maintenance and custodial costs, yet we’re achieving excellent results.” In addition, Middleton says the district’s attendance-based revenue from the state has significantly increased.

To read the article in its entirety, click here.

Clearer Vision

Whether it was eye floaters, nystagmus (involuntary eye movements), or nearsightedness, our vision was impacted at the height of our exposure to toxic mold. Two of our youngest were prescribed eyeglasses during that time period: Reagan (age 11 at the time) and Colin (age 7 at the time). Both complained of blurry vision while trying to read.

Brandon (age 6) also complained of blurry vision. I just didn't have time to take him to the eye doctor. Kaitlyn had so many vision complaints we committed to 6 months of vision therapy.

Ten months after leaving the home, Reagan had a tough time seeing while playing baseball. He was no longer struggling with blurry vision, so we replaced his reading glasses with distance glasses.

Now that we've been detoxing for 17 months, Reagan no longer wears glasses at all. Colin no longer needs glasses.

Just yesterday Megan (22) came back from the eye doctor with a similar report. Megan's vision went downhill soon after moving into our home. "When you get a new driver's license you can let the DMV know that you no longer need glasses to drive," the doctor said.

Even my distance vision improved at my last exam. Evidently this can occur with the aging process, even without detox and diet changes.

Improving our vision has not been our priority. We're so focused on detox and recovery, it's a byproduct of our efforts. For those interested in giving attention to vision, there is a natural vision improvement method called the Bates Method. Highly controversial, the Bates Method teaches various exercises for naturally improving one's eyesight. One of these exercises is called "palming" and is discussed in Dr. Joseph Mercola's article titled "Secrets of Regaining Your Vision Naturally."

We're seeing a little clearer these days. In lots of ways. From connecting the dots of our medical past to seeing the truth about toxic exposure and health. We still lose our way frequently. But I'm grateful for the days when the clouds part and the fog lifts. Today is one of those days.

Sweet Victory

We had some blood drawn last week. Chris, myself, and two of our daughters. I selected the tests and paid for them online.

I ordered the tests through Direct Laboratory Services, found at The service is currently aligned with LabCorp. While Direct Labs does not file insurance claims, CPT codes are provided for possible reimbursement. Our Comprehensive Wellness Panels cost $97.00. Chris' PSA test (Prostate Specific Antigen) cost $29. The PSA test is on sale this month in honor of Father's Day.

(For a humorous recounting of Chris' recent office visit that goes along with the PSA test, see his blog.)

Mycotoxin testing can also be ordered through Direct Labs. This is the same testing offered by RealTime Labs. The testing for aflatoxins, ochratoxins, and tricothescenes can be found under the "Allergy" heading. The aflatoxin test, for example, appears this way:

Aflatoxin Group, urine-RTL KIT

Aflatoxins are naturally occurring mycotoxins that are produced by many species of Aspergillus. The organisms that usually produce aflatoxins are Aspergillus flavus and Aspergillus parasiticus. Aflatoxins are toxic and can be cancer producing.

High-level aflatoxin exposure produces an acute damage and cirrhosis of the liver as well as cancer of the liver.

I tested positive for aflatoxins in January 2009. My liver tested abnormal at the time. I was advised to pursue an ultrasound for possible cirrhosis of the liver. My bilirubin scores came back this week.

Completely normal.

Chris' PSA results were normal. Other results showed our bodies are still fighting this battle.

I'm celebrating this victory, however, armed with renewed determination. Reminded of the adage: "The harder the fight, the sweeter the victory."

Snakes, Scorpions, and Spices

June is a tough month in Arizona. The cooling monsoons haven't hit and the critter population is out in full force.

A few weeks ago our 10-year-old discovered this rattlesnake resting comfortably in our neighborhood. (You can see it well hidden beneath the bush.)

Several days later the rattlesnake "wandered" into the street just in time for our neighbor to drive over him. She drove over him 4 times in all. Her husband promptly beheaded and buried him. People in Arizona take rattlesnakes seriously.

Several days later we found a baby Gila Monster above our front door.

The other night, Colin found a giant scorpion in our kitchen. Ryan appeared just in time to kill it with my slipper.

Our ant population came out in full force two weeks ago.

No wonder people build walls around their homes and hire pesticide control!

Since we're renting, a wall is not an option. The chemicals used in pesticides are out of the question. Our chemical sensitivity prohibits this, and I'm grateful. Pesticides have been shown to damage the nervous system, reproductive system, and other organs. They are known to cause developmental and behavioral abnormalities, hormone disruption, and immune system dysfunction.

Even the American Medical Association acknowledges this:

Pesticides can be dangerous to consumers, workers and close bystanders during manufacture, transport, or during and after use.

The AMA recommends limiting exposure to pesticides and using safer alternatives:

Particular uncertainty exists regarding the long-term effects of low-dose pesticide exposures. Current surveillance systems are inadequate to characterize potential exposure problems related either to pesticide usage or pesticide-related illnesses… Considering these data gaps, it is prudent…to limit pesticide exposures…and to use the least toxic chemical pesticide or non-chemical alternative.

For more, see this abstract.

Last summer we relied on Borax. Boric acid is an excellent alternative to pesticides. According to this descriptive article:

Boric acid acts as a “stomach poison” for ants, cockroaches, silverfish, and termites, and is most commonly used in a bait formulation containing a feeding attractant or as a dry powder. The powder can be injected into cracks and crevices, where it forms a fine layer of dust. Insects travel through the powder, which adheres to their legs. When the insects groom themselves, they ingest the poison, which causes death due to starvation and dehydration 3-10 days later. Boric acid can also abrade the exoskeletons of insects.

At the American Chemical Society's 238th National Meeting last year, scientists reported new research on so-called "essential oil pesticides" or "killer spices." Rosemary, thyme, clove, and mint are a few of the spices shown to interfere with the insects' nervous systems.

Yesterday we tried a natural pesticide control company, Eco Pest of Southern Arizona. The treatment was 100% botanical and utilized some of these essential oils.

It's only been a day... but so far so good. We didn't react to the treatment. The ants seem to have gotten the message. We've had no scorpion sightings.

As for rattlesnakes? We do our best to practice the "Double A" rule: Awareness and Avoidance. The same tactic we use when it comes to toxic mold.

School Environmental Policy

Imagine a school with a chemical-free, fragrance-free policy. One with a strong stand on the issue of water damage. One which makes the connection between a child's ability to learn and the indoor air environment. A school which forbids the use of toxic markers.

Sound implausible?

Several schools have emerged. One in Glendale, Arizona. Challenge Charter School is a K-6 school with the following environmental policy:

Chemicals and chemically-laden material will be considered toxic and not allowed or used on site until proven safe. Biological contaminants, such as bacteria and mold, will be considered hazardous and, therefore, abated. Indoor air quality, along with other environmental factors in and around the school, affects the health, performance and productivity of all occupants. Children are more susceptible to environmental hazards, and the biochemistry of each person is unique. Accordingly, the Environmental Health Policy must be inclusive to ensure the provision of an optimum school environment that is healthful for all occupants and conducive to the learning needs of all students.
  1. Pesticides and their use are prohibited on school premises. A system of integrated pest management shall be employed to monitor, prevent, suppress and eliminate pests without using any pesticides.
  2. Smoking of tobacco is prohibited on campus. Signs prohibiting smoking shall be placed at the main entrances of the school building.
  3. Cleaning and maintenance of the school and furnishings is to be done using safer, non-toxic products that are least odorous (e.g. baking soda, vinegar, Bon-Ami, borax, Basic H and I). A solution of water and up to 10% chlorine bleach may be used for disinfecting purposes.
  4. Use of aerosol sprays is prohibited inside the school.
  5. Soap, toilet paper and tissue must be fragrance-free. Use of conventional air fresheners and aromatic deodorizers is prohibited.
  6. All school and art supplies must be non-toxic and fragrance-free. No scented stickers, permanent markers, or other solvent-based products are to be brought or used on campus. Correction fluid may not be used in classrooms or other areas when students are present.
  7. Science experiments requiring chemicals, or using any odorous materials, shall be restricted to a designated area adequate exhaust ventilation. Alternatives for chemistry class and other lab activities will be made available upon parent request to any students with allergies and/or chemical sensitivities.
  8. Use of perfume, cologne and other scented personal products (e.g. hair care products, soaps, lotions, deodorants) is prohibited inside the school building. Signs to this effect shall be posted outside the entrance doors. Anyone wearing fragrance products is prohibited from entering the school beyond the front office reception area.
    • Any occupant who noticeably smells of fragrance, smoke or other chemical odors is to be sent to the front office reception area where appropriate action(s) will be taken to remedy the situation.
    • In the case of students, parents will be notified and summoned to school if a scented personal product must be removed from a child’s body. The student may not return to the classroom or regular education environment until the fragrance or chemical odor has been removed.
  9. Any questionable items are to be sent to the school office for assessment.
  10. The chemical composition of new furnishings, supplies (e.g. paints, adhesives, caulking compounds) and construction materials shall be carefully considered before purchases are made. Donated items must be carefully screened. Safe sealers may be applied on plywood and other furnishings to minimize the outgassing of chemicals (e.g. formaldehyde, organic hydrocarbons).
  11. To control the presence of chalk dust and minimize its accumulation, blackboards are to be cleaned only with a damp cloth while students are not present. Only white chalk may be used in classrooms. Blackboards and chalk may be replaced with white boards and odorless, water-based markers.
  12. When purchasing textbooks and other books, preference will be giving to those that have soy ink print on acid-free paper, and older, used books. If new and odorous, books can be spread open and baked at 100 degrees Fahrenheit for at least five hours and then aired out. This procedure helps diminish odors of ink and paper chemicals. Use photocopies, as opposed to dittos, whenever possible.
  13. Controlled ventilation with exhaust fans will be installed in all specially designated rooms that house printing, copying and lamination equipment.
  14. Routine vacuuming of the carpet shall be done either before or after regular school hours when classes are not in session. Until HEPA and/or Nilfisk GS 90 Allergy Vacuums can be acquired by the school, donated vacuuming equipment will have to be used and retrofitted with more efficient dust bags to best prevent the transferring of particulates into the air.
  15. The heating, ventilating, and air conditioning (HVAC) systems shall be properly maintained, serviced and upgraded in accordance with the Indoor Air Quality Management Plan. modifications will include retrofitting the systems with high efficient filters or comparable filtrations.
  16. Installation, use and maintenance of air purifiers shall be done according to the specifications described in the Air quality Management Plan.
  17. Educational programs for students, parents and staff will be provided so that the whole school community becomes more aware of environmentally-related health, behavioral and learning problems.
  18. In-service training of teachers will include instruction on:
    • how to recognize environmentally-related health, behavioral and learning problems in children;
    • identifying potential causes of environmentally triggered illness (ETI) in relation to symptoms and learning disabilities;
    • prevention and management of ETI, and accommodating the special needs of any affected individuals, using a multi-disciplinary team approach.
Just like their name, CCS offers a challenge to schools, churches, colleges, and all of those connected with public buildings to take environmental issues seriously. To read more about Challenge Charter School, click here.

Summer Chores

We're implementing a tried-and-true chore plan this summer. One I used successfully for many years prior to the chaos of these last three years.

In the event you are a household manager looking for ways to provide some structure this summer, I thought I would share it.

This plan works for pre-school through high school. It is virtually whine-free and conflict-free. I say virtually. I have yet to experience perfect harmony on any given day. Chores or no chores. Mold or no mold.

I prefer a chalkboard for this, but a dry erase board can work as well.

I write a list of chores on the board. (Currently we have 5 children on the plan. I write 5 chores on the board.)

Each participant picks one chore upon awakening each weekday morning. (This provides an incentive to be the first to get out of bed.) They initial their choice and complete it before noon.

If they forget, or sleep past noon, they have an extra chore.

Sometimes I put bonus chores on the board, in the event someone is looking to make some extra money.

They each have a timeslip where they record completion of the task and any bonus chores, in addition to their routine requirements such as making their bed, reading for 30 minutes, exercising for 20 minutes, taking their supplements and herbs, etc. They turn in their timeslip every two weeks for payment. (Currently 5 dollars a week.)

We're still climbing our mountain, but the return of our chalkboard offers a glimpse of a new, recovered life.

New Mexico's Call for Action

The state of New Mexico is taking action on the issue of mold protection in their state. The following press release was issued last week:

The New Mexico Department of Health’s Environmental Health Epidemiology Bureau (EHEB) advises all NM residents to report leaks and mold growth immediately to their landlord or property manager, and to local, state, and federal health authorities.

Geri Jaramillo, Asthma Health Educator for EHEB, notes that there is currently “no penalty” for any companies that refuse to mediate toxic mold growth in their investment properties. Jaramillo also acknowledges that at present the state has no “authority to mandate mold standards” but hopes to encourage increasing public involvement in EHEB’s efforts to address the public health threat posed by toxic mold in indoor environments.

Sensitivity to mold toxins in the home and work environment is a primary cause of asthma in all age groups. As part of NM’s initiative to reduce the public health threat and costs of asthma, Jaramillo and EHEB are now forming an Asthma Advisory Committee and encourage all concerned members of the public to contact the program with concerns and ideas. According to Jaramillo, “we welcome it.”

To view the press release, click here.

CNN Special: "Toxic America"

It's always encouraging to see information regarding environmental health issues in the mainstream media. Tonight and tomorrow CNN will air a two-part special titled "Toxic America." Dr. Sanjay Gupta will host the program, revealing results from a year-long investigation.

The special airs at 8 pm ET.

Wednesday night highlights “Toxic Towns” and will delve into the environmental health and justice problems plaguing the community of Mossville, Louisiana.

Thursday night highlights the “Toxic Childhood” and features Healthy Child founders Jim and Nancy Chuda, as well as Scientific Advisor Dr. Phil Landrigan. This part of the series reveals the effect toxics have on unborn babies.

For more information on this CNN special and its related stories, see the CNN "Toxic America" webpage.