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Mold Growth: What Should You Know About Mycotoxins?

It is safe to say that nearly everyone is aware that mold exposure can pose a threat to human health — and many know that it is quite common to be allergic to mold. The possible consequences of spending prolonged periods of time in damp and moldy environments may stretch beyond allergy symptoms, however. Harmful mold can broadly be divided into three distinct groups; allergenic molds, which tend to trigger allergy symptoms, pathogenic molds, which can lead to systemic infections, and toxic molds.

What exactly causes certain mold species to be so toxic? What kinds of health complications are associated with exposure to mold-related toxins, what symptoms indicate that you could be affected, and what can you do to eliminate a mold problem from your home?

What Is Mold?

“Mold” is an amazingly broad category of fungi — thousands upon thousands of unique and extremely diverse species of tiny filamentous fungi belong to this group. Mold is present all over the environment outdoors, mainly on decaying organic matter, as well as being a widespread problem in damp homes and other buildings, and though each mold species has its own characteristics, they do share common features as well.

All molds require organic matter to sustain themselves; typically decaying plants, soil, diverse foodstuffs ranging from fruit to wheat and spices, and even the cellulose in your wallpaper. All molds require water to survive, though the levels of moisture needed vary from one species to the next. Some molds are entirely aquatic, while others will do very well on your bathroom walls. All molds reproduce by means of spores, tiny particles that easily become airborne, and in the case of some spores, every single time they are interfered with in any way. Single mold cells are invisible to the naked eye, but the colonies (mycelium) they form can often easily be spotted as a fuzzy “blanket” covering your old apple or bread loaf, or your attic or basement.

Not all molds are dangerous to humans, and given its near-universal presence, that is good news. Mold can quickly become a problem when it infests your home, however, and when you notice mold growth on your property, it is important to take action as soon as possible. Even though not every mold species is harmful, you cannot — contrary to popular belief — tell what type of mold you are dealing with simply by looking at its physical characteristics.

What Are Mycotoxins?


“Myco-” is a prefix that means “fungus”, so mycotoxins are toxins produced by fungi. There are many different kinds of mycotoxins, some of which are known to be harmful to humans. Not all mold species release mycotoxins, and those that do may produce more than one type. While the precise function that mycotoxins have, if any, remains unclear, some scientists have speculated that these toxins may enable molds to more easily parasitize host plants (or even, in some cases, other types of mold), or that the toxins serve a defensive purpose.


Humans, other mammals, and even plants can be affected by dangerous mycotoxins, and humans can be exposed to them in three different ways:


  • You may ingest mycotoxins. That is because molds can infest crops like wheat, at any stage of their growth or storage, and you may then eat the contaminated crop. Although ruminants like cows are more resistant to the effects of mycotoxins themselves, they too may be fed infested crops. Humans can indirectly be exposed by eating meat from such animals.
  • You may absorb mycotoxins through your skin. When you touch molds that release mycotoxins, your whole body can be affected. That is why professionals who are routinely exposed to harmful molds (such as those who work in, for instance, agriculture) should take steps to protect themselves from this type of exposure.
  • You may inhale mycotoxins. Mycotoxin exposure is mostly related to food, but those people who have a mold infestation in their homes or who are professionally in constant contact with contaminated crops could also be at risk of breathing in mycotoxins.


What Does Exposure to Mycotoxins Do to Your Health?


That depends on the mycotoxin in question. Thousands of different mycotoxins have been identified to date, and countless others could remain undiscovered. The World Health Organization has, for instance, identified a list of mycotoxins commonly found in foods, and they include:


  • Aflatoxins, dangerous toxins that are produced by certain members of the Aspergillus mold family, which tends to grow in soils, decaying vegetable matter, and on grains. Members of this same group of molds are commonly found to grow in homes as well.
  • Ochratoxin A, which can be produced by Penicillium as well as Aspergillus molds. Such infestations often set in during the storage of common food products that include coffee and various spices.
  • Patulin, a common mycotoxin produced by many different types of mold, is, among other things, associated with rotten apples.


Each mycotoxin has been linked to its own set of health complications, as these mold-related toxins tend to target a particular organ system. Some mycotoxins are associated with the development of cancer, while others cause liver and kidney damage. Some mycotoxins have been linked to mental health disorders, as they act on the central nervous system, and your heart and blood vessels may be affected by these toxins as well, along with your gastrointestinal system. In addition, certain mycotoxins interfere with the normal hormonal balance, and can weaken a person’s immune system. Collectively, the toxic effects produced by these toxins are known as mycotoxicosis.


It is important to stress that research about the potential health impact of exposure to mycotoxins is still very much ongoing, and therefore, it will take time for the full picture to emerge. What we do know, however, is that some mycotoxins are dangerous even in small concentrations, while others only cause toxic effects in large quantities.


The most common negative health impact of mold exposure arrives in the form of mild to moderate allergy symptoms — like a stuffy or runny nose, red, itchy, and swollen eyes, a cough, and a headache. Mycotoxins can additionally cause altogether more dangerous complications, which only become apparent over time, and that is why it is so important for the agricultural industry to take appropriate steps to ensure that crops and livestock are not contaminated with them. Within your home, however, you can also take plenty of steps to reduce mold growth and limit your risk of ingesting mycotoxins through your food.


Where Are Mycotoxins Typically Found?


Should you choose to explore mycotoxins further, you will quickly discover that most research regarding these toxins is focused on the agricultural industry. Molds that produce mycotoxins may parasitize crops while they are still growing, before harvest, but those same crops may also be infected at any stage thereafter. When harvested crops are stored for longer periods of time, especially in a more humid environment, it is easy for mold growth to take hold. The same may even happen within your own home.


The crops most commonly associated with mycotoxin exposure are:


  • Grains like corn, wheat, sorghum, and rice
  • Legumes
  • Nuts, especially walnuts, almonds, peanuts, and coconuts
  • Spices
  • Coffee
  • Dried fruits


What Can You Do To Limit Your Exposure to Mycotoxins?


As a wide range of extremely common food products are often contaminated with molds, and thus a variety of mycotoxins, it is good practice for consumers to both visually inspect these and other foods before consuming them, and also to ensure that these foods are stored properly within your home. Store your grains in dry conditions at cooler temperatures to prevent mold growth. Thoroughly look at your grains and spices, especially if they have been in storage for a while, before you eat them, and watch out for unusual odors too.


In addition, empty your fridge and your fruit bowl frequently and properly, as fruits such as apples and figs may easily grow molds that release mycotoxins as well.


The fact that taking these easy steps is going to go a long way toward limiting your exposure to dangerous mycotoxins is good news. However, the Environmental Protection Agency warns that it is possible for indoor environments with severe mold infestations to harbor these toxins as well. Because we do not know everything about mycotoxins yet, it is important to take immediate steps to deal with any mold growth within your home or commercial property.


What Can You Do to Prevent Mold Growth in Your Home?


Because mold thrives in damp, humid, conditions, the most effective steps anyone can take to reduce the risk of a mold infestation in their home would be to:


  • Take steps to ensure that the relative humidity levels within the home constantly remain within healthy parameters; between 30 and 50 percent. You can do this by using HVAC systems or a dehumidifier, especially in winter while your heating is working, ventilating your home well (opening your windows every day for at least 15 minutes), and avoiding line drying your laundry indoors. In addition, consider installing an exhaust fan in your kitchen and bathroom if you have not already done so.
  • Having any leaky pipes or roof leaks repaired as soon as you become aware of the leak.
  • Removing any fabrics that were flooded or soaked, and that cannot be dried promptly, from your home. Carpets, bedding, and couches can all fall victim to mold growth quickly.
  • We are sure that it goes without saying, but keep your kitchen and pantry clean and dry. Discard any food that is about to start spoiling as soon as possible.


What Should You Do If You Suspect a Mold Infestation in Your Home?


Signs of a mold infestation within your property may be as apparent as seeing mold growth and smelling the undeniable musty odor of mold. That is not always the case, though. If you know that you have, or recently had, a leak anywhere in your property, or your home was subjected to any kind of water damage, that can indicate the likelihood of a mold problem all in itself. Clear allergy symptoms, like sneezing, a runny nose, a sore throat, itchy and swollen eyes, and chest tightness that start up whenever you come home can be an indication of a possible mold infestation as well.


Whether you know that you have mold in your home or you suspect that there may be mold, even though you cannot see it, you should consider having a full professional mold inspection carried out. MI&T is, as a seasoned nationwide mold inspection only company, a partner you can trust. Our mold inspectors perform a thorough visual inspection, and then take air samples that are analyzed by a laboratory. This allows you to gain full insights into the concentrations of mold spores in the air you breathe in at home, as well as alerting you to the possible presence of mycotoxins.


As a company dedicated exclusively to mold inspections, rather than mold remediation, MI&T is free from commercial biases — so that, if you have no mold growth, or the type of mold present in your home is harmless, you will not unwittingly decide to invest in a needless but expensive mold remediation package. We can, on the other hand, advise you on the steps you would need to take to remediate your mold problem, if you have one. After the process is complete, MI&T’s clearance testing will let you know if your home is now a mold-free zone.