Allergy Major Cause of 'Toxic Mold Syndrome'

But Many Cases of Mold-Linked Illness Not Allergy

Medically Reviewed by Brunilda Nazario, MD on February 24, 2005
From the WebMD Archives

Feb. 24, 2005 -- Mold allergies -- not mold poisoning -- cause most cases of "toxic mold syndrome," new study explains.

But the study also shows that many cases of mold-linked illness can't be explained by allergic reactions. The report, by allergists David A. Edmondson, DO, Jordan N. Fink, MD, and colleagues at Medical College of Wisconsin, appears in the February issue of Annals of Allergy, Asthma & Immunology.

The researchers examined 36 children and 29 adults thought to have toxic mold syndrome. About half turned out to be allergic to molds.

"Our patients assumed that they were experiencing toxic mold syndrome when, in fact, most were experiencing [allergic] reactions to various antigens in their environment," Edmondson and colleagues write.

That still left a sizeable number of patients whose illness could not be explained by allergy.

"Twenty-five percent of the patients had symptoms not compatible with [allergy]," Edmondson and colleagues write. "[Mold]-mediated mechanisms may account for these symptoms. …The [cause] of these symptoms … remains unclear and warrants further investigation."

Toxic Mold Syndrome Remains Controversial

The patients, ranging in age from 1.5 to 52, had all kinds of symptoms. Most had a runny nose and a cough. Others had headaches, breathing problems (including shortness of breath, wheezing, and chest tightness), itchy eyes, and nervous system problems (including dizziness, anxiety, weakness, restless legs, memory loss, and shaking), intestinal problems (including nausea, vomiting, and gut pain), nosebleed, and urinary problems.

Accompanying the study is an editorial by mold expert W. Elliott Horner, PhD, of Air Quality Sciences, Inc., in Atlanta. Horner notes that toxic mold syndrome is extremely controversial. However, he also points to a recent report by the prestigious Institute of Medicine that strongly supports the idea that damp, moldy buildings can harm people's health.

"Perhaps part of the controversy regarding the health effects of indoor mold could be [done away with] if the ill-defined phrase toxic mold syndrome> were replaced by damp building effect, which refers to a well-documented effect but avoids any claim of [cause]," Horner writes.

Horner points out there is currently no accurate way to measure mold toxins in damp buildings. Without such a tool, it is impossible to test whether toxic mold is, in fact, causing illness. Until scientists develop such tests, he says, people should stop arguing and start collecting more data. In the meantime, he urges both doctors and patients to keep an open mind about the possible toxic effects of molds.

"Although certainly not proven, the suspect with the most fingerprints at the scene seems to be mold components shed from fungal colonized construction and finishing materials and furnishings," he writes. "It is time now for data rather than diatribe."

Show Sources

SOURCES: Edmondson, D.A. Annals of Allergy, Asthma & Immunology, February 2005; vol 94: pp 234-239. Horner, W.E. Annals of Allergy, Asthma & Immunology, February 2005; vol 94: pp 213-215.

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