Well for starters, it’ll probably smell. But are there health risks to living with the mildew creeping over the walls and curtains, or little spots of aspergillosis in the bathroom, or even the fruit that’s been in the fruit bowl for a little too long?
The short answer is yes.
The longer answer is that mouldy (or damp) homes have been linked to a whole host of respiratory infections, other sicknesses, allergies, asthma and mental health issues. And on top of that, mould infections can often reduce the structural integrity of your home (particularly if the root cause is excessive dampness). They’re also often extremely difficult to get rid of and create a massive problem for 5 – 25% of households worldwide.
What is mould?
Starting right from the beginning, moulds are a type of fungi. As a quick refresher from high school science, fungi are a ‘kingdom’ of organisms (Kingdom Fungi) like the animal kingdom (Kingdom Animalia) or plant kingdom (Kingdom Plantae). Briefly, that means that they are eukaryotic (have cell organelles), have cell walls containing chitin, can be either multicellular or unicellular, and are heterotrophs (meaning they don’t make their own food) and usually secrete digestive chemicals from their hyphae (fine, threadlike structures that are similar in appearance to plant roots) and then absorb the already digested nutrients. (More about fungi here)).
Defining characteristics of moulds include the presence of filamentous hyphae to anchor the mould to the surface it is growing on (so you get a fuzzy layer, rather than a bigger object, such as a mushroom or toadstool) and a visible mycelium on top (the grey, green, black, or white fuzzy stuff that you see), with a tendency to grow and thrive in damp areas.
Effect on your health
When you have moulds growing in your house (or even nearby in compost or forested areas), spores and mould fragments become airborne. This means that people who are sensitive or allergic to such mould particles can react with coughing, sneezing, sore throats, blocked noses, sore eyes … all symptoms very similar to those caused by pollen in hay fever.
But it doesn’t stop there either. The presence of mould (or dampness, the link isn’t quite clear) can exacerbate pre-existing allergies and respiratory problems. Furthermore, living in a mouldy home has been linked the development of asthma in children and worsening of symptoms in those suffering with it chronically.
And then there’s the whole issue of fungal infections. Those lovely fungal spores become airborne and you breathe them in. And guess what? Your lungs are a lovely warm and moist space that those fungi just love. And if your immune system isn’t up to fighting it, they’ll establish themselves quite firmly … and that tends to have very high mortality rates. As a result, immune-compromised people are strongly urged to avoid any chance of having moulds in their home or environment … and that includes you if you’re normally fine, but happen to catch an unrelated illness that briefly compromises your immune system, leaving you open to fungal infection.
And finally, a link has also been drawn between living in a damp and mouldy home and likelihood of developing depression. The authors of this study concluded that this was likely due to the a combination of the physical effects of living with mould, as well as the stresses of trying to remove recurrent moulds, both situations that lead to an elevated risk of depression.
Effects on your house
Mould grows on organic (life-based) materials, including wood, paper and some fabrics and glues, many of which are commonly used as building materials. The mould can establish itself and extend hyphae throughout these materials, digesting them for food as it grows. So then you can end up with rotting walls, curtains, and even structural elements. While it will take a long time for mould to seriously damage structural components, if it is left unchecked, mould can cause the collapse of walls and roofs.
Mould also loves to grow in air conditioning units. This is two-fold terrible, firstly because it is hard to get rid of from inside an air conditioner and secondly because the air conditioner happily blows the mould spores all around everything in your house. Suddenly you can end up with mould growing over chairs, blankets, carpets and many other surfaces and creating a far larger problem than before.
What to do!
Perhaps now you’re concerned about the mould in the bathroom corners! It’s certainly a good thing to get rid of it, but it can be challenging.
Prevention is a good first step. Mould loves moisture and dampness, so reduce humidity to below 50% by using an air conditioner or dehumidifier or adequate ventilation in wetter areas, such as bathrooms or laundries (as an aside, our labs were regularly at about 90% humidity before we got a dehumidifier, following an episode where all the lab coats got mouldy over the weekend!). Also fix up any leaks that are allowing moisture to sit, just ready for mould to grow.
If you spot some mould, then clean it up thoroughly as soon as possible, using a detergent or vinegar solution and then dried completely. If it’s on carpet or fabric, it may be able to be washed in a washing machine or soaked, but in cases of severe mould damage, such items may have to be completely replaced.
If you live in a particularly damp area, or in damp areas of the house, it may also be helpful to use mould inhibitors in paint to prevent nasty mildew and mould spots growing across your walls and ceiling!
And what about the fruit in the fruit bowl? If it’s mouldy, throw it out before it spreads to other fruit and foods in your kitchen, but it shouldn’t have a major effect on your health!