By Doug Hoffman

In NORMI classes, we often show a 1997 ABC News video, The Air of Mystery, which was produced as the result of the 1994 CDC investigation of a Chicago, IL, incident that resulted in the death of five infants. The video serves as an example of how serious mycotoxins can be to certain segments of the population. We use it, of course, to educate our students on the importance of protecting themselves, their workers, and clients from the potential health effects of mold mycotoxins. The truth is you can’t be sure who might have a negative reaction to toxin produced by mold.

“The vulnerability of occupants to these toxins can be widely varied,” NORMI Senior Trainer Linda Eicher says. “Research has shown that about 25 percent of the population has a genetic pre-disposition to being overwhelmed with these exposures, even at relatively low levels.

“How is it that one person in a household is so profoundly affected while the rest of the occupants feel fine? It stands to reason that the factor of genetics could be playing a huge part in that question.”

The problem with mycotoxins

What is a mycotoxin? By definition, a mycotoxin is a “mold-poison.” Produced as a secondary metabolic (or byproduct) of the digestive process, mycotoxins can be airborne and, therefore, inhaled.

“Mycotoxins have varying toxigenic effects on humans and animals. Some can cause cancer, some suppress the immune system, and others can attack the liver and kidneys. Mycotoxins have also been linked to tremors and nervous system disorders,” Eicher explains.

The interesting thing about mycotoxins is they ride on the outside of the mold spore or even the hyphal fragments of mold. This means that, regardless of whether you see the mold growing, it can be producing mycotoxins. For those sensitive to environmental issues, cleaning the environment becomes crucial if you want to remove the spores that you can’t see. The cleaning process, which we call the NORMI Sanitization Protocol, must be detailed and exact.

In the case detailed in “The Air of Mystery,” it was the perfect storm. The infants with their developing immune systems were living in toxic environments with tons of VOCs, odors, and other gases. Because they were also living in second-hand smoke environments, their immune systems were taxed. With the introduction of Stachybotrys mycotoxins, their lungs could not properly develop, and they died. This serious consequence of mycotoxins, though rare, demonstrates that care must be taken to identify and remove mold from indoor environments.

Doug Hoffman is the CEO of NORMI, the National Organization of Remediators and Mold Inspectors. He can be reached via e-mail at doug@normi.org.