Is your house making you sick?

By Michael Newberger |

Aside from the occasional asthma, Flagler student Corey Christian, 22, is in perfectly good health. So it came as a surprise when he found it harder and harder to breathe, even in his own home.

“When I was just laying in my bed and I’d have the window open and like a fan on me, just trying to get some air and I was out of breath, I couldn’t stop coughing,” he said. “I would actually vomit from how much I was coughing.”

Christian finally ended up in the hospital after two weeks of dealing with his respiratory problems. After describing his symptoms, a doctor told him that he was suffering from an allergic reaction brought on by exposure to black mold. He remained in the hospital the rest of the night, hooked to a respirator.

The culprit was mold that had grown within his bathroom walls, and had only recently become noticeable. Mold growth in homes is a problem for residents across the country, but is particularly prevalent in Florida, especially St. Augustine with its humid climate and the old age of the buildings.

“Before I even came back from the hospital, my older brother cleaned everything really well. That honestly really helped. We made sure to keep on it a lot more.”

Corey Christian

Christian’s situation is no isolated incident. According to the Centers for Disease Control, people with allergies exposed to mold in the home or workplace can suffer from minor symptoms such as itching of the eyes, stuffiness and skin irritation. Those who have asthma can see their trouble breathing increase, and in extreme cases a mold infection in the lungs of those with prior symptoms like obstructed lung disease.

Dudley Baringer, a family practitioner who’s been based out of St. Augustine for more than 25 years, says that while he sees many cases like Corey’s, mold in one’s home can do more than simply affect your respiratory system.

“Black mold has gotten this bad wrap about it, ‘toxic black mold.’ Well it’s toxic because in a lot of people it forms a big inflammatory response and if you’re exposed to it chronically, it begins to affect the way the immune system works. And this can lead to chronic arthralgia, or pain in your joints and your muscles. It can lead to chronic respiratory problems including asthma, and can affect the functioning of the entire immune system.”

“Deal With It”

One of the main problems that also arises for people who don’t own the homes they reside in is getting landlords to take action. Christian was quick to bring up that despite the frequent times he attempted to discuss the infestation with his landlord. He was simply told to “deal with it,” despite it being a structural problem of the house that had caused him to be hospitalized.

“We had outright told her it was getting bad, like we told her it was causing us to get sick and stuff. She had even just kept saying ‘well that’s something you need to make sure of, that it’s kept clean.'”

Tom Rivers, a property manager who overlooks some of Olde Carriage Realty’s properties downtown, has had to deal with mold growth in some of his sites, including a particularly bad case in Lincolnville that he was in the process of fixing when interviewed.

“You have to get rid of it once it appears and re-place the tenant,” he said. “Bigger danger is that it’s undetected. You have to re-place the tenant if there’s any chance of it being a health risk.”

While mold growth is a health problem for many local residents, it’s a completely different kind of headache for landowners and developers in town.

Rivers said the home in question had recently had an outbreak of black mold after a pipe behind the wall started leaking. The visibility of the growth had been obstructed by a picture and by the time the outbreak had become noticeable, the tenant had already started to become ill. The tenant in question decided to completely move out due to the heavy construction that was necessary to correct the problem.

While it’s easy to simply chalk situations like this up to negligent landlords in the St. Augustine area, even Flagler students living on campus aren’t immune to mold on campus.

Bill Waggaman was living in the relatively new Cedar Hall dorms when he noticed that he was starting to feel more and more ill. While he originally attributed it to what he thought was just a “bug going around,” he later noticed a dark patch on the ceiling of his shower. He was increasingly irritated by the response to the problem by the administration.

“I wasn’t so much bothered by the mold itself as I was about the response I got when I reported it. I had to track down everyone involved. I had to track down my RA, who didn’t have any idea; I had to track down maintenance.”

Mold Growth and How to Avoid it

Mold grows by spreading their microscopic spores, which are heartier than the actual growth themselves. They tend to thrive in dark, damp places indoors.

John Woolridge

While small amounts of mold can be found in just about any household, there are certain factors that can lead to a rapid acceleration of it’s growth. John Woolridge is an environmental science professor at Flagler, and has studied mold and fungi growth extensively throughout his career. He says that the main problem is that molds usually start growing in hard to reach areas, like behind walls or around piping, that make it difficult to detect early. The main way to combat its growth is to make sure one has control of the climate in a home.

“The most important thing for mold, in terms of something you can control, is moisture. Showers, humid areas, areas where there’s standing water, places that are dark, places that don’t have a lot of air movement so water doesn’t evaporate quickly so they have a long chance to infect.”

While it’s hard to detect initially, The Environmental Protection Agency suggests checking the ventilation system of your house as well as making sure to run your air conditioner or a de-humidifier during times of high humidity such as the summer months in order to prevent an outbreak. If mold is noticeable, water and cleaner can be used to remove what is visible. However if it doesn’t seem to be isolated, it’s necessary to determine what the source is, like faulty plumbing, and act accordingly.

For more information on mold and tips on how to prevent it visit:

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