Functional nutrition

Is Hidden Mold Making You Sick?

In this week’s episode of Integrative Wellness Radio, Nutritionist Brooke interviews Steve Levy, a mold inspector from Certified Mold Inspectors. We discuss how mold can get into your home, how it can make you sick, and the hidden areas it could be hiding in your home. If you’re suffering from any chronic inflammatory disorders, autoimmune conditions, Lymes Disease, or even just chronic fatigue or brain fog, you won’t want to miss this podcast!

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Welcome back to another episode of IWG Radio. This is the Clinical Nutritionist, Brooke, at Integrative Wellness Group. I have a very special guest with me here today for this week's episode. His name is Steve Levy and he is a mold inspector for a company called Certified Mold Inspections.

Steve Levy:
Mold inspections, yes.

Welcome, Steve. We wanted to bring Steve on because we do have a growing population of clients who have been exposed to mold and are experiencing some symptoms, or maybe some trouble having improvement in their symptoms, and that could possibly be due to mold. We wanted to have Steve join on our podcast this week, give us some information about possible mold toxicity and how you can inspect your home properly to find this out. Steve, I'd love you to introduce yourself and give a little bit of background to us about what you do.

Thanks, Brooke. First of all, I want to thank you for giving me the opportunity to be here today and to share our story in what we do. It has been amazing. What we're seeing out there is being such a consistent theme through many of our clients, and that is is that many of them, unbeknownst to them, are having issues health-wise that they never, ever would have thought would have been linked to their home.

My company is an environmental company, but reality is is that we're really a health company. Our culture and our business is, really, we want to help people transform back to health by making sure their homes and their environments aren't making them sick.

We've been in the business well over a decade. I'm in close to 15 years of business. I've personally done well over 5,000 mold specific investigations. What we do is really, really comprehensive. It's not something that we would just take a vanilla approach. The majority of the population of people that we work with are typically people who have been compromised health-wise. We go in and do a very, very deep dive within their home to see if there's anything that may be influencing and causing potential health issues.

You're somewhat of a mold specialist, you'd say?

Steve Levy:
I would say that I'm a mold specialist, but more of a detective. What we bring to the process is a really, really solid knowledge of mold, mycotoxins. But when you really want to understand what's going on in the built environment, there are other disciplines that you need to bring into the picture, and that is building science, water restoration, and all the other elements that would be very, very important in really investigating a house in a thorough way.

Great. Let's talk a little bit about mold because it's something that, in the modern medical system, it's not really something that is spoken about very freely. It's not necessarily something that you go to your primary care physician that you're having some symptoms, and that they test you for. I'd love for you to give some background about some medical conditions and things that you've seen personally that have been tied to mold that aren't necessarily something that you would have a red flag right away.

One of the things that most people probably associate mold with is being an allergen. Mold is, in and of itself, an allergen. Through those kinds of symptoms, you would normally see people experience anything from sinusitis, respiratory, and it can even trigger some asthma effects. Those are, generally speaking, what a lot of people would associate with mold as a result of being an allergen.

But molds can be very, very insidious. In fact, molds can actually produce very, very potent mycotoxins. These mycotoxins can really wreck havoc within the body. In fact, these mycotoxins can get into the body, they can cause mitochondria damage, which is the energy cells to our body. When that happens, it can cause all kinds of symptoms, from chronic fatigue, brain fog, it could actually trigger certain kinds of autoimmune diseases. It can actually suppress the immune system and cause virtually so many different, Brooke, diseases and conditions that most people would never, ever link to their environment.

That's something important to note because there are a lot of people and people that we have seen in our practice that, they almost get better to a certain point, and then they hit a plateau with their symptoms of the fatigue, maybe, is still there, maybe their digestion has improved, or the brain fog is still there. That's something that is important to note because it can be linked with so many different types of illnesses, and that's because of what's actually happening within the body. Everybody has different genetics and different things going on, so how it's going to affect one person, isn't necessarily going to affect another person in the exact same way. It's an ambiguous thing in terms of, it's not like high cholesterol, where you can look at the blood work and say, "That's high cholesterol." It's definitely a little more tricky to find and a little more tricky to understand.

Another thing that would be really important for you to give some background on is, we have a lot of clients coming in and we look at blood work and say, "There's a possibility that you might have some mold exposure." When we bring this up, people go, "In my home? No, there's no mold in my home. We don't have mold. I've never seen it. It doesn't smell musty. I don't think I've ever been exposed." I know, based on some of the things I've listened to that you've spoken about, that it can really be in any house and anywhere, and even in our offices or other places that we spend a lot of time. I'd love for you to tell everyone more about where the mold can be and how tricky it can be to actually find.

I would love to. In fact, mold can be very, very deceiving, because mold, really, is nothing more than a symptom of a much bigger problem, that being water and moisture intrusion. 1 of the things that most people should really try to think about is have they had any water or moisture intrusion that might have impacted their home. It might not have even been within the last month, it could go back even years, and to think about that as being a first step.

The 2nd thing is, molds really grow based on what's called water activity. Water activity can come in a lot of forms. It can come in the form of obvious liquid pooling water, but it also can come in the form of what's called diffusion, or water vapor. That is probably the most deceiving part of that kind of water intrusion because you can't see it. It actually comes through the foundation walls and slab, actually raises the relative humidity or moisture in the air, and that can actually get absorbed into structural components, contents.

The molds that grow are so deceiving that if you're not looking at the surfaces with the right light at the right angle, you may not see it, or a lot of times, it's mistakenly thought of as dust. Most people, because of that, don't realize that there's mold in their environment. In fact, they're looking for the most apparent look, the black mold, the furry. That's really the static look that most people associate mold with, but it's really the transparent, to the almost blended molds that really afflict a lot of the homes that we go into.

I will tell you this, this is extremely consistent. When there's somebody that has severe sensitivity, and I'm talking about some of the symptoms that we talked about before, whether it be autoimmune, we have clients that have MS, and sometimes their MS gets exacerbated. If they have any kind of condition that is afflicting the body, when we go in, not 90, not 95%, but 100% of the time, we're finding not just a little bit of a mold problem, but a huge mold problem. We can't say that that's contributing to their problem, but we know that-

It's not going to help.

It's not going to help, exactly.

Is there anywhere in the home that is more susceptible to mold?

Yeah, there are. Being on the East Coast, the way homes are built, there are basements, there are crawlspaces, and they're notorious for being damp and really creating an environment where mold can grow. A lot of times, people don't go into those areas, especially crawl spaces. A lot of times, they're not easy to get into. The water table, especially with a lot of the storms and the weather patterns that we've had over the years, has actually changed the way the water tables are. Because of those water tables rising, people are finding that a lot of times, that moisture is getting into their basements and their homes and they're colonizing mold.

Many times, these molds that are colonizing are very, very deceiving. They're not easily apparent. That's why sometimes people say, "Well, I don't see it." Many times, you're not going to smell it either, because depending on what kind of temperature or relative humidity you have in the home, molds really can go in and out of a dormant stage. There would be times where you may not even notice what's going on until you start to connect the dots and say, "Wait a second. I had this water intrusion issue back then. Maybe this is what might be causing some of my issues."

I'm glad you brought up the musty smell, or odor, that is characteristic of water intrusion. Is that something that is or isn't always there when mold is present?

It is not always there. Molds have a very important function in our environment. They break down dead matter. They biodegrade it. Without molds, we'd have garbage and leaves piled miles high. They're very, very important to the ecology. When they start to break down this dead matter, that musty smell that you smell is actually their secondary metabolites, their waste that they're giving off.

It's not a mycotoxin. A mycotoxin is completely different. A mycotoxin is actually a defense mechanism. When molds are in a competing environment, you get different kinds of molds that are growing in the environment. To protect their colonies from competing molds, they actually produce these very, very potent mycotoxins that are diffused in the environment, and people living in the environment can get caught in the crossfire. Many times, they don't even realize it because they can give those mycotoxins off when there is no musty smell.

Tell me a little bit more about, now that we've talked about different places in the home where are maybe more susceptible to mold, but another thing that's a hot topic is talking about the HVAC systems or the force hot air and even a radiator heating system, because that is essentially going to move the air through the house, possibly pulling it form certain areas. Is there one system that's more safe? Or what can someone with either of those do to learn more about their exposure?

Forced air heating and air conditioning systems, notoriously, are going to be able to distribute all kinds of different particulate throughout the house. The problem with many of those is that people don't really look to see how dirty or clean they are and they become a reservoir. In fact, a lot of the furnaces are located in areas where, predominantly, you are going to be seeing many mold issues, IE, the basement, sometimes they're in the attic.

That was one of the other areas that I failed to mention. The attics can really be an area where mold starts to grow, especially if there's problems sub-grade, that moisture actually permeates through the house. Many times, if the attic is not ventilated properly to trap moisture and trigger the growth of mold, many people, because of space limitations, have to put their HVAC systems in the attic. If the attic gets contaminated, that, unfortunately, will get driven into those systems and it would be a distribution point. The HVAC system is really the lungs of our house. Based on where they're located, it really, really needs to be an environment that is really clean and in an ecology that is, without a doubt, the most normal that you can possibly get.

How about radiator systems?

The radiator system is probably a better system because it doesn't have ducts that distribute through. The radiator, though, does collect a lot of dust around it and it gives off what's called an ambient heat. If you have dust particulate that actually start to settle around the radiator, that can represent a food source for mold. The other thing, too, is that radiators give off somewhat of a moisture and if that moisture can get absorbed into the dust, the molds can actually start to harbor in the dust and be able to actually aerosolize from there and basically follow a air convection wave throughout the home.

Everything is about source removal, so if there's a lot of dust in the house, the worst possible, unfortunately, heating and air conditioning arrangement would be forced air heating. Probably the best would be either radiator or baseboard heaters, but even still, you have to keep those systems clean and dust free.

Great. Now that we've talked about different ways the home can be exposed, or where the mold might grow, maybe giving us some information on if you were to inspect a home, what would the person expect when you were coming in?

Remember, we talked a little bit about the population of people that we work with primarily. That's really a different approach. There are 2 different approaches, that's really important to identify. 1 is is that there are consultants that come in, take a very vanilla approach. They'll come in, maybe do a cursory perspective of the home, put up an air sampler in one of the areas that they think may be impacted, do an outside reference baseline, compare the 2 and based on the concentrations indoor to outdoor, that would give them a clue as to whether there may be a potential problem. A lot of times, that may unfortunately lead to a false sense of security, especially when you have somebody who's not feeling well.

When we go in, it's more of a very, very comprehensive approach. When we're dealing with somebody who has some health concerns, and any doctor will agree, it doesn't matter what treatment protocol they're on, if they're not living in an environment that is at least an ecology that can help them [meth-o-late 00:15:20] and heal, if they're constantly being exposed to environmental toxins, that will inevitably either neutralize and [regate 00:15:29] their treatment protocol. What we're doing is going in and doing a deep dive. We're looking everywhere that's accessible. We're going in the basement. We're going in crawlspaces. We're going in the attic. We're looking for anything that would represent either past or present signs of water intrusion, any suspect growth, even the most subtlest signs.

When I say subtle, I'm talking about a nail that's rusty, a little, little dot that represents a stain, because we realize, and recognize, and have experienced that that may, inevitably, represent the tip of the iceberg in what's maybe harboring behind a seam in the wall cavities is very, very extensive. We go through every area of the house. The ventilation system, as we talked about earlier, is a very, very big focus of ours because it is a distribution point and a perpetual one at that. We're checking those out and we're coming up with a sampling strategy that would normally be air samples.

If we see something suspicious on the wall, it could be a surface sample. We love to take a snapshot of what's in the settled dust because understanding the population of molds that are in the environment are very, very key to understanding potential mycotoxin activity. We can do, through some very sophisticated sampling, progressive sampling strategy, called PCR, gives us a population of 36 different mold types, 26 of those being water damage molds that are most commonly found in water damage environments.

We could also do mycotoxin testing, which we can test right now for 4 different mycotoxins. Those are ochratoxins, aflatoxins, gliotoxins are the most, probably ... I would tell you, the most potent being trichothecenes, which is affiliated and mostly associated with stachybotrys, which is the black mold that gets all the notoriety and the media attention. 1 point I'd like to make, and I get a lot of calls daily from people, "I'm really concerned about the black mold. I don't care about any other mold. I want to make sure that the black mold is not there." What most people don't understand is that's the mold that gets all the notoriety. It's not the mold that can actually cause the most potential health impact, because molds like Aspergillus, Penicillium, they can produce mycotoxins, as I alluded to, like gliotoxins and ochratoxins that can very much impact the body as well.

It sounds like a very complex area of study.

It really, really is. Every day I learn more and more about what I don't know. It's an evolving science. It's one that we're constantly looking to understand more and more. What we knew yesterday was nothing compared to what we're learning every single day.

It sounds very involved. For people who are sick and are experiencing some of these symptoms, it is 1,000% necessary. I would love for you to explain more about some of the standard testing that is out there because it doesn't necessarily meet the higher standards. Some people might be getting that false negative if they're thinking that, even something like a home inspection when you buy a new home, is that cutting it?

I'm glad you brought that up because that is huge. A huge, huge problem. 1 of the things that we see out there is a lot of people getting a false sense of security. We get people call us and say, "I'd like to get an air sample." 1 of the questions I ask is, "Why do you need that? What is it about the air sample that you're looking to understand, and what are you overall trying to accomplish?" Because air sampling, and I believe it's a viable sampling strategy, is variable, meaning that it's a snapshot in time and many times, depending on the pressurization of the house, or the type of air exchange that a home has, you may or may not pick up anything that would show that there's an issue. That leads people many, many times to a false sense of security.

Also, there are these technologies that you can get at a Home Depot, where it's a plate that has [alder 00:19:45] in it and you open the plate up and you leave it there, and it's a settlement plate. That plate would capture certain spores. That also can many times be, unfortunately, a device that may not capture all of the mold spores. It's also only going to grow live [reviable 00:20:06] spores. If there's spores that are dead, it's not going to pick them up. Also, there are many types of molds that don't really grow within that [alder], so you may not even be able to see other molds that may be growing in the environment as well.

There are some technologies that can be very, very good. There's ERMI, which stands for Environmental and Relative Moldy Index. It was developed by the EPA some years ago. They took approximately 1500 homes, half of which were water damaged, the other half which were normal homes. Based on the collection of dust in the water damaged homes and what was found in the normal homes, they came up with an index that basically showed someone that you either less likely have a mold problem, to at the other end, probably have a mold problem and further investigation analysis to see where the source areas is suggested. That is a really, really good technology because it's PCR based. It actually gives you, as I mentioned, 36 different molds, down to the species level. It can be a very, very good screen.

At the end of the day, that's exactly all these technologies are. It's a screen, because once you find out what the results are, now the question is: What do you do next? Anybody can take a sample. Anybody can take an air sample. Anybody can take a surface sample. Anybody can collect dust. What does it mean? Why are you taking it? What are the next steps? That's where a company, like ours, comes in, because we do more of the deep dive to find the source areas. More importantly, after we validate it, we actually create the scope of work for the remediation process and on the backend, if it's something that our clients want, we actually police the process to make sure it's done in a way that can make sure that the home is at least now within an ecology, where people that have been health impacted can at least have a chance to transform back to health.

Great. Is there anything, because I know all this information is probably overwhelming to a lot of people, especially if they're thinking that they could possibly have mold in their home, what would you recommend for someone who's listening that they can do today in their own home that could lead them to believe that I need to have a specialist come in and take a deeper look?

That's a great question. 1 of the first things they can do is look for any signs of past or present water intrusion. The most subtlest sign is so very, very key. I'm talking about a small little stain, rust, again, that can represent, a lot of times, some water intrusion that they never even really thought was actually happening. Look around the ventilation systems. Many times, we find around the ventilation systems, the ventilation system, especially as we're coming into the summer months, they actually cool the home. How that's done is these systems actually, through the return, pull in warm, moist air, and that warm, moist air goes through return ducts and then flows over what's called coils. Coils, as that warm, moist air goes over the coils, it condenses on the coils and creates a lot of moisture. It's actually drained out through what's called a drip line. This is where we find a lot of problems, where the drip line is not draining properly, where there may be a crack, and that may cause some leakage into interstitial area that they're not even really aware of.

We see, a lot of times, where there is the HVAC systems in the attic, the drip line is actually cracked or clogged and causes, unfortunately, a backup and starts to leak. It's a very slow leak and because it's a slow leak, it actually can cause some severe damage over time. Those are some of the things that they should look for right around their ventilation systems, around windows. Many times, you're going to find some areas where you're getting some seepage. People don't really notice that. One of the things I'd recommend, if you have a basement, go in the basement and look for something that would be even a subtle sign of white, or efflorescence on the foundation walls. That is a major sign of water intrusion through what's called diffusion. That is so deceiving. Most people don't even realize it. They would swear that their basement is bone dry. Those are the things they can do visually.

What they can do from a technology perspective to check, I always think it's a good idea to check the settled dust. There are some technologies out there, like ERMI. Unfortunately, ERMI can be very costly. It can cost anywhere from 4 to 500 dollars. There are other technologies that we talked about. The [alder] plate, which many times can add, unfortunately, to a false sense of security, not pick things up.

We, as a company, though, we're going to be coming out with a test kit. This test kit right now is in development. It should be out within the next couple of weeks and it will give us a list of the types of molds that you generally find within a water damage environment that can suggest that there's a problem. What we'll be doing is giving people a 20 minute free consultation after they've sent it into the lab and got back the results. We'll let them know if we see some things that look suspicious enough that would require more of a deeper type of investigation within their home.

That is great. Thank you so much for joining me today, Steve. It's really helpful for people to understand a little bit more about how tricky this can be, especially, like I said in the beginning, how people, "No, I don't have mold in my home. Everything looks fine." But it really can be something that can be hidden behind the walls, and in your floorboards, and basement and attic, and everywhere else. Steve, I'd love for you to give everyone your website so that they have that, and we'll also send that out in our followup email for you as well.

Thank you so much. Our website is There you can source our telephone number. We also have a Moldy [Minute 00:26:27] on there, where you can get some more information about where you can look and source for other things within your house as it relates to water damage and mold. The last thing I would like to say in closing is that, this being a health channel, it's really, really key if there's anyone that has any kind of condition, I really believe it is a very, very wise move to get your house tested to get that piece of mind to know that your house is within the type of ecology that would give you the sanctuary that you need to transform back to health. The last thing is I want to thank you so much for giving me this podium to talk about things that I'm so very passionate about and really, really am grateful and appreciative to the time.

We're very happy to have you here. You really said it best there by saying that our home is our sanctuary. We're supposed to feel safe there and comfortable and know that nothing bad is going to happen to us there, and it could be the place that's making us sick. It's important to mention this isn't just in our home, that it could be in our office, in other places where we spend a lot of time. Take a look around even when you're at your job or if you're somewhere that you're spending a lot of time because that could be somewhere that's making you ill as well, not that you're necessarily going to get that place to come in and have a mold inspection, but it could be contributing to some of your health problems. Definitely something to keep in mind. Thanks again, Steve, for coming. We were really happy to have you.