“Braking the mold” (Black mold hysteria)


A quarter century ago, almost no one besides mycologists gave any thought to black mold, and even fewer persons were sickened by it. But a few panicked misreports turned black mold into the hot new toxin to fumigate, douse, and fret over. The Berlin Wall had come down and 9/11 was a seven years away, so something needed to be the threat to good order.

A corrected report was issued, which few in the media paid attention to. As skeptic leader Brian Dunning put it, the media seldom reports that a sensationalized story was wrong because it’s busy reporting other sensations.

The humdrum truth is that mold has always grown in our buildings and is no more a threat now than it was 500 years ago. But, with black mold having no PR department, the charges leveled at it have lingered. It doesn’t help that mold is unsightly and that definitions of “black” include sinister, gloomy, calamitous, and grim. So it was easy to make believers of scientifically illiterate viewers, especially when dramatic music accompanied an alarmed voice warning about the latest danger. And it was even easier than appealing to the fears of terrorism or crime because this threat was so close to home it was inside it.  

The reports were taken from what read like a collaboration between the Centers for Disease Control and Rob Zombie. This real-life horror tale centered on infants with pulmonary hemorrhaging. Specifically, 10 babies who lived in Cleveland homes with water damage contracted a bleeding lung disease in 1993, and this was attributed to spores from a black mold variety. As a point of order, mold breaks down organic material it lives on and reproduces through airborne spores. Any danger comes not from the mold itself, but from the released spores.

Not that there’s much cause for concern. A subsequent report revealed that the Attack of the Thing From Cleveland was overblown. Some of the babies had lung maladies, but not all of them, and other than that partial truth, everything else was wrong. For starters, there was no reason to suspect that black mold was responsible. Not all black mold produces mycotoxins, and mycotoxins can come from other than the black species. Second, the water damage was not associated with an increased level of mold and the homes contained only an average amount of it.

As flawed as the original report was, the purported dangers were limited to bleeding lungs in babies who had been exposed to excess amounts. But with the urban legend trifecta of bad reporting, repeated water cooler retellings, and unscrupulous merchants, black mold’s bad reputation grew faster than the mold itself had ever grown on living room walls. It was now responsible for chronic fatigue, insomnia, memory loss, Parkinson’s, cancer, birth defects, blindness, deafness, and organs going kaput. Gloomy, calamitous, and grim indeed.

In truth, few of the 100,000 species of mold are ever going to pose a danger, and even then, only to persons with asthma, allergies, or a compromised immune system. For most people, the afflictions will be limited to coughing and wheezing. We breathe spores all day, in all buildings, and without incident. If a mold species is in walls or carpet, it’s because spores in the area brought it there, and they will do it again. One could tear down the house, but that would be as ineffective in the long run as razing it in order to eradicate flies. Getting rid of the mold has little value beyond esthetics.

Still, some persons will pay $20,000 for crews in hilariously overdone hazmat gear to demolish, eradicate, sample, scrutinize, and rebuild. Homeowners could get rid of the black mold themselves with bleach and elbow grease. Either way, the effort will serve only to eliminate an almost-certainly harmless substance that will grow back.   

One thought on ““Braking the mold” (Black mold hysteria)

  1. Right on! This overblown nonsense from our boomer generation is rampant, and not just about mold. Does it make people who have overly fat and cushioned lives feel important? Or is it the American endless thirst for attention? Whatever it is, it is an embarrassment.

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