How the Smell of Your Home Could Be Making You Sick

By Julie Rehmeyer | January 14, 2014 12:06 pm

house mold make you sick

Joan Bennett didn’t believe in sick building syndrome. As a specialist in mold toxins, she had even testified in trials in support of insurance companies denying claims to homeowners who claimed that they had been sickened by toxins from their moldy houses.

Then Hurricane Katrina struck, Bennett’s home was flooded, and she evacuated. “A month later, as a form of psychological sublimation, I decided to travel back and sample my home for mold,” she said. Her house smelled horrendous, worse than any mold she’d ever smelled. She donned a mask and gloves and protective gear, but even so, she felt awful – dizziness, headache, malaise. She walked outside and felt better. Then it struck her: “I think there’s something in this terrible mold I’m smelling.”

But she still believed in her old arguments against the theory. She knew how much mold toxin we ordinarily get exposed to from mold in food, and she still knew that it was far greater than any we could breathe from spores in the air.

But the smell of mold was another matter. Most things we can smell are volatile organic compounds (VOCs), and some VOCs are known to make people sick. “I knew that a minor theory was that sick building syndrome might be caused by the VOCs that make fungi smell moldy,” Bennett says.  And then she thought, “Ta da! Maybe there is such a thing as sick building syndrome, and maybe it has nothing to do with the fungus toxins I’ve been studying all my life!”

That moment transformed her research career. Along with her house, she’d lost her entire frozen genetic stock of fungi in the storm, because the power had gone out and everything had defrosted. She had to mostly start over anyway, and now she wanted to prove her new theory.

The Sniff Test

She focused on a VOC called “mushroom alcohol” that is the primary component of the typical smell of mold. It’s formed especially when molds eat linoleic acid, which occurs both in many biological cells and in building products like oil-based paint.

She needed a simple animal to work on, and considered both worms and fruit flies. “I thought worms would be better, because they’re littler and simpler,” she says. “But they’d run away from the fungi. We couldn’t even find their little dead bodies. We wasted a year on them.”

So she turned to fruit flies. When the fruit flies breathed in the mushroom alcohol, she found that they started moving strangely. They trembled, moved slowly, fell over, lacked coordination. They looked like insectile Parkinson’s patients.

Bennett knew that Parkinson’s could be caused by exposure to chemicals like pesticides. So could mushroom alcohol be doing the same thing? Could these fruit flies in fact have their own version of Parkinson’s?

From Flies to Humans

To find out, Bennett and her collaborators gave the stricken flies L-dopa, a medication that reverses the effects of Parkinson’s in humans. And indeed, the flies moved more naturally, indicating that the mushroom alcohol was operating on a similar pathway.

It’s a long way from a fruit fly to a human, so Bennett and her team tested human cell lines as well. A human cell in a test tube can’t tremor with Parkinson’s disease, of course, but Bennett found that the mushroom alcohol was toxic to the cells, killing some of them off. She published her findings recently in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

Thus, Bennett says, VOCs from mold may be an important contributor to Parkinson’s disease. It would explain a long-standing mystery: Every known toxin that causes Parkinson’s is man-made and relatively recent, but Parkinson’s has existed for thousands of years. Bennett says that a variety of natural neurotoxins – mushroom alcohol as well as other VOCs – may lead to the disease.

“I always thought of mushroom alcohol as a relatively innocuous compound,” says Charles Weschler of Rutgers University, a specialist in indoor air quality. “The article puts the chemical in a totally different light for me. I certainly would want to try to minimize my exposure to it.”

Elliott Horner, an indoor air quality researcher at Atlanta-based company UL, says that he wasn’t surprised that a fungal VOC affects the physiological functioning of animals. Moldy buildings, he says, have long been suspected to make people sick through VOCs as well as through mycotoxins, small particulates, and allergens. But he says that it’s a “huge step forward” to have an animal model that will allow researchers to study the impacts of these VOCs.

Ironically, even though sick building syndrome is what drew her to this work, Bennett says that she’s not planning to emphasize that aspect of her work in the future, because it’s so unpopular at the National Institutes of Health, upon which she is dependent for funding. “I am convinced that there is something real there,” she says. “I wish I could convince some funding agencies.”

But even if she plans to pitch her work in terms of neurotoxicity, with no mention of the implications for sick buildings, she does intend to continue studying the VOCs produced by mold. “Fungi make lots of different volatiles,” she says. “We’ve got lots of them to test.”

Image by Singkham / Shutterstock

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Health & Medicine, Top Posts
  • Milton Waddams

    I can’t get rid of the mold on the Velux windows in my house. It always comes back (used strong chemicals even). Even though it doesn’t smell (only from nearby) this makes me worry. Never buy Velux windows people, they attract mold so easily.

    • Jong W Kim

      try lye solution if concetrated chlorine doesn’t work, but be careful.

      • cory

        How in the world could lye be better than mold, seems to me there is a real problem in decision making here.

    • ElleJ

      Olive Leaf Extract from Seagate will kill mold from any surface and is non toxic.

      Totally agree with the others that this scientist needs to eat a little crow. She has discredited ill families and kicked them when down. No telling what kind of hardship she caused those families. She needs to rectify that.

  • LSMiranda

    Karma. Right there. Sick Building Syndrome is REAL? Gosh darn, too bad it’s so unpopular at the NIH and they won’t give me money to study something I’ve said doesn’t exist. Sorry – lots of sarcasm on my part. It just makes me angry that there are people who have become ill on WHATEVER PART of SBS that can make them ill, and ‘experts’ have testified against them so that those who are sick are seen as head cases. And look – here it is! Proof that they weren’t! But Bennett doesn’t want to emphasize the SBS in her work because it isn’t popular. “I wish I could convince some funding agencies.” Yeah. Good luck with that.

  • http://blogs.discovermagazine.com Jennie Dusheck

    This is very cool. It might explain the speed with which moldies can be affected by mold.

  • http://blogs.discovermagazine.com Lisa Petrison

    A note to Dr. Bennett (if she is reading this): congratulations on a creative and very interesting piece of research. I am wondering if the nanoparticles that are known to be made by molds (e.g. from zinc or mercury) might be working in conjunction with the mycotoxins, serving as a delivery device to bring them past the blood-brain barrier and into the brain, when they are breathed in. Could that explain why even small amounts of exposure (such as people report from cross-contaminated objects that do not have a smell) can have a big effect in some people? Lots of layers going on here — whenever I think that mold could not possibly be worse, something else (like even the VOC’s that have conventionally been thought to be “not the problem”) turn out to be super-bad too. We need more creative thinkers! Good luck with your future research.

    • Kelly

      VOCs ‘have conventionally been thought to be not the problem’? Volatile organic compounds are not a problem? Maybe in your world where “the ick” is seen as a problem?

      Ironically a perfect example of the fact that we need more creative thinkers, and that mold illness as defined so narrowly by Petrison and Johnson may or may not be the entire picture as some in the community seem to think.

  • Don’t Even Try It!

    Chlorine bleach kills most every mold that I have ever had the displeasure to meet.

    • JGISD

      You’ve got to be kidding. lol. Anyone who has sensitivity to molds is also going to be sensitive to bleach and we already KNOW the huge range of health issues caused by bleach.

  • http://blogs.discovermagazine.com Pati Tomsits

    Mold and indoor air contaminants can cause serious health problems. For accurate information about the health effects, check out the Global Indoor Health Network. The naysayers have been spreading their
    propaganda of doubt and denial for many years even though they have known about the inhalation effects of mycotoxins since at least 1985 (the U.S. Army funded a 3-year study about the inhalation effects).

  • willymack

    Some types of fungus do some really nasty things to people, so it shouldn’t come as any surprise to anyone that the nasty smelling mold in your house may just be making you sick.
    Get rid of it, already.

  • DontSueMe

    Isn’t this another example of subpar scientists who knows so much on a very narrow subject field but ignorant in general science. It reminded me immediately the cases of the shaking baby symptom doctor who has been testified and helped to convict wrongfully accused parents killing their babies, only in the opposite way – she’s been helping insurance companies to deny all the claims from victims of Sick Building Syndrome who should rightfully compensated for health expenses.

    Now, when she found out that Sick Building Syndrome could be legitimate and there could be other chemicals playing a crucial role in it other than mold toxins, all she could think of was how to cut her links to Sick Building Syndrome and to get funds from NIH.

    I hope she will retire soon. Another narrow subject knowledge in her probable will do more harm to other people than good. Scientific research can always be picked by other scientists.

  • http://blogs.discovermagazine.com Kendrick Miller

    Since the NIH, and therefore the FDA, the Dept. of Agriculture, CDC etc. don’t believe in “sick building”, then it can’t be construed as an act of terror for some good Samaritans to collect a bunch of these mold and liberally apply them to the above mentioned agencies’ senior administrative offices, elevator shafts and other appropriate sites.

  • duelles

    Science is wonderful in that theories can be tested and proven right or wrong and applied to real life. But this illustrates how wedded the scientific community has become to funding. How can I distrust science? Because theories and funding become too close and dependent. Dependency leads to contempt. Hear that! global climatologists !!! Your models suck, but they are funded so I better shut up.

  • JGISD

    How asinine do you have to be to equate odor with toxicity. Many of the most toxic substances in the world have no odor, and many of the worst smelling pose no danger.

    Yet her house smelled bad, so the good doctor assumed that it must be horrible for her. As it turned out, she was right in this case, but it baffles the mind that a supposed scientist would use this sort of logic, and that someone else actually hires her to testify at trials.

    • wordmix

      So what is an odor made of? Why can’t it be toxic?

      • JGISD

        It’s not the smell itself that’s toxic. Many “natural” substances smell awful to keep us away, and many smell enticing to draw us in so it can poison us. Odor tells us nothing about the toxic level of a substance.

        • wordmix

          The smell? I think that an odor is made of a chemical, whether toxic or not, and that is how we smell it. It is a part of the chemical or substance in question.

          • JGISD

            A smell is something triggering sensory receptors in our olfactory system. Chemists have been able to make artificial odors that mimic real ones, and we use them all the time to market products. The reason all McDonalds food “tastes” the same anywhere in the world for instance, is because they are pumped full of chemicals that give off certain odors when heated, which tricks our minds into thinking it tastes the same. You could have identical odors, and one could be poisonous, and the other, not. Odor has nothing to do with toxicity.

          • wordmix

            A smell is something. What is that something? If there is nothing in the air, we would smell nothing.

  • Bill Soukup

    For those of you slamming Bennett’s work, go ahead and conduct your own research, then publish your findings.
    I know a lot about mold in homes, I burned my house down because of mold infestation. And, my kids are sick all the time 10 years later. So much of this study is very interesting to me. Maybe she is on to something, maybe not, but we need researchers studying topics like this to further our knowledge.

  • AlexisKlatt

    So many sick homes are on the market now, former Marijuana grow-ops & Meth Labs!

  • MAS

    For all those rushing to judge Bennet, consider this: “In science it often happens that scientists say, ‘You know that’s a really good argument; my position is mistaken,’ and then they actually change their minds and you never hear that old view from them again. They really do it. It doesn’t happen as often as it should, because scientists are human and change is sometimes painful. But it happens every day. I cannot recall the last time something like that happened in politics or religion.” [Carl Sagan, 1987 CSICOP keynote address]

  • http://blogs.discovermagazine.com Longmire

    Ive got an idea for bennett now that you know vocs can be toxic RESEARCH what is the best way to rid an environment of those substances then invest heavily it the leading company of that technology and then recommend the masses to use such technology its a win win situation. Just a quick google search shows that carbon filters remove vocs effectively, imagine if every house that stunk had a carbon filter that would be a massive amount of carbon removed from the atmosphere and could be reused as biochar which would therefor be subsidized to a degree which would make it more economical to use. Then all who did something to better there own health would also help the environment in numerous ways.

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