In the aftermath of hurricane Harvey’s devastation, we are all saddened for the city and people of Houston, and wondering how in the world we can help. And, with Irma already touching down in the Caribbean and Florida and headed toward Georgia, our focus shifts to preparing for and dealing with the worst. But, in terms of all of the flooding and water damage, is the worst yet to come?
Because my focus has been mold and dealing with the health repercussions of mold in my life for so long, I immediately start thinking of what comes after the storms. When clean-up and rebuilding must occur, how does a city face the challenge of mold on such a large scale? People returning to their once flooded homes and workplaces have the certainty of mold and “Water Damaged Building Syndrome” issues on an epidemic scale to face, because, once submerged, a home or building is oftentimes nearly impossible to totally remediate.
The good news, in my opinion, is that hurricanes Katrina, Andrew, and Sandy taught us a lot about floods and about how indoor environments respond to moisture and mold growth. While people came together, salvaged, and began rebuilding after those storms, mold growth and its influence on human health was also studied and paid attention to on a level that had never happened before. This increased knowledge about mold is exactly what will help Houston to recover.
An incredible example of this post-Katrina mold mentality is the existence of new information on the EPA website about mold. None of the mold-specific information was there before Katrina. Katrina actually brought about some recognition and some changes to health safety in the light of how mold is viewed. Now mold is an undisputed health hazard, with government agencies calling it “dangerous to human health,” and saying things like, “after a flood, do not inhabit a home until all mold has been removed.” Katrina, Sandy and Andrew allowed people to study what happens when homes and buildings are totally submerged in water—stagnant, dirty water at that—and then are dried out and re-inhabited without proper remediation. When the homes and buildings are flooded, mold colonizes. The water recedes and the mold dries, and remains dormant. High humidity and lack of air flow then keeps the mold reproducing. The proof of this cycle is in those who returned to their homes without proper remediation, and are now very sick. (Note: Dr. Jack Thrasher proved in his extensive work studying water damaged buildings that where there is mold growth, there are also gram negative and positive bacteria, VOC’s, mycotoxins being emitted by the molds, and viruses. In other words, as mold begins to grow, an indoor environment becomes altogether sick. The sicker it gets, the possibility remains that it may not be fixable..)
The post-Katrina-specific analysis by experts, like Dr. Joan W. Bennett, now a Distinguished Professor of Plant Biology and Pathology at Rutgers University, can really help us to be smarter and safer when rebuilding after natural disasters. Dr. Bennett was on the faculty at Tulane University in New Orleans when Katrina hit. She returned to her home after the storm with a suitcase full of Petri dishes, knowing what to expect as a researcher of filamentous fungi. The unique smells in her water-damaged home led her to scientifically investigate fungi and its capacity to emit both VOCs and mycotoxins. She discovered that the VOCs emitted by fungi in a “sick” building are also to blame for many of the symptoms of mold illness. Thus, not only are people in moldy indoor environments subject to allergens and mycotoxins emitted by mold spores, but also to VOCs that are totally separate and dangerous toxins in and of themselves. She also found one of the VOCs to be a neurotoxin. (A link to her Memoir on Katrina and mold can be found HERE.) This kind of work has gotten us to where we are now, and will help those in post-Harvey Houston, and in Irma’s destructive path, because the health implications of living in mold are formally acknowledged by the CDC, and thus more widely known.
So, now, with the inevitable necessity of the people of Houston returning to start reclaiming and rebuilding their homes and city, what can be done?
I can see an answer in the increased knowledge and understanding that we now have about mold. Mold can grow and reproduce on just about anything, and safety precautions must be taken. Mold needs moisture, and that is about it. Anyone attempting to rehab a flooded home now has information and resources available with EPA safety guidelines that did not exist before. These guidelines must be considered. Viewing flooded homes and buildings as potential health hazards, saves the health of those remediating and those returning to them. To me, this is all positive and helpful.
I would love to hear from any of you who are connected to Houston, or places hit by Irma. I want this blog to be a beacon of hope and assistance. I want us all to continue to inform and to help each other.