Toxic mold exposure could be the cause of your chronic condition or mysterious symptoms. In fact, illness from toxic mold and other environmental inflammagens is one of the most common conditions I see in my clinic.
As a Shoemaker certified physician, I’ve guided countless patients to recovery through proper diagnosis, treatment, and support. I’ve witnessed the joyful restoration of optimum health, wellbeing, energy, vitality, and clarity as chronic symptoms are reversed.
I’ve also seen what happens when toxic mold exposure is not recognized. My best friend suffered for nearly two years before finding a physician who could tell her what was wrong and help her heal. Her difficult journey led me to the Shoemaker Protocol and my certification as a mold and biotoxin expert. Now I’m here to help others through the complexity of this illness so they can heal and reclaim their joy in living.
Mold Illness Misunderstanding and Misdiagnosis
You might be wondering if you’re experiencing toxic mold exposure symptoms. If you lived or worked in a water damaged building (WDB) and tried to learn the truth about the risks to your health, you probably came across some conflicting information.
Maybe you were told by a practitioner that your symptoms couldn’t be mold related or that your fatigue, weakness, brain fog, memory issues, headaches, nausea, shortness of breath, and other debilitating symptoms were all in your head. Perhaps you were even referred to a mental health specialist. If so, you’re not alone.
There’s a lot of misunderstanding about toxic mold exposure and the resulting impact on human health. Thankfully, awareness is growing. What was once speculation is now defined, diagnosed, and treated by integrative and functional medicine practitioners with the Shoemaker Protocol and other natural therapies. And research continues to be funded and published by large institutions such as the World Health Organization and the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.
Yet, there is still much to be done to inform the larger medical community and the general public. Lack of awareness about mold not only lead to misdiagnosis but also fear, shame, and confusion. Many sufferers are left feeling hopeless, believing there is no solution. I’ve written this article to correct faulty assumptions about toxic mold exposure from a medical perspective.
There is a way to reverse the root cause of your condition and reclaim your joy in living. That’s our specialty at Silver Tree Wellness Center. So, let’s get started by looking at some of the most common misconceptions about toxic mold exposure.
#1 – Toxic Mold Is the Only Cause of Illness
This might seem confusing at first, but a major misconception about “mold illness” is that it’s only caused by toxic mold. You’re probably thinking…Well, why is it called mold illness? Am I right? Let me explain.
First, it’s important to understand that the fuzzy green, white, or black mold you see on food or growing in the attic usually doesn’t make you sick. Mold is a type of fungus that may or may not produce toxic chemicals called “mycotoxins.” Mycotoxins can be found on mold as well as on mold spores and are harmful to humans. If you’re exposed to mycotoxins through skin contact, inhalation, or ingestion, you might experience short-term symptoms or long-term illness.
Next, what is often diagnosed as “mold illness” or “mycotoxicosis” may be more accurately diagnosed as biotoxin illness or Chronic Inflammatory Response Syndrome (CIRS). Dr. Ritchie Shoemaker, a physician and clinical researcher who was the first to uncover the connection between a specific group of symptoms and certain toxins called biotoxins, defined CIRS in the late 1990s.
CIRS is a multi-system, multi-symptom condition often caused by exposure to a dangerous mix of biotoxins, including but not limited to mycotoxins. Mold is often solely blamed because of its visible presence in water damaged buildings. This has led to the general label “mold illness” or “mycotoxicosis,” which is just one subcategory of biotoxin illness/CIRS.
In reality, we now know other inflammagenic organisms such as bacteria, actinomycetes, microbial volatile organic compounds (MVOC), cell wall fragments, viruses, beta-glucans, and more contribute to CIRS. Many are more damaging to human health than mycotoxins. In fact, mycotoxins represent only 7-10% of the problem.
If exposed long enough to these dangerous biotoxins, most humans will become ill. This is especially true for the young, elderly, those with weakened immune systems, and 24% of people who are genetically susceptible to CIRS, as their immune systems are unable to identify and remove biotoxins from the body.
#2 – Mold Exposure Only Triggers a Simple Allergic Reaction
You might be asking…How much mold exposure is harmful? If you’re allergic to mold, you could see symptoms similar to hay fever or seasonal allergies immediately. But an allergy to mold is not the same condition as toxic mold illness or CIRS. If you tested negative for mold allergies and were told there’s no way mold is negatively impacting your health, you’ve been misinformed.
If you have a mold allergy and breathe in mold spores, your eyes may itch, your nose water, your throat swell. You may even have trouble breathing. But remove yourself from the area or wait for the rainy season to pass, and your symptoms will clear up until you’re exposed again.
While allergies are caused by an overly-sensitive immune system, they signal a properly-functioning response. Your body is doing its job. Most mold allergies are troublesome and can make you feel terrible, but they are usually not serious or life-threatening. Biotoxin illness is not an allergic reaction. It’s whole-body inflammation caused by an immune system that is confused and repeatedly overreacting.
Technically, you could be affected by both a mold allergy and CIRS at the same time. Although symptoms may decrease, CIRS will not go away on its own after you’ve removed yourself from exposure. Many CIRS sufferers who visit my office are worried when they don’t get better after leaving their water-damaged home or office. An in-depth explanation of CIRS diagnosis and treatment makes it easier to understand the chronic nature of the condition.
#3 – Eating or Drinking Mold Is the Main Cause of Illness
Have you ever taken a big bite of bread only to look down and see a little green spot of mold staring back at you? It will turn almost anyone’s stomach. And the impending thought of food poisoning can cause serious anxiety.
The truth is…if you’ve accidentally ingested some mold, you’ll probably be just fine. If you have a mold allergy, you might experience the symptoms discussed above, but any nausea or vomiting will likely be a result of the fact that you’re totally grossed out by what you’ve eaten.
So, how does mold most often make its way into the body and cause illness? While ingestion and skin contact are possible routes, the potential for serious health problems is caused by inhalation of airborne mold spores. When spores are inhaled through the nose or mouth and enter the sinuses, lungs, brain, and bloodstream, they’re quite difficult for the body to eliminate. The spores attach themselves to mucous and begin to colonize. Many people are initially unaware that they’ve been exposed to mold and its subsequent inflammagens but begin to see a decline in their health over time.
Unfortunately, the scientific evidence is inconclusive as to the actual extent that inhalation of biotoxins can damage human health because it’s unethical to expose humans to mycotoxins for research purposes. But, all researchers in the field as well as government agencies agree that the primary mechanism of exposure is inhalation. Case studies and animal studies do suggest, however, that long-term exposure to airborne biotoxins causes serious damage to the nervous, gastrointestinal, and immune systems as well as the lungs, liver, and kidneys.
#4 – Outdoor Molds Are More Problematic Than Indoor Molds
It might surprise you, but this is another wrong assumption. Indoor molds cause more health issues than outdoor molds. In general, indoor air is two to five times more toxic than outdoor air. While mold and mold spores exist everywhere outdoors, very few people get sick from mold outside. So, why is indoor mold such a problem? The answer is water-damaged buildings (WDB).
WDBs are more of a problem than ever before. A change to building standards and an explosion of air-conditioning systems in the 1970s and 1980s is partially to blame. As demand for air conditioning increased, there was an energy shortage. To increase HVAC efficiency, builders began to seal systems, causing air to be recirculated within buildings.
Pair recirculation with poor filtration, trapped moisture, and building materials such as paper, gypsum, fiberglass, and insulation that literally feed mold, and you’ve got a recipe for water leaks and mold growth. Unfortunately, it only takes 24-48 hours for mold and mildew to form after water exposure, and growth won’t stop until the source of moisture is remedied.
The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) did a study of one hundred commercial buildings in the 1990s and reported that 43% had current water damage and 85% had past water damage. Studies in the U.S. estimate that 50% of all buildings have water damage. It’s no wonder that mold illness has become such a controversial issue in recent years.
You can find thousands of blogs, websites, and documentaries detailing the devastation biotoxin illness has caused for families and communities. Check out this great documentary from Dave Asprey, the founder of Bulletproof, who fought his way back to health after toxic mold exposure.
#5 – Only People with Weakened Immune Systems Can Get Sick from Water Damaged Buildings
Incorrect. While exposure to toxic mold may cause acute illness in those with preexisting conditions that weaken the immune system, almost anyone can get sick from long-term exposure to biotoxins. If no genetic susceptibility exists and the person is removed from exposure, symptoms should eventually resolve.
Case studies looking at teachers who saw the reversal of symptoms after leaving water damaged school buildings each year for summer vacation show how the body is able to eliminate toxins after it’s no longer repeatedly exposed. Avoiding the affected environment allowed their bodies to catch up and eliminate the toxic load from their systems.
This is not true for people who are genetically susceptible, as their immune systems are unable to recognize and remove biotoxins from the body. The biotoxins are unchecked, free to recirculate practically forever, causing system-wide inflammation. Many times, the inflammation caused by CIRS is misdiagnosed as:
- Attention Deficit Disorder
- Chronic Fatigue Syndrome
- Irritable Bowel Syndrome
- Multiple Sclerosis
- Post Traumatic Stress Disorder
This is why genetic testing is critical in the diagnosis of CIRS. The Human Leukocyte Antigen (HLA) Test is used to find out if a patient is genetically susceptible to CIRS. According to Dr. Shoemaker’s research, about 24% of the population is at risk for CIRS from their HLA haplotype. Regardless of a preexisting condition that may have weakened the immune system, water damaged buildings are most dangerous for those with a susceptible HLA gene type. If you doubt your diagnosis, ask your practitioner for evidence-based diagnostic testing.
#6 – A Single Exposure to Mold Only Causes a Single Reaction
The reality is…for genetically-susceptible people, a single exposure can cause a life-long problem. If you have the wrong HLA gene type, your body simply cannot target and remove biotoxins. A single exposure could cause an indefinite recirculation of these toxins, provoking chronic inflammation from a continuously triggered immune system.
If this is you, even after avoiding exposure for days, weeks, months, years, or even decades, you could suffer from CIRS. Thankfully, recovery is not only possible, it’s probable. Dr. Shoemaker had developed and applied a systematic protocol, The Shoemaker Protocol, to remove biotoxins from the body and re-regulate the immune response to stop inflammation and reverse chronic symptoms.
It begins with removal from exposure. Exposure must be carefully monitored throughout the entire protocol. If there is a new biotoxin exposure from a water damaged building or other source, you must begin the entire protocol from the start. In many cases, re-exposure causes CIRS patients to get sick more quickly. The “sicker quicker” phenomenon is backed by evidence showing an increase in certain biomarkers in as little as four hours after re-exposure.
Many CIRS patients are highly sensitive to mold and other biotoxins. The smallest exposure can trigger inflammation and feelings of anxiety, agitation, and danger. It’s best to trust your body’s reaction and leave a potentially contaminated building immediately.
#7 – Molds Are Unavoidable
It may be difficult, but it is possible to avoid mold. And it’s necessary if you have CIRS. Some patients fully recover from avoidance alone. That is why removal from exposure is the first step in the Shoemaker Protocol. In order to avoid mold, you will need to make some lifestyle changes, but the positive impact on your health will be worth the inconvenience.
Avoiding mold starts with the environment where you live and work. Americans spend about 90% of their time indoors. It’s essential to have your home and office tested for mold by a certified inspector using an Environmental Relative Moldiness Index (ERMI) test, which can detect more than 30 types of mycotoxins. If mold is found, remediation is necessary.
You should leave your home or office during remediation and not return until ERMI tests confirm a clean environment. Unfortunately, some porous materials cannot be cleaned and will need to be thrown out. As difficult as it is to toss things like books, rugs, and important papers, removal of spores is nearly impossible. The mold spores can spread to your remediated home or office and recontaminate everything. When in doubt, throw it out.
Clean air, a clean diet, and ongoing detoxification will also help ensure you avoid mold. There are mold avoidance support groups and resources available to guide you through this process. The International Society for Environmentally Acquired Illness (ISEAI) and survivingmold.com are two great places to start. The advice you find on social media forums can be cross checked with the education and research available through ISEAI and survivingmold.com
#8 – Indoor Air Sampling Is The Best Method to Test for Mold
The bottom line here is that air sampling gives a very limited picture of indoor air quality and the actual presence of mold. Most often, indoor air samples are taken using a petri dish culture or a machine that collects air for a short period of time in a small space. The problem with these methods is that they do not take into account the varying nature of molds.
While some mold spores are light and remain airborne for long periods of time, others, such as Stachybotrys chartarum (often called “black mold”) are heavy, dense, or sticky and fall more quickly to floors and surfaces. This makes collection from air samples unreliable. While air samples may reveal the presence of one or mold molds, the identified volume of a particular mold may be inaccurate, suggesting safety when levels are actually outside an acceptable range.
The best test, as discussed above, is one of the variations of the Environmental Relative Moldiness Index (ERMI). An ERMI test uses samples of dust collected from surfaces as well as vacuumed samples. What’s most important with the ERMI test is to send your samples to a certified and well-reviewed lab. I recommend either Mycometrics or Envirobiomics for testing. They cost a bit more than some other well-known labs, but they use high-quality diagnostic tools that increase accuracy, eliminating the need for repeat testing.
#9 – Bleach is the Best Method for Mold Clean-up
If you’ve found mold in your home and are worried about expensive testing and remediation, you might be tempted to find a do-it-yourself (DIY) solution. Do not attempt to clean it on your own. Hire a certified contractor experienced in mold remediation.
While your first thought when attempting cleanup in your home may be to kill the mold and sanitize the area with the most powerful chemicals possible, do not use bleach or other strong chemicals on mold. In fact, it’s usually not possible to sterilize a moldy area. Mold spores will remain and begin to grow if supplied with moisture, especially on porous surfaces.
Bleach is formulated to work on non-porous surfaces. If you try to clean a porous surface, such as drywall, with bleach, it may sanitize the surface-layer, but it will not penetrate to the roots of the mold within the drywall. Water from the bleach will seep down to these roots, however, which will supply the mold with the moisture it needs to grow. It may appear that you’ve fixed the problem, but the mold is now thriving deep within the porous surface and will return stronger than before.
Finally, if you’re already sick from biotoxin exposure, skin contact with bleach or inhaling its fumes will only add to your body’s burden. Instead of bleach, reach for supermarket 6% vinegar (acetic acid), which effectively kills mold and its underlying roots.
If you’re having chronic symptoms that might be from mold or biotoxin exposure, it’s time to get help. Mold is often called “the silent killer” because it can cause unrelated yet seemingly mild health problems that many people brush off for years as old age or stress. All the while, the body is struggling to handle the toxic load, and health and wellbeing decline as a result.
Unfortunately, there aren’t many physicians who are aware of Chronic Inflammatory Response Syndrome. In fact, at the time of this article, there are fewer than 30 Shoemaker Protocol Certified Practitioners in the world. If you suspect mold is damaging your health, I encourage you to seek out a Shoemaker Practitioner and begin the testing process for both your home and body.
Please share this article with anyone looking for answers to their chronic healthcare condition. The root cause might just be mold or biotoxin exposure.
Have you been exposed to a water-damaged building? Are you or a loved one struggling with chronic symptoms? Could mold be to blame? Leave a comment below with your thoughts and questions!
Dr. Jennifer Smith is a Naturopathic Medical Doctor (NMD) certified in Environmental Medicine, Biological Medicine, and the Shoemaker Protocol for Mold and Biotoxin Illness. She’s dedicated to empowering you to reverse root causes of illness and maintain lifelong wellness with the science and spirit of natural healing.