Toxic Mold Investigated as Factors in Celebrity Deaths

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According to multiple news sites, the Department of Public Health has launched an investigation into the deaths of actress Brittany Murphy and her husband, screenwriter Simon Monjack due to the possibility of a toxic mold being a contributing factor. Ms. Murphy died in December 2009 and Mr. Monjack died in May – both of pneumona and severe anemia.

Mold is a fuzzy growth on moist organic matter caused by several types of fungi. Although they are often referred to as black molds, they can come in a variety of colors. Toxic molds can produce chemicals called mycotoxins that damage health by increasing susceptibility to a wide variety of diseases by weakening the immune system. The amount of mold it takes to cause health effects in humans is highly individualistic. Infants, young children, elderly, and those with immune-compromising conditions are at greater risk.

Aspergillus is the most common genus of fungi in our environment with more than 160 different species of mold. Aspergillosis is the second most common fungal infection requiring hospitalization in the United States. This type of fungus is found primarily in decomposing organic material, such as compost piles. Allergic reactions can occur upon exposure.

Stachybotrys chartarum molds thrive on water-damaged material in buildings, such as sheet rock, paper, ceiling tiles, insulation backing, and wallpaper. It has the ability to produce mycotoxins that are immunosuppressive and possibly carcinogens. Exposure usually results through inhalation, ingestion, and dermal exposure. Symptoms include dermatitis, cough, and cold and flu-like symptoms.

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Exposure to Cladosporium molds and Penicillum molds are also associated with pulmonary symptoms, including asthma. Cladosporium are one of the most commonly isolated funguses in both indoor and outdoor air. Penicillium are commonly found in soil, paint, carpet, wallpaper, and interior fiberglass duct insulation.

Controlling humidity levels is one of the most important steps to take to prevent mod buildup in the home. Toxic molds and other forms of biological contaminates (such as dust mites) thrive when the humidity level approaches or exceeds 55% Relative Humidity (RH). The most important places to monitor RH include bathrooms, attics and basements, inside cabinets and food storage areas, and in ductwork, particularly close to the air handler.

Other than humidity, water leaks and other forms of water intrusion in the home is the most common reason a toxic black mold problem originates. Look for condensation or rusting on or around a pipe as a sign that there is a leak. Also, check for musty odors that seem to originate from walls or floors. Condensation on or around a window is another sign of excessive moisture.

For cleaning existing mold colonies, it is important to take precautions to protect your health. Wear a medium-efficiency or high-efficiency filter dust mask or respirator to protect against inhalation of mold spores. Wear protective clothing that covers all areas of the body to prevent dermal (skin) exposure. Rubber gloves and eye goggles are also good protective measures. Seal off the area from the rest of the home or have family members, particularly those at higher risk, evacuate the home during cleanup. Air the area out well after cleaning is finished.

NOTE: Since the writing of this article, Los Angeles County Assistant Chief Coronor Ed Winter said that "There were no indicators that [the deaths of Murphy and Monjack] was from mold." The home had been inspected "by a well-respected company" two months before Murphy's death, according to publicist Roger Neal.

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