Research into mold-related illnesses could be a game-changer for people suffering from an invisible threat
When Hannah Cozens and Darren McGuinness started their family, they anticipated sleepless nights and tears.
But in the last year of their tenancy in a rental home in the Victoria area, their lives quickly turned into a “constant cycle” of illness and anxiety.
“I think we – the kids, and Darren and I – would have been six to seven months sick that year,” Ms Cozens said.
Family members suffered from colds that took weeks to spread, respiratory illnesses, cyclic fevers, skin conditions and bacterial infections.
Ms Cozens said the intensity of her daughter’s cough sometimes led her to vomit.
“They started talking about … childhood cancers … and rare autoimmune diseases [disorders]. You know, you hope you’re not going to be that person, but you can be.”
In 2021, Luella’s new pediatrician asked if invisible black mold could be contributing to their illnesses.
“After reading Luella’s story, the first thing he said to me was, ‘What is your house like? What is the environment like? ‘” Ms. Cozens said.
Poor understanding of mold-related diseases
Mold is a fungus that creates a biotoxin – a chemical by-product – called mycotoxin.
According to a 2018 parliamentary inquiry into biotoxin-related illnesses in Australia, mold is a naturally occurring fungus found in both indoor and outdoor environments.
In the report, it was agreed that exposure to humid environments and biotoxins could lead to harmful health issues, including headaches, sinus disease and a weakened immune system.
The World Health Organization estimates that indoor humidity, which is a major factor in mold growth in the home, can affect between 10-50% of indoor environments in Australia.
Although exposure to mycotoxins is known to cause disease, the science is not settled.
Graeme Edwards is a Consultant Physician in Occupational and Environmental Medicine at the Royal Australian College of Practitioners. He acted as the college’s representative during the 2018 investigation.
“The college’s position is that biotoxins cause problems,” Dr Edwards said.
In the report that was later handed over to the Biotoxin Inquiry, Chairman Trent Zimmermann noted a “consensus” of people exposed to biotoxins who were suffering from “a range of complex, debilitating symptoms that are difficult to diagnose and effectively treat. “.
Dr Edwards reiterated that even though the medical world doesn’t know enough about biotoxin disease, that doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist.
First search in Australia begins this month
The 2018 survey recommended “the Department of Health…develop clinical guidelines for general practitioners for the diagnosis, treatment and management” of suspected biotoxin diseases, including respiratory syndrome chronic inflammatory disease (CIRS).
The Department of Health and Aged Care said it had commissioned the development of “evidence-based clinical guidance” to help GPs in the diagnosis of biotoxin-related illnesses.
“Given recent flooding in various parts of Australia and concerns over biotoxin-related illnesses, the department is prioritizing this project,” he said in a statement to the ABC.
“The clinical review and advice is expected to be completed by the end of 2022.”
Macquarie University will launch Australia’s first research project into mold-related diseases this month after securing funding from the National Health and Medical Research Council.
The project will study the inflammatory responses and brain imaging of those with symptoms of CIRS.
Participants from across Australia will undergo blood and urine tests in addition to brain scans. The samples will be cross-checked with environmental tests in their homes.
The goal of the research is to find solid diagnostic parameters for doctors in the future.
“We are trying to put in place the parameters for diagnosis and treatment of the response.
“Once we have those parameters in place for the first three years, after that we would like to do clinical trials.”
Dr Ahn said that with each patient and each blood sample reflecting different levels of mold exposure and symptoms, the research needed to be comprehensive.
Tenants increasingly concerned about mold
The study could make all the difference for families suffering from illnesses like those of Darren McGuinness and Hannah Cozens and their families.
It may also inform the future of legislation for tenants across the country.
Tenant advocacy group Tenants Victoria said one in 10 phone calls it received were from a tenant expressing concern about black mold in their home.
“When tenants contact us, they’ve usually already contacted their landlords about mold,” said Tenants Victoria solicitor Georga Wootton.
Mold is not always visible in the home but can sometimes be identified by a musty smell.
But across the country, record vacancy rates leave renters with few options, especially if they live in the area.
In Victoria, the regional vacancy rate in December 2021 was just 1.4%.
In New South Wales, regional tenants are facing historically low vacancy rates of less than 1%, up to 1.3%.
The NSW Tenants’ Union said market pressures left people vulnerable in moldy homes and unable to move.
Ms Wootton urged Victorian tenants concerned about black mold to speak up with the state advocacy group.
“In Victoria, mold is treated as an urgent repair, which means that if tenants do not get results by contacting their agents and landlords, they can file a claim with the Civil and Administrative Court of Victoria.”
“We are much healthier now”
Ms Cozens said the suspicions of black mold in the house were confirmed as the family prepared to move into a new home and organized a builder to examine a leaking bathroom.
“He said he found the blackest mold he had ever seen in a house,” Ms Cozens said.
Mr McGuinness said the family have been doing better since moving out of their rental in January this year.
“I haven’t had anything to do with the kidneys in the six months we’ve been here,” Mr McGuinness said.
“I have noticed that we are much healthier now…I have a lot more energy now…I don’t need to take a nap every day,” Ms Cozens added.
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