Industrial Hygiene

What is mold?

Mold is vital component to our ecosystem and is present in every breathe we take and on every surface we touch.  Mold is a naturally occurring form of fungi found year round both indoors and outdoors. Outdoors, mold live in the soil, on plants, and on dead or decaying matter. Another common term for mold is mildew. There are thousands of species of mold and they can be any color.  There is a common misconception that black mold equates to toxic mold.  Most species are black or dark green in color and are not present/growing at rates that would cause health concerns in a majority of the population. Many times, mold can be detected by a musty odor. Most fungi, including molds, produce microscopic cells called “spores."   All of us are exposed to fungal spores daily in the air we breathe.

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How does mold get into a building?

Most, if not all, of the mold found indoors comes from outdoor sources. Mold needs two things to grow, moisture and food.   Therefor, managing any water leaks/intrusion, high humidity, and/or condensation is imperative. Common sources of indoor moisture that cause mold problems include flooding, roof and plumbing leaks, damp basements or crawl spaces lacking ventilation, or any excessive condensation such as improperly insulated pipes or areas where the air conditioning is set too low (too cold).

Common food sources for mold are cellulose-based materials such as ceiling tiles, drywall, and glues.  Plaster is not a food source for mold, but mold may grow on the surface of plaster where dust/debris and water mix for long periods of time, but plaster itself can't support mold growth.  Typically, white crystalline material will form on plaster if it is exposed to excessive moisture.  This white material is efflorescence and is a harmless salt compound.

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How can I prevent mold growth?

Controlling excess moisture is the key to preventing and stopping indoor mold growth. Keeping susceptible areas in buildings clean and dry is very important.

Ventilate or use exhaust fans (vented to the outdoors) to remove moisture where it accumulates, particularly in bathrooms.

Repair water leaks promptly, and either dry out and clean or replace water-damaged materials. Materials that stay wet for more than 48 hours are likely to produce mold growth. Lowering humidity indoors helps prevent condensation problems. To lower humidity during humid weather, use dehumidifiers.  Do not drop the thermostat to create an excessively cold environment during the summer, as this will create a dew-point.  The hot temperatures outside will heat up windows and walls and the cold air inside will create condensation when the two temperatures meet.  Also, the air conditioning unit will run excessively and the pipes will develop significant condensation.

Proper exterior wall insulation and window seals help prevent condensation from forming during extreme cold or hot weather.

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Can mold be toxic?

Some molds produce toxic substances called mycotoxins. Airborne mycotoxins have not been shown to cause health problems for occupants in residential or commercial buildings. A healthy adult will not experience adverse health effects from incidental contact with small areas of mold.

In rare cases, high or chronic airborne exposures, typically associated with certain occupations like agricultural work, have been associated with illnesses. More is known about the health effects of consuming moldy foods or feed containing mycotoxins than about the effects of breathing mycotoxins.

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Why are we concerned about mold?

Small amounts of mold growth in workplaces or homes (such as mildew on a shower curtain) are not a major concern. But no mold should be allowed to grow and multiply indoors.

Large quantities of mold growth may cause nuisance odors and health problems for a small portion of the population. In addition, mold can damage building materials, finishes, and furnishings and, in some cases, cause structural damage to wood.

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Who is affected by exposure to mold?

There is a wide variability in how people are affected by mold exposure. People who may be affected more severely and quickly than others include:

  • Infants and children
  • Elderly people
  • Pregnant women
  • Individuals with respiratory conditions or allergies and asthma
  • Persons with weakened immune systems (for example, chemotherapy patients, organ or bone marrow transplant recipients, and people with HIV infections or autoimmune diseases)

Those with special health concerns should consult their doctor if they are concerned about mold exposure. Symptoms that may seem to occur from mold exposure may be due to other causes, such as bacterial or viral infections or other allergies.

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What should I do if I see or smell mold in my workplace?

Contact Environmental Health and Safety at 773-702-9999 or email safety@uchicago.edu and request a mold investigation.

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What are common causes of Indoor Air Quality (IAQ) problems?

IAQ problems result from interactions between building materials and furnishing, activities within the building, climate, and building occupants. IAQ problems may arise from one or more of the following causes:

  • Indoor environment: inadequate temperature, humidity, lighting, excessive noise;
  • Indoor air contaminants: chemicals, dusts, mold or fungi, bacteria, gases, vapors, odors; or
  • Insufficient outdoor air intake.

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What are indoor air contaminants?

Indoor air contaminants come primarily from inside the building, although some originate outdoors. These contaminants may be generated by a specific, limited source or several sources over a wide area, and may be generated periodically or continuously.
Here are examples of common indoor air contaminants and their main sources:

  • Carbon dioxide (CO2), tobacco smoke, perfume, body odors from building occupant;
  • Dust, fiberglass, asbestos, gases, including formaldehyde from building materials;
  • Toxic vapors, volatile organic compounds (VOCs) from workplace cleansers, solvents, pesticides, disinfectants, glues;
  • Gases, vapors, odors from off-gas emissions from furniture, carpets, and paints;
  • Carbon monoxide (CO) from incomplete combustion in fuel-fired equipment such as a furnace or hot water heater;
  • Car exhaust odors caused by vehicles idling near air intakes;
  • Dust mites — from carpets, fabric, and foam chair cushions;
  • Microbial contaminants, fungi, moulds, bacteria from damp areas, stagnant water and condensate pans; and
  • Ozone from photocopiers, electric motors, electrostatic air cleaners.

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What symptoms are often linked to poor indoor air quality?

It is common for people to report one or more of the following symptoms:

  • Dryness and irritation of the eyes, nose, throat, and skin;
  • Headache;
  • Fatigue;
  • Shortness of breath;
  • Hypersensitivity and allergies;
  • Sinus congestion;
  • Coughing and sneezing;
  • Dizziness; and/or
  • Nausea.

People generally notice their symptoms after several hours at work and feel better after they have left the building or when they have been away from the building for a weekend or a vacation.

Many of these symptoms may also be caused by other health conditions including common colds or the flu, and are not necessarily due to poor IAQ. This fact can make identifying and resolving IAQ problems more difficult.

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Is air contamination the only cause of these symptoms?

No. Feelings of discomfort and illness may be related to any number of issues in the total indoor environment. Other common causes may include noise levels, thermal comfort (temperature, humidity, and air movement), lighting, and ergonomics. It is important that all possible causes be investigated when assessing complaints.

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Who do I contact if I want an Indoor Air Quality Assessment preformed in my workspace?

Contact Environmental Health and Safety at 773-702-9999 or send an email to safety@uchicago.edu and request an Indoor Air Quality Assessment.

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Is there a way to have the noise levels in my area measured?

Yes. To request an evaluation of the noise levels in your area, contact Environmental Health and Safety at 773-702-9999 or safety@uchicago.edu.

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Can I have the water from my drinking water fountain tested?

Yes. Environmental Health and Safety shall conduct drinking water testing for general indicators such as copper, lead, turbidity, total coliform and pH if it is believed that the water source is not acceptable for drinking quality. Results will be compared to the maximum contaminant levels for each contaminant. To request an evaluation of potable drinking water in your area, please contact Environmental Health and Safety at 773-702-9999 or safety@uchicago.edu.

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Can I have the electromagnetic fields coming from my microwave tested?

Yes. To request an evaluation of electromagnetic fields in your area, contact Environmental Health and Safety at 773-702-9999 or safety@uchicago.edu.

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