Mold, fungi, yeast. They are literally everywhere. Yeast are so ubiquitous that you can make sourdough bread starter just by leaving some warm water mixed with flour out in the open for a few days. Yeast from the environment will populate the liquid and ferment the flour. Likewise, mold and fungi are found anywhere there is a dark, mildly humid environment. This has not changed from time immemorial.
What has changed is that now we are blaming all sorts of ills and medical problems on these ubiquitous agents. All manner of symptoms are blamed on exposure to “toxic” mold. Take your pick: cough, nasal congestion, skin irritation, wheezing, fever, muscle aches, joint pain, asthma, shortness of breath, headache, confusion, “brain fog”, depression, fatigue, sleep disturbances, and much, much more. Even cancer and death have been attributed to mold exposure. In my own specialty of plastic surgery, one of the ongoing controversies is whether breast implants can make some women sick. Some women claim that they have toxic mold inside or on the surface of their implants and are ill from that. I cannot speak to the truth of this in every claim, but in 32 years of pratice I have yet to find an implant with confirmed mold in or on it.
In medicine, we have known for decades that in some instances patients may become ill from a variety of fungi. Few funguses are pathogenic (disease causing) on their own. Most are what we call opportunistic, i.e. they take advantage of an already compromised individual. In almost all instances of infection, the patient is already ill or has some other reason to have a weakened immune system. Patients with cancer, HIV/AIDS, transplant patients on anti-rejection drugs, and those with chronic illnesses are susceptible to fungi that would not make a healthy person sick.
News stories abound about toxic mold in homes and buildings, exposure to mold and funguses in our environment, and supposed illnesses they cause. These are often described as “hidden” dangers, lurking out of our sight and ready to pounce on us at any moment. Many people are so fearful that they run to their doctor at the first sniffle, convinced they are infected with a mold or fungus. Mold detection services and mold testing kits for the home are doing a booming business. It is not possible to say how often these are used unnecessarily- no one keeps records- but I think that it is safe to say that it happens a lot. Beware of companies offering free mold testing, especially if they also offer mold remediation, at a price.
It is unfortunately inevitable that other opportunists have entered the picture. Some physicians and non-physicians have jumped on the mold bandwagon with such enthusiasm that their entire practices are predicated on the premise that, if you are sick, a mold, fungus, or yeast is to blame. They test patients for mold and, not surprisingly, nearly all test positive. They then subject patients to unproven therapies, such as intravenous hydrogen peroxide, vitamin C, and silver to treat these alleged infections. The cost can run into the tens of thousands of dollars which, by the way, insurance typically does not cover. I call them medical predators.
These practitioners use a few laboratories to test their patients. One features prominently: RealTime Laboratory in Carrollton, Texas. RealTime provides a test they developed for testing urine for toxins derived from molds. It costs $700. The founder/owner of RealTime is Dr. Dennis Hooper, a pathologist with a checkered practice history which is readily available online. Suffice it to say that Dr. Hooper is persona-non-grata with the medical board in California, which suspended his medical license for gross incompetence. Urine testing for mold toxins has never been shown to be reliable for diagnosing mold problems in patients or for directing treatment. Well over 80% of the mold tests submitted to RealTime are from a single physician, Marvin Sponaugle, MD, who runs the Sponaugle Wellness Institute in Oldsmar, FL. Dr. Sponaugle makes his living treating mold patients based on these results.
Another opportunist is Michael Pugliese, who has a long list of letters after his name, but no MD or DO. He has done business as Environmental Health Assessment Program Laboratories, Mold Centers of America, American Medical Laboratories, BioTrek Laboratories, and BioSign Laboratory Corporation. He runs the National Treatment Center for Environmental Disease. All of these are in or around Atlanta. If you look at the website for the Treatment Center, you will be frightened half to death and, at the same time, told that this is the Mecca for mold assessment and treatment. Unlike most websites for medical centers, this one does not mention a single physician on its staff. An FAQ deflects this question by saying there is a “team”. No specifics are given on their protocols.
Can people become ill from molds and fungi? As I indicated above, the answer is very much yes, however, true mold related illnesses in healthy people are unusual. The problem is not nearly as common as the above practitioners and labs would have you believe and, if you are not careful, you can become a victim of medical predators who tell you that molds and fungi are to blame and will be more than happy to take your money to treat you.
It is well established that all of us are exposed to molds and fungi on a daily basis and many healthy people will test positive at any given moment, if the testing is sensitive enough. If you are concerned that you might have a mold or fungus issue, either personally or in your home, check with your own primary care practitioner. If they send lab samples off, ask to what laboratory they are being sent. Only two laboratories provide reliable assays for mold toxins: The Mayo Clinic and ARUP Laboratory in Salt Lake City, UT. If you are referred to a mold treatment “specialist”, do your due diligence and research them before you go. Beware of anyone using these labs I noted above or promising you relief if you follow their expensive protocols. In addition to Marvin Sponaugle, another name that has cropped up on the mold scene is that of Gordon Crozier, DO in Orlando. Crozier diagnosed one patient with toxic mold in the blood and brain using RealTime Lab testing and then subjected her to nearly $50,000 worth of IV therapy, with no improvement. Another purveyor of mold treatment is Dr. David Minkhoff who runs the Lifeworks Wellness Center in Clearwater, FL. The snake oil salesmen of yesteryear are alive and well, and using their nostrums to treat mold.
When it comes to mold “illness”, my best advice is caveat emptor.
Richard T. Bosshardt, MD