News of the WeekPUBLIC HEALTH

Asthma Linked to Indoor Dampness

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Science  28 May 2004:
Vol. 304, Issue 5675, pp. 1229
DOI: 10.1126/science.304.5675.1229b

Indoor mold can cause or exacerbate respiratory problems, says a new report by the U.S. Institute of Medicine. But its impact on a host of other health problems is much less clear.

The study, released this week, was requested by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in response to growing concerns about the health effects of indoor mold. Damp conditions are common in about 10% of U.S. housing. “It's a considerable public health issue,” says panel chair Noreen Clark of the University of Michigan School of Public Health in Ann Arbor.

Although the panel found that indoor mold can aggravate asthma and cause coughing and wheezing in healthy people, it failed to support arguments about its role in other health problems. The evidence was only suggestive that dampness or visible mold causes lower respiratory illness, such as bronchitis, and asthma in healthy children, the report says. And due to a dearth of well-done studies, the panel couldn't tell whether there is any link to other conditions, including acute pulmonary hemorrhage in infants, forgetfulness, chronic fatigue, or cancer.

Rising damp.

Mold, growing here in a flooded school basement, can worsen asthma.

CREDIT: BERLIN NELSON/N. DAKOTA STATE UNIVERSITY, FARGO

Part of the challenge is the complexity of damp conditions. In addition to mold, dampness fosters bacteria and mites and causes chemicals to be released from decaying furniture and building materials. Most studies have not teased apart these variables, the panel found. All these unknowns mean that it's hard to quantify the problem and rank it on a list of public health priorities, says epidemiologist Jonathan Samet of the Johns Hopkins University School of Public Health in Baltimore, Maryland.

The committee calls for more research on health effects, including better ways to gauge exposure, as well as studies of interventions to fight mold. It urges national guidelines to prevent or correct the problem. Those fixes are unlikely to be technical challenges but can be a financial hurdle for cash-strapped schools or low-income homeowners.

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