Mold Awareness Month: A Historical Perspective on Mold

Lucas Hamilton

Lucas Hamilton

As we come to the close of Mold Awareness Month, I thought I would offer some perspectives on the history of mold as a follow-up to my earlier blog “Mold is Like a Four-Legged Stool.”

Mold has a long and colorful history. It is a living and very dynamic organism.  Mold spores are everywhere; on clothing, items you buy in the store, in walls and buildings.  It can exist in pores within materials not visible to the eye but once that material is exposed to a temperature of 41° – 104°, has moisture, oxygen and food, it will grow.

Historical References to Mold

  • One of the first references to mold remediation occurs in the Bible in the book of Leviticus chapters 13 and 14 in which God not only reveals that he placed mildew in a home, but offers specific directions about how to remediate the mold using the blood of a dead bird.
  • The Curse of King Tut’s Tomb was Aspergillus mold the most common genus of fungi with 160 species.  In 1922 archaeologist Howard Carter and his team discovered King Tut’s Tomb. Shortly after attending the opening of the tomb in 1922, Lord Carnarvon, as British sponsor of the expedition, died.  It was speculated that supernatural forces were at work. Within five years, 11 of the people who had entered the tomb with Carter were also dead. 
  • The Salem Witch Trials – It has been discovered that Claviceps purpurea a fungus that grows on rye wheat which was used to make bread can cause Ergotism, a disease which affects the pores and can cause hallucinations and convulsions.  In testing artifacts from that time period and exhuming the bodies of those thought to be witches, the bacteria was found.
  • The Irish Potato Famine was caused by Phytophthora infestans, a water mold that attacked the potato crop in Ireland between 1845 -1849 causing thousands to starve and others to flee the country.

Of course there are beneficial uses for mold.  Molds help to breakdown organic matter. Some of my favorite cheeses are ripened using molds. Antibiotics, such as Penicillin are created from molds.

But perception is always in the eye of the beholder.  If you think your neighbor is possessed or if you suffer from headaches, redness and skin irritation, sneezing, watery eyes or more seriously, vomiting, diarrhea, or constant fatigue, it could be from exposure to mold. While it seems mold can cause many symptoms one must remember that there are thousands of species of mold and different species can produce different reactions within different people.

I have come to view human beings as Portable Organic Detection Systems (PODS). We have genetically learned what things are bad for us. Things that smell bad we generally assume are bad for us. It is a learned response that is grounded in a perception as well. If you suspect you may have mold in your walls, get on your hands and knees and sniff at the wall outlets. If there is mold in the walls, in many cases you will smell it there.

Mold has been around for thousands of years and will probably be around for thousands more. Mold is nothing to be afraid of, but it is something we need to control for our health and well being as well as the health of our buildings.

Lucas Hamilton is Manager, Building Science Applications at CertainTeed Corporation.