Monthly Archives: November 2012

Taking Aspergillus Seriously


Craig Whittaker founded Environmental Solutions Group in 2002 to provide impartial evaluation of properties relative to environmental health. A doctoral member of the American Academy of Environmental Medicine, he is frequently asked to speak about  toxins in the home and has conducted hundreds of assessments in a wide variety of building types.

I was surprised upon reading a recent study about medical misdiagnoses published by the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine. The researchers found that aspergillosis, a fungal infection of the lung, is one of the top four misdiagnosed conditions resulting in a preventable death in the intensive care unit of hospitals in the United States.  According to the study, as many as 13,000 people die in the U.S. each year due to a missed diagnosis of aspergillosis.

This information was both interesting and sad. The former because in our business we encounter high levels of airborne Aspergillus fungus in damp buildings nearly every day.  We warn people to wear respiratory protection if they insist on being in the building, but many people do not welcome or heed our advice.

Knowing that 13,000 people are likely to die each year from a preventable disease that has been misdiagnosed is sad. That’s up to 37 people dying from aspergillosis every day.

More recently, Aspergillus received some press in the media over the tainted steroids from a compounding lab in Massachusetts. It turned out that another fungus not previously known for making people sick is believed to be the cause of over 400 people becoming ill. It’s interesting, however, that Aspergillus was the fungus investigators ruled out first.


Counting Minutia

ImageCraig Whittaker founded Environmental Solutions Group in 2002 to provide impartial evaluation of properties relative to environmental health. An important part of all air quality evaluations conducted by ESG is the collection of airborne particle mass measurements indoors and outside of the building being assessed. As a result, tens of thousands of measurements have been logged and a multitude of IAQ issues have been identified.

While going through some saved materials on indoor air pollution, I recently came across a report from a conference on air quality held at Princeton University in 1999. The report focused on airborne particulate less than 2.5 microns in diameter, also known as fine particulate matter or PM2.5. It turns out that two years earlier, in 1997, the EPA had adopted a new rule addressing PM2.5 in outdoor air. It was the first time the EPA had put forth standards for fine particulate matter, and the authors of the Princeton report were quite pleased.

Before getting into the shortcoming of the EPA’s rule, the report does a very good job of educating its reader about airborne particle mass. Without getting into tremendous detail, suffice it to say that the greatest sources of outdoor PM2.5 are fossil fuel combustion by electric utilities, industry, and motor vehicles; residential fireplaces and wood stoves; burning vegetation; and the smelting or other processing of metals. Examples of natural PM2.5 include bacteria, viruses, and endotoxins (note: large quantities of the latter three are unfavorable in the air we breathe).

Although not addressed by the EPA, the report goes on to discuss indoor sources of PM2.5 and their impact on the overall lung-burden in the population. Indoor PM sources include cooking, incense burning, wood stoves, furnaces, and tobacco smoke. To a somewhat lesser degree, particles from insects, skin fragments, bacteria, mold and viruses contribute to the total PM impact.

Paul Lioy of the Environmental and Occupational Health Sciences Institute (EOSHI),is quoted as saying that indoor PM emissions could be from “two to three to four times higher” than outdoor emissions. “Therefore, if a person is on the edge [in terms of health risks],” Lioy said, “the variability from outdoor [sources] may be lifting you up, but the overwhelming dose is coming from the indoor source”. In other words, an individual with respiratory issues is more likely to be adversely affected by indoor air pollution than outdoor air pollution. The report concludes with, “the need for more research on indoor air pollution and the relationship between indoor and outdoor PM levels cannot be overstated.”

I hope that any indoor environmental consultants reading this will consider adding indoor airborne particulate measuring to their list of basic services. For more information on how you can get started in the measurement of airborne particulate, visit I am also happy to share a slideshow of a presentation about particulate measurement I gave at the 2007 IAQA Conference in Las Vegas.

Home Air Quality Issues After a Storm

Casey Radford earned a B.S. in atmospheric sciences and meteorology at North Carolina State University. Casey is the most recent addition to the ESG team.

In the immediate aftermath of Hurricane Sandy, it is difficult for us to know the exact repercussions of the storm. The death toll is climbing and power was lost for millions of homes, and it may be some time before we have a full idea of the destruction the ‘Storm of the Century’ has left in its wake. Early estimates put the cost of recovery to $50 billion, due mostly to lost business and property damage. [1]

A large portion of such damage is due to flooding. During severe weather, heavy rain can cause leaky roofs and flash flooding. However, the major culprit of coastal flooding during a hurricane is the associated storm surge. The surge’s enormous power corrodes beaches and buildings, as well as flooding homes.  Unfortunately, the worst is likely not over for the homeowners once the water recedes. The flooding leaves behind soaked structures and belongings. This damages lives in many ways, including indoor air quality.

According to the Environmental Protection Agency, after a flood the “standing water and wet materials are a breeding ground for microorganisms, such as viruses, bacteria, and mold.”[2] In addition, the lack of ventilation indoors after a power outage creates a perfect environment for growth.

After Hurricane Katrina in 2005, mold infestation was a severe issue. Weeks of high floodwaters in the warm climate caused widespread mold problems that were still being rectified years later.

Mold may not be the greatest or immediate worry for a homeowner after a disaster, but it is not a problem to be taken lightly. High levels of mold spores trigger asthma, allergies, and many other health issues. Even after thoroughly cleaning the home after a flood, mold may still be present in unseen areas such as behind drywall and in crawlspaces.

If your home is ever a victim of a flood, big or small, check out this publication by the EPA, which gives information and advice on flood cleanup as well as preventing indoor air quality issues. Consider hiring a professional to search and test your home for signs of mold growth. If you do have evidence of mold, be sure to take the necessary precautions to protect yourself and prevent contamination.