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Attack of the Killer Mold

Toxic mold is becoming a serious problem nationwide. "Oh this is no hype. This is real. This is very real. And people get very ill from this," says Elena Walker, one of its victims.

Walker works at the Houston, Texas office of the IRS and says her job is taxing her health. "Three months after I began working, I broke out with hives. It [swelled] up my eyes. I looked like I'd been in a fight with Mike Tyson," Walker says. "It's not an allergy. It's a toxin. It's a poison."

Dr. Andrew Campbell of Spring, Texas, is one of only three toxicologists in the nation who specialize in treating mold-related diseases. "I have young people in their 20s with cancers," he says. Campbell says mycotoxins from mold can cause 5 types of cancer: kidney, liver, testicular, esophagus and leukemia.

There are more than 100,000 different kinds of mold and vast majority of it is harmless. But 24 species are truly dangerous, emitting mycotoxins from their spores. "So the ill effects that we feel, as humans, is the effects of these mycotoxins, not the molds," Campbell says.

Mold is not always visible to the eye. It may be hiding in the ceiling, which is the perfect breeding ground for mold. A leaking pipe provides the water, which triggers the mold growth. The cellulose in the ceiling tile makes a perfect food for the mold. And the air conditioning ductwork is a great way to spread the spores around a building.

Several Houston-area schools have been shut down because of mold. "And, of course, we see a lot of children, because unfortunately, school buildings are built by the lowest bidder," Campbell says. Experts think some behavioral problems in children can be Campbell agrees: "That agitation is sometimes misinterpreted as attention deficit disorder or attention deficit hyperactivity disorder."

The spores have been around for a long time, they just need moisture in order to grow and become dangerous. A small leak or a major flood can trigger an outbreak, which happened in Houston after Tropical Storm Allison. "That increased people's awareness because they got sick after the flood whereas they were fine before," Campbell says.

In order to prevent mold from growing, you should repair leaks immediately and replace anything that gets wet. "Unfortunately, that's all you can do for visible areas. The invisible areas can be just as lethal because it could be throughout your vents and you don't know it," Campbell says. Only a test can tell for sure. But experts say to remember that only a small percentage of molds are toxic.

"Consider this just like you would consider cancer: be afraid of it because it can do permanent danger to you," Walker says.

Campbell says, "Once you know what is wrong, then you can treat that instead of just treating symptoms. And yes, you get better."

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