Mould in the Workplace and Health Effects
Mould is a surprisingly common workplace problem and its presence can cause concern due to the potential health effects. Can it be a cause of health problems? What can employers do to resolve the issue?
What is Mould?
It is a fungus which, in order to grow, needs a food source (any organic material), moisture and a place to grow. Growth on surfaces can often be seen in the form of discolouration, frequently green, grey, brown, or black but also white and other colours, or cottony or speckled patterns on walls, ceilings or furniture. There may also be warping of floors, or an earthy, musty odour.
When moulds reproduce they release spores, which travel through the air, and can be inhaled. If indoor mould contamination is extensive, high airborne spore levels may exist. It is, therefore, possible for people to become exposed to moulds and their products.
Excessive mould can be a threat to health with occupants of damp or mouldy buildings at increased risk of experiencing health problems. Some people are more sensitive than others, and some groups (e.g. those with underlying health problems) are especially vulnerable.
Typical health issues include respiratory infections, allergic rhinitis and asthma. In some people an allergic reaction to fungal spores may take the form of a condition known as hypersensitivity pneumonitis or extrinsic allergic alveolitis. Symptoms that mould-exposed persons report (alone or in combination) include:
- Wheezing, difficulty breathing and shortness of breath.
- Nasal and sinus congestion.
- Eye irritation (burning, watery or reddened eyes).
- Dry, hacking cough.
- Nose or throat irritation.
- Skin rashes or irritation.
Allergic persons vary in their sensitivity to mould, both as to the amount and the types to which they react. For some people, a relatively small number of mould spores can trigger an asthma attack or lead to other health problems. For others, symptoms may occur only when exposure levels are much higher.
Eliminating the Risk
Employers or those in control of the premises should ensure measures are taken to eliminate health risks associated with moulds, particularly if employees are reporting the symptoms noted above and there are clear signs of mould in the building. The main actions to take are to:
- Detect and locate the source of the moisture problem that allows mould to develop.
- Remove any known mould infestations that have been found through visual inspection.
- Control excessive moisture and condensation, e.g. through improved ventilation.