What Are Mycotoxins?

You’ve probably heard that exposure to mold may cause health concerns such as allergic reactions and asthma-like symptoms. However, many people who have tested negative for mold allergies still react to mold – and the mycotoxins that the mold produces. But, what exactly are these mycotoxins? How do they damage our health? And above all, how can we protect ourselves from them? 

This article will describe mycotoxins, where they are found, and their possible effects on health and indoor air quality.

What are Mycotoxins & Where Are They Found? 

Let’s start at the beginning, with molds. 

Molds are a group of fungi that produce airborne spores. In the natural environment, molds are powerful decomposers that recycle nature’s organic waste. In medicine, molds are used to create antibiotics like Penicillin and a long list of medications, including Ergotamine, used to treat migraines. Other molds and fungi are considered delicacies, like certain cheeses or edible mushrooms. However, when certain molds invade our environment, they can wreak havoc on our health and homes. 

Mycotoxins are chemicals produced by fungi. They are found wherever there is mold; however, not all molds produce dangerous mycotoxins. Certain species produce more mycotoxins than others, with indoor and outdoor molds having the ability to do so. Mold needs three things to grow: viable spores, the right level of humidity and warmth, and a “food source” (or material) for it to grow, which is usually organic material or material that comes from living matter. For instance, when there is water intrusion in your home, whether it's from flood damage or even a minor leak, within 48 hours, mold spores that have been dormant or have come from outside will start to feed on the wet materials in your home. These mold spores produce mold toxins called mycotoxins. 

Mycotoxins can thrive under the right conditions, with high temperatures and moisture being the major determining factors. However, just as molds thrive in varying conditions, mycotoxins thrive as well. It’s also important to note that mycotoxin production may overlap when considering different molds. For example, some Aspergillus species thrive in lower humidity and produce the "Aflatoxin” family of mycotoxins. Places with higher humidity tend to be the perfect breeding ground for Stachybotrys chartarum (also known as “black mold”), which produces other families of mycotoxins. 

When there is a mold infestation in a home or building, the contaminated areas also become breeding grounds for bacteria that produce toxins called endotoxins. The mold and bacteria infiltrate surfaces in the home and begin to release volatile organic compounds (VOCs), and this contaminated air circulates through the home or building. 

Why exactly do mycotoxins exist? It’s a mystery that no one has yet solved. We do know that as many as 300,000 mycotoxins may exist. To date, more than 400 mycotoxins have been described. And, while mycotoxins are not required for mold to grow, some experts speculate they act as a defense mechanism for fungi, allowing it to more easily infect a host – whether human, animal, plant or other organic material. Mycotoxins can harm any organism that competes with the mold itself for space or nutrition; this even includes different molds. Mycotoxin production may increase when you have various molds competing for an environment.

With hundreds of thousands of unique mycotoxins, we won’t know for sure how many are harmful until the research has been done. According to the World Health Organization (WHO), there are currently a handful of mycotoxins of serious concern due to their severe effects on human health. These include:

  • Aflatoxins
  • Ochratoxin A
  • Patulin
  • Fusariums 
  • Trichothecenes 

Mycotoxins in Agriculture 

Outdoor molds and mycotoxins have long impacted the agriculture industry around the world. As a result, most of what we know about mycotoxins has been a direct effect of research done to combat mycotoxins in the food chain. In fact, the United States spends upwards of $932 million every year to combat mycotoxins in agriculture. The WHO is part of an international body that evaluates the health impact of mycotoxins and other natural toxins. Mycotoxins appear in the food chain when crops become infected with mold, either before or after the harvest.

According to the WHO, molds that produce mycotoxins can grow in stored food products, including:

  • Fruits
  • Cereals 
  • Spices
  • Grains
  • Nuts
  • Legumes
  • Coffee beans 

Mycotoxins in Indoor Environments 

Research on mold expanded beyond the agricultural industry to the presence of mold and mycotoxins indoors in the early 1990s. Though the most common concern around indoor mold is allergies and asthma, people may be exposed to mycotoxins by breathing in mold spores, fragments, or even contaminated dust. Some people are extremely sensitive to mycotoxins. Some of the molds that can produce harmful mycotoxins may be found in moisture-damaged buildings or buildings that contain high levels of contaminated construction dust. 

What Are the Effects of Mycotoxins on Human and Animal Health? 

A disease caused by mycotoxins is called mycotoxicosis. The effects of mycotoxicosis can either be acute, leading to severe symptom development after a short exposure to high doses or chronic, which is the result of long-term exposure to small quantities of the toxin. According to the WHO, some mycotoxins are genotoxic, meaning they can damage DNA and cause cancer in animal species. There is also evidence that they can cause liver cancer in humans. The effects of mycotoxins on our health are complex and impacted by many factors, including the toxicity of the mycotoxin, as well as the age of the subject, nutrition, and interactions with certain diseases, other mycotoxins, and/or substances.

According to the Council for Agricultural Science and Technology (CAST), the oldest recognized mycotoxicosis of humans is Ergotism caused by the plant-parasitic fungus, Claviceps purpurea. After periodic outbreaks in central Europe, the disease became epidemic in the Middle Ages, where it was known as St. Anthony’s Fire.

Symptoms of exposure to mycotoxins can range widely, as suggested by author and practicing physician Neil Nathan M.D., author of Mold and Mycotoxins, Current Evaluation & Treatment (2016). According to Nathan, symptoms may include: 

  • Fatigue
  • Weakness
  • Muscle aches and cramps 
  • Headaches
  • Unusual pains (“ice pick” or “lightning bolt”)
  • Abdominal pain 
  • Nausea 
  • Diarrhea
  • Sensitivity to bright light, tearing, blurred vision
  • Chronic sinus congestion
  • Cough, chest pain, shortness of breath
  • Joint pain with morning stiffness
  • Cognitive impairment
  • Skin sensitivity to light touch
  • Appetite swings
  • Weight gain
  • Mood swings
  • Numbness and tingling, often in unusual patterns
  • Night sweats
  • Frequent urination
  • Temperature dysregulation
  • Sensitivity to static electrical shocks
  • Metallic taste in the mouth
  • Excessive thirst 

How Can You Avoid Exposure to Mycotoxins? 

You can take steps to help avoid exposure to mold and mycotoxins – and Vital Oxide is your secret weapon against both. Vital Oxide harnesses the power of oxygen – in the form of Chlorine Dioxide (ClO2) – to eliminate molds on a molecular level, neutralizing spores and inhibiting fungal growth without damaging the surfaces treated. Vital Oxide is also tested and proven effective in neutralizing a range of mycotoxins. Unlike traditional cleaners and disinfectants that are only effective on hard, non-porous surfaces, Vital Oxide can also penetrate surfaces like carpets, upholstery, drywall, grout, concrete, and wood – and destroy the roots of tough mold and mildew

The moment you spot mold around your home, it’s time to take action. For small areas of household mold, first, find and repair any sources of excess moisture and make sure the room is adequately ventilated. Next, remove all visible mold (a scrub brush, water, and Vital Oxide works well) and then thoroughly rinse with water. Finally, spray the affected area liberally with Vital Oxide (full-strength, do not dilute for mold removal) from a distance of 12 inches until visibly wet and allow it to air dry. Vital Oxide has a residual effect on mold and mold spores for up to one month on fabrics and one week on hard surfaces with a single treatment.

Using Vital Oxide to regularly clean and disinfect areas around the home that are often in contact with water (for instance, your shower and kitchen sink) can neutralize mold spores before they become an issue. 

Related: How to Get Rid of Mold From Every Home Surface

Keep in mind that mold infestations may not always be obvious. It’s essential to be mindful of signs pointing toward water damage (musty smells, staining, standing water, condensation, warped floor and walls, peeling paint, etc.). If you suspect an extensive mold infestation in your home, it’s best to hire a professional who is trained in mold cleanup. Some molds (and the mycotoxins they produce) are highly toxic. Even less dangerous molds can cause problems for people with allergies or those with compromised immune systems or respiratory issues. 

Generally, the rule of thumb is to seek the help of a professional if the mold covers ten or more square feet, as removing large mold colonies requires specialized equipment and tools. Local public health departments can offer advice on mold testing and refer you to an expert mold remover. Always err on the side of caution when it comes to significant mold issues.

Learn more about using Vital Oxide for mold remediation and restoration here. 

We’re proud to offer a revolutionary disinfectant solution that effectively eliminates tough mold and mildew without the use of harsh chemicals. For additional cleaning and disinfecting tips, be sure to follow us on Instagram (@vitaloxideofficial). If you have any questions or concerns, please do not hesitate to Contact Us. We're here to help.

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