August 2nd, 2011
12:18 PM ET
When infants are exposed to mold in the home, their risk for developing asthma more than doubles, according to a study published Tuesday in the Annals of Allergy, Asthma & Immunology. The study doesn't prove mold causes asthma, but it does suggest that exposure to mold during infancy is linked to the development of chronic inflammation of the lung airways, which causes wheezing, shortness of breath, chest tightness, and coughing.
Previous studies have shown that mold spores can travel, according to lead study author Tiina Reponen, a professor of environmental health at the University of Cincinnati. But she says this is the first study to suggest mold exposure in children under the age of one seems to play a critical role in a child developing asthma. The risk went up even more if one of the parents had asthma, according to the research.
This study is part of a larger research project called the Cincinnati Childhood Allergy and Air Pollution Study.
Researchers visited the homes of babies born in Cincinnati, Ohio, and Northern Kentucky back in 2001 to 2003, where at least one parent was allergic to at least one of 15 common airborne allergen. The homes of 176 children were inspected for mold when they were 1 and 7 years old. Half of the homes had visible mold and the other half didn't, says Reponen. All the children were offered allergy tests at age 1, 2, 3, 4 and 7. Researchers inspected the homes by looking for and smelling for mold and also by taking dust samples from the room where each child spend most of his or her time. The dust samples then underwent DNA testing for 36 different mold species from that sample, using a standardized tool developed by the EPA.
The study authors found that if children were exposed to mold as infants, they were at a significantly increased risk for asthma at 7 years of age. Being exposed to mold as a child at about 7 years old, (which is when children are old enough to have proper lung-function tests to get a more accurate diagnoses), doesn't seem to predict if a child will get asthma. Neither was the presence of a dehumidifier, carpets, age of the home or visible mold.
However, Reponen says the results from the dust samples show "it's the mold you can't see that is a risk factor."
"Damp environments are not healthy environments," Dr. James Sublett, chairman of the Indoor Environments Committee for the American College of Allergy, Asthma & Immunology, who was not involved with this study.
The research suggests that expectant parents or families with babies should try to eliminate any situation that can lead to mold growing.
Sublett, who is an expert on the effects of air pollution on human health and the section chief of Pediatric Allergy at the University of Louisville School of Medicine, says if you're aware of a moisture problem, get it fixed. Just because you can't see mold doesn't mean it isn't there. Moisture could be building up in the home because of a leaky roof or broken pipe, flooding in the basement, or simply from the steam in your bathroom. "If you are in a situation where humidity is trapped in your home, you have a higher risk of mold exposure." He adds that moisture can also accumulate from something as simple as an overflowing gutter or leaky windows.
Children who got asthma tended to live in homes lacking air conditioning, which can help keep moisture levels down. According to the Environmental Protection Agency, if you can see mold, you don't need to test for it.
However, if you've had water damage and can't see any mold yet but want to be sure, the EPA suggests hiring a professional to do the testing. Sublett suggests having one expert test for mold and hiring someone else to do the clean-up if mold is found. "You want to disconnect the detection process with the fixing process to avoid a conflict of interest," he says.
If you suspect your child may have been exposed to mold and shows symptoms of asthma, Sublett suggests getting a referral to a board-certified allergist, who can evaluate potential risks a child may have been exposed to, identify which mold a child may be allergic to and develop a treatment plan.
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