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Floods, Mold, Cancer, and the Politics of Public Health

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Floods, Mold, Cancer, and the Politics of Public Health
By Ritt Goldstein
Copyright April 2009 

First Published at Common Dreams


It’s spring, and flooding is again making headlines; though, the ’sick building’ and mold issues inevitably following in flooding’s wake have become somewhat better appreciated.   But disturbingly highlighting the imperatives of such awareness, recently published  research has – for the first time – shown the high cost of what the sickness that comes of ’sick buildings’ can mean, with the potential for long-lasting disability now being a documented fact.   

According to a ground breaking Swedish study appearing in The International Archives of Occupational and Environmental Health,  45% of  so-called ’Sick Building Syndrome’ (SBS) victims - treated at hospital clinics - no longer have the capacity to work.  Twenty percent of these sufferers are receiving disability pensions, 25% are “on the sick-list”.  Emphasizing SBS’s devastating potential, the study warned that the possibilitiy “of having no work capabilities at follow up was significantly increased if the time from (SBS) onset to first visit at the hospital clinic was more than 1 year. This risk was also significantly higher if the patient at the first visit had five or more symptoms.”

It’s unfortunate that knowledge of the serious nature of SBS has not emerged sooner.  But, as highlighted by the US Department of Veteran’s Affairs during last Fall’s revelations upon Gulf War Illness, sometimes political and economic considerations affect health policy, leading to a serious health issue long being “denied” or “trivialized”.

‘Sick Building Syndrome’ – more precisely termed non-specific building-related illness – is typically a product of breathing indoor-air contaminated by mold and/or chemical toxins.  Its symptoms can include: mucus-membrane irritation, neurotoxic effects, respiratory symptoms, skin symptoms, gastrointestinal complaints, and chemosensory changes.  And while the malady has been increasingly seen since the 1970’s, when energy concerns led to the reduction of indoor ventilation by as much as two thirds, this study is thought to be the first occasion when the problem has been demonstrated as a chronic condition with environmental causes. 

The study was performed by scientists at the Academic Hospital of the University of Umeå, in Northern Sweden, and was based upon locally derived data.  But while differences in disability laws and culture may exist between any two nations, as the study strongly observed: “symptoms aggravated by environmental factors exist within this group of patients. The results support that early and comprehensive measures for rehabilitation are essential”.

While SBS manifests itself in buildings with poor design, construction, or ventilation, the majority of problems have been tied to moisture buildup, with potentially devastating mold issues typically arising from this.  But even with the best of buildings, flooding means that areas such as New Orleans saw an explosion of cases in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina.   

Unfortunately, even problems more serious than SBS can occur through mold, the US Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) website explicitly warning that the inhalation of mycotoxins (toxins naturally occurring in some species of molds) has been reported to cause maladies that include cancer.  Illustrating what this can mean,
recent Swedish headlines shocked the Scandinavian Peninsula with news of just such a cancer outbreak.  

Strömbackaskola, a high school in the Northern city of Piteå, was the scene of the cancer cluster.  In the worst affected area, about 40% of the employees have been stricken with the disease, with the local paper headlining “The mold in the school is cancer causing”, a national headline reading “Mold in school gives teachers cancer”. 

Though the cancer cases began appearing years ago, and its cause was earlier investigated, it was only recently that ‘toxic black mold’, Stachybotrys, was found in the affected areas. 

Perhaps even more disturbing, while some claim tragedies like this are unforeseeable, others see them born of a misguided defense of past mistakes, with indifference, and even occasional tactics of intimidation, nurturing tragedy.  No land is immune to the temptations of politics and economics.

While an American, I live in Sweden, and have for the last twelve years.  Perhaps because Sweden isn’t a large nation, Swedes social activism, their relationship with their government, communities, and each other, is considerably stronger than that I once knew.  But, despite this...

In an article published this summer upon Sweden’s ‘sick schools’, in Scandinavia
’s largest daily, Aftonbladet, I had emphasized that mold can indeed cause maladies ranging from asthma to cancer.  But as early as 1997, Stockholm’s papers were already broaching questions of ’sick building’ related cancers, questions which seem to have been ignored.

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I am an American investigative political journalist living in Sweden, and have lived in Sweden since July 1997. My work has appeared fairly widely, including in America's Christian Science Monitor, Spain's El Mundo, Sweden's Aftonbladet, Austria's (more...)
The views expressed herein are the sole responsibility of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of this website or its editors.
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