Mould in your home can kill as actress Brittany Murphy’s death linked to fungus in LA mansion
By DAVID HURST
UPDATED: 03:08 EST, 30 March 2013
Tragic death: At the time of her death, there were rumours that the 32-year-old actress had died of a drug overdose or an eating disorder
A more unlikely end to the Hollywood dream could not seem possible – but this week it was reported that the deaths of actress Brittany Murphy and her British screenwriter husband Simon Monjack might have been caused by mould growing in their luxury Los Angeles home.
Murphy, who starred in such films as Clueless and Sin Sity, was only 32 when she died last December – at the time there was speculation her death was linked to drug abuse or an eating disorder.
When Monjack died in May at the age of 40, his death was blamed on heart failure. Now, in both cases, the cause of death has been recorded as pneumonia and anaemia, and experts have suggested mould could be to blame, damaging the couple’s respiratory systems.
U.S. public health officials are said to be inspecting the mansion Murphy and Monjack lived in.
It may seem extraordinary, but in fact mould in the home is a common health problem, affecting tens of thousands of people in the UK, explains Malcolm Richardson, Professor of medical mycology (the study of mould) at the University of Manchester.
‘Britain is especially prone to moulds, due to it being damp and cold so often, and because a lot of the housing is old,’ he says.
‘Yet compared with countries such as America and Finland, there’s not much awareness of mould or the health damage it can cause – it can be fatal.’
There are hundreds of thousands of types of mould, he says, but only about ten types cause health problems, commonly sinusitis, bronchitis and other respiratory conditions, as well as allergies.
Mould is a form of fungus which forms anywhere there’s moisture trapped in the air — typically around showers, dishwashers, washing machines, tumbledryers and in kitchens, although it is also often found in the moist soil of pot plants.
Any flooding is likely to lead to mould. If it is growing rapidly, the evidence will be visible in months – but it can take years to form and to be noticed.
‘The common places for mould to grow in houses is wallpaper, flooring, behind wall tiles and on window frames,’ explains Professor Richardson.
He adds: ‘It can form in any poorly ventilated house, no matter how grand or ordinary, but it’s especially likely where there is moisture leaking.’
A leaking radiator is often a mould hotspot – you may not even be able to see that a radiator is leaking, but even a small leak can be enough to wet the back wall and the carpet beneath.
Professor Roy Watling, an authority on fungi and formerly head of mycology at the Royal Botanic Garden, Edinburgh, says: ‘When you walk around on the damp carpet, mould spores are released into the atmosphere, which you can then inhale.
Under investigation: U.S. public health officials are looking at the LA home of Monjack, 40, and Murphy – after both died of respiratory problems and anemia
‘Normally the immune system detects the spores and helps you to get rid of them by coughing or sneezing.
‘But some people with poorer immune systems are unable to reject the spores, and so they germinate in their lung tissue, causing inflammation.
‘Those most at risk of health problems caused by household moulds are children and babies, the elderly and those in poor health.’
Breathing in mould spores can have one of two effects – it can cause an infection, which usually strikes people with a weakened immune system.
More than coincidence: Simon Monjack died five months after the death of his wife Murphy. Both deaths have been linked to respiratory problems
‘Mould is an opportunistic fungus, and grows aggressively in the body, stopping the organs working properly – so it can be lethal,’ says Professor Richardson.
Mould can also cause allergic reactions, particularly asthma, as the immune system reacts to the spores when they make their way into the upper airways and sinuses.
Symptoms of a mould problem include coughing, constant tiredness, eye and throat irritation, headaches, skin irritation or nausea.
TIPS TO PROTECT YOUR HOUSE
- The best way to prevent mould is to open windows every day, use extractor fans and repair anywhere damp is getting in or lingering – such as roofs, cracked wall tiles and windows. ‘Once mould has formed bleach is the best way to get rid of it,’ says Professor Richardson. ‘There are biocides – a pesticide for fungus – that are effective. You do have to be careful with these as they in themselves can be dangerous to health.’
- You can also scrub down black moulds in the bathroom or kitchen with a copper fungicide, found at garden centres, adds Professor Watling. These can be diluted and dabbed on affected areas.
- In bathrooms and kitchens, use paints that contain mould inhibitors, says Professor Watling.
- In lofts, wasp, and bird nests can be prime spots for mould formation. Spores in lofts can drift down into bedrooms. Contact environmental agencies for help.
For Christine and John Frost, from mansfield in Derbyshire, it comes as no surprise to learn that mould can have a devastating effect on health.
Christine, 62, first noticed black mould on a wall in their living room three-and-a-half years ago.
Environmental health experts told her that the bungalow they have lived in for seven years was riddled with two types of mould due to condensation.
‘The mould had spread everywhere except the bedroom. It was even in our carpets, curtains and some of our furniture that was only a few years old,’ she says.
She adds: ‘We had to get rid of our armchairs, even though you couldn’t see the mould because it was inside. It was heartbreaking.
‘I was told that it was caused by moisture in the air due to cooking and bathing, but I have windows open all day, even on the coldest days.’
John, 77, a former transport manager, has suffered from chronic obstructive pulmonary disease for eight years, a progressive illness that affects the lungs and makes it hard to breathe.
The mould problem in his home has been extremely worrying. As his wife, a retired traffic warden explains, this means breathing in mould through the air in their home ‘could be lethal’.
‘At one point our doctor told John to stay in his bedroom because it was too dangerous for him to breathe the air in the rest of our house,’ she says.
‘Last year, I also developed a dreadful cough which hasn’t gone away. I’ve never had a cough like this before.
‘The mould in our house totally destroyed us. It was just horrendous.’
Then, last year the couple had their roof retiled and the mould miraculously disappeared. The Frosts’ home has now been mould-free for several months.
It means John can access the entire house, but both he and Christine still have the health problems that they believe mould caused or exacerbated.
‘Lots of people have mould in this country, and it can cause a lot of health problems as it’s always in the air.‘If only we’d known the risks, we’d have had the roof done sooner,’ she says.