Rutgers fungus expert Joan Bennett had always been a skeptic of "sick building syndrome” – the notion that the air in a building can be so toxic it makes people sick. Then the home she owned in New Orleans was flooded by Hurricane Katrina in 2005. While others would mourn their losses, Bennett got busy taking swabs of mold, intent on studying them back in New Jersey, where she and her husband had temporarily relocated. In collecting them, however, she said she immediately felt ill, despite wearing gloves, a mask and protective gear. The dizziness, headaches and nausea she experienced made her open to the possibility that small amounts of mold can harm people.
"The odor just made me feel horrible, and I thought, ‘Aha!’ Maybe there’s something in these gasses,” said Bennett, now a professor of plant biology and pathology at Rutgers. "I became a convert.”
From that research came today’s announcement she and her colleagues had located a chemical emitted by mold that gives fruit flies the symptoms of Parkinson’s disease. Bennett is now looking at the molds she collected in the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy to see what impact – if any – they might have on human health. Since there are thousands of species of mold, the ones she’s studied so far have been quite different from those she collected after Katrina, she said. Bennett received permission from FEMA to take mold samples last December and January from homes damaged by Sandy, and is now trying to identify the types of mold what they harmful chemicals, if any, they may emit.
While the Katrina mold showed up in hot weather and brackish water, Sandy’s molds grew in cold weather and salt water. They’re like nothing she’s seen before, she said. The Rutgers study exposed fruit flies to various chemicals emitted by molds. One particular mold – dubbed "mushroom alcohol” by the Japanese scientist who isolated it in the 1930s – had an immediate impact on the fruit flies, said Arati Inamdar, the researcher at Rutgers’ School of Environmental and Biological Sciences. The fruit flies displayed tremors, a slow gait, with postural imbalance and problems with locomotion – all consistent with the signs of Parkinson’s disease. "You can see all this on these flies that were exposed to this chemical,” she said. Further study showed the toxic chemical is able to block two important genes that regulate dopamine – the chemical that allows nerve cells to communicate. That finding gives doctors and pharmaceutical companies a roadmap for developing medicine to protect them.”That was really, really cool,” Inamdar said.
In their study, Inamdar said they tried to expose the fruit flies to chemicals at the level one would encounter in moldy buildings – not a super-dense dose that wouldn’t mimic any experience in the real world. Bennett said the small, trace amounts of mold people smell now and then are probably not enough to trigger the neurological damage of a hurricane-level amount of house mold. It’s only when people are continuously exposed in enclosed rooms or cellars that they might be affected. The chemical is a volatile organic compound called 1-octen-3-ol. It is also called "mushroom alcohol,” a translation from matsutake, the Japanese name for a type of mushroom. Bennett calls the vaporous compound "more toxic than industrial chemicals like benzene.”
While it’s just speculation on her part, Bennett said she thinks the fact that people universally find the smell of mold to be unpleasant is perhaps an evolutionary signal to tell us it’s dangerous.” All of us find the odor unpleasant,” she said. "Maybe it’s our noses telling us, ‘Hey, this dust isn’t good for us.”