As climate change chugs on and coastal cities endure hurricane flooding year after year, mold is flourishing in the hot, damp aftermath, bringing complaints of mold-induced illness. But is mold really what’s making us sick? As Peter Andrey Smith reports at Topic, even scientist Joan Bennett — who has dedicated her life to studying fungi — was unable to prove that the mold farm that invaded her home post-Hurricane Katrina caused her headaches.
In August 2005, Hurricane Katrina made landfall on the Gulf Coast, flooding the city of New Orleans. Bennett and her husband fled with their three Brittany spaniels, and, after temporarily finding refuge at a country home in southern Louisiana, they drove north to New Jersey with their carload of dogs, uncertain whether their home would be destroyed or if Bennett would still have a job when they returned. Five weeks later, in October, Bennett returned to find that the floodwaters had receded from her neighborhood of Broadmoor, and although the half-century-old azaleas remained, the once-green bushes that lined her street had shriveled up and turned brown. Inside her and her husband’s home, things were even worse: almost every surface had transformed into a fungal utopia, cloaked in a fuzzy blanket of mold.
Unsurprisingly, Bennett had brought along petri dishes and sterile sampling equipment. It took her hours to sample her home. “The part of the story that I didn’t expect was that it made me feel sick to be in the house,” she says. A rug disintegrated in her hands and she lamented the destruction of her personal items, including a four-volume set of The Feynman Lectures on Physics. “The house smelled horrible, horrible, horrible,” she continues. “It had been closed up for a month, and these fungi had been in there eating my carpets, eating my books, eating my furniture, and putting out their metabolites—some of which were aroma compounds.”
Bennett is cautious. “There’s a lot of, you know, smoke around this,” she says. “There are people who claim that their mold-damaged houses are what has caused memory loss and neurodegenerative symptoms. To my knowledge, there’s no solid science backing that up, but I wish there was.”