IT comes in a variety of colors, shapes and forms, has a distinctive odor and is always in season if you live in Costa Rica. Mold is a subset of fungi that, unlike plants, does not have chlorophyll to produce energy. Molds are simple, microscopic organisms whose purpose in the ecosystem is to break down and consume dead materials.Molds can be found on every organic material imaginable as long as oxygen and water are present. Some molds are useful, such as those used to make antibiotics and cheese; yet people often underestimate or don’t realize the potential of mold as a disease- causing agent.While practicing in the United States, in cold and rainy Washington state, I assisted many patients who had the misfortune of cohabiting with invasive mold colonies. They came to me with complaints of headache, eyestrain, muscle aches, sensitivity to odors and chemicals, brain fog, memory deficit and fatigue. One even had atypical muscular seizures. Their symptoms diminished when away from the offending moldy environments. Other common symptoms of mold sensitivity include respiratory problems such as sneezing, sinusitis, irritated mucous membranes and asthmatic conditions. Chronic exposure may lead to more serious allergic conditions, including chemical sensitivities and neurologic problems such as slurred speech, dizziness and memory loss. Even death has been attributed to severe mold reactions.MOLD is often hidden, growing silently in walls, floors, attics and cooling or heating systems, and causing unexplained illness. It may show up around exposed plumbing, moist window ledges and the junctures of walls, floors and ceilings with stains and swelling of building materials. Any history of sewer backup, flooding, leaky roof or the existence of a musty, earthy or urine odor in a building are reasons to inspect closely for mold.Technically, it’s not the mold but rather the spores and mycotoxins produced by mold that pose health issues. Mold propagates itself by means of microscopic spores that float in the air looking for suitable material to grow on. Mycotoxins are mold-produced neurotoxins with unique chemical makeup, potency and effect, potentially harmful if inhaled, ingested or touched.Luckily, only a small percentage of mold species pose a health risk to humans. Especially vulnerable are those with existing allergy or respiratory problems or an immune-compromising illness.Each day, we inhale more than two tablespoons of airborne debris, including dust, spores and mycotoxins. Most of this is handled by the filtering ability of our respiratory systems, but, for some, this particulate matter creates serious problems, whether it’s alive or dead. With names like Stachybotrys or Aspergillus, and the need of a microscope to make accurate identification, mold can be a confusing subject, and people are often unaware of the nature and scope of the problem.IN most cases you won’t need professional help to correct the condition. Assume all mold is potentially harmful and take action.There is no practical way to completely eliminate mold in the indoor environment, but you can control it. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency offers these guidelines for mold control and cleanup of well-contained areas:–Reduce indoor humidity: vent bathrooms, dryers and other moisture-producing appliances and activities to the outside. Use clean and well-maintained dehumidifiers and air conditioners. Use exhaust fans when cooking.–If water leakage occurs, clean and dry all surfaces within 24-48 hours to prevent mold growth.–Clean mold off hard surfaces with soap and water, commercial products or bleach. If using bleach, follow product instructions to avoid injury. If you are sensitive to bleach, try borax. Use a stiff brush to remove mold from rough surfaces such as cement, and dry completely. Absorbent materials that are moldy may need to be replaced, as mold can extend its tentacles deep into porous surfaces.–Never use carpeting in areas of high moisture concentration. WHILE pursuing mold removal, mold-sensitive people may need to stay away from the cleanup area until the job is done.I have found that nettles, an herb available in most health food stores, provide natural antihistamine relief for the mold-sensitive.Freeze-dried nettles are best, taken according to manufacturer instructions. Silybum or milkthistle is anther herb to consider at the health food store. Milkthistle assists the liver in removing toxins from the body, an important consideration for those mycotoxins that can plague people.Additional resources on the Internet can be found on the Websites of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (www.cdc.gov) and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (www.epa.gov).Jon Dunn is a naturopathic physician living in Nosara, on the northern Pacific coast. E-mail questions or comments to firstname.lastname@example.org, or visit www.drjondunn.com.