Floods And the Rising Threat of Toxic Molds
South Carolina researcher seeks to improve response to mold infestations by creating an inventory of solutions
In October 2015, the Carolinas experienced historic flooding. The rain pounded down off and on for four days, leading to 500 and 1,000 year flood events in some parts of South Carolina. The floods were driven by tropical moisture, a stalled offshore storm front, a nearby hurricane, and other increasingly common weather phenomena. Thousands of properties were damaged or destroyed.
In the still standing buildings, the mold set in. Mold infestations are a common occurrence after flooding due to the combination of standing water, moisture-rotten building materials, and overwhelmed families and emergency services having higher priorities than cleaning. Infestations that are hidden or left untreated can trigger asthma attacks, respiratory infections, and even fatalities in vulnerable people. Large, old public buildings like schools can be especially tricky, since their size can hide colonies for long periods of time and makes them difficult to clean.
Anindya Chanda, Assistant Professor and Director of The Integrative Mycology Laboratory at the University of South Carolina’s Arnold School of Public Health, saw the problem right away.
“I was more into cell biology then,” Chanda said. “I was mostly into a single fungal cells. But after [the floods] hit us, and we were seeing problems in buildings, I told myself I'm basically a mold biologist so I should step out of the box and start seeing what's going on.”
Chanda started close to home with university buildings, monitoring and precisely identifying mold species that cropped up after the floods. He realized that a comprehensive disaster recovery plan would require accurate mold identification, so he got in contact with Charles River’s Accugenix services, who specialize in microbial identification.
In order to treat mold growths effectively, it is crucial to know what kind of mold you are dealing with.
“The whole goal was to create an inventory,” Chanda said. “If we have an inventory, and if someone is trying to do some treatment, the question is will I spray with this one or that one? Because different molds respond to the chemicals differently, you cannot use the same chemicals for all molds.”
Chanda secured funding from the university and from a local mold remediation company, Water Tech LLC, allowing him to expand his mold sampling throughout the Charleston area. His lab would purify the samples through single spore isolation, growing uniform colonies on cell culture plates. He could do some phenotypic identification himself, but he needed Accugenix for the genomic barcoding identification.
“The whole proposal is based on raising awareness and building a mold resiliency in vulnerable communities,” he said. “And the whole goal is to teach those people how to easily collect mold samples, just to know whether they have a problem. And then they can come back to our inventory and check."
Chanda’s lab has started the inventory and is looking into funding to expand and host the results publicly. Chanda also hopes to hire someone to maintain the inventory and run experiments on the mold strains within, helping future mold remediation industries to narrow down on best practices for each strain.
The Next Phase
Chanda plans to publish research on how flooding affects mold species diversity, based on the results of his sampling in the Charleston area. He will also continue working on his mold inventory and hopes to find ways to make mold sampling easier for people affected by natural disasters. Since extreme weather events are increasing in frequency, he believes that South Carolina’s disaster relief procedures are due for an overhaul.
“We are seeing increasing flooding, earthquakes, and tornadoes, which will stir up the soil fungi, and they're going to be airborne,” Chanda said. “They're going to disturb your homes. There is no doubt whether you are in the east or in the west, that this is going to be a problem.”