The Hidden Threat to Lung Health in Houston

Presented by: Dr. Ruby Abriol, ALA and Tammy Hirsh, HCSC

The waters have returned to their normal levels. The city has shifted from the chaos of the flood to a mode of steady progress to rebuild after Hurricane Harvey destroyed nearly 135,000 homes and numerous businesses, schools, churches and roads.  

In addition to the physical destruction, there are a few lingering remnants of the impact of the flood -- including the health of Houston’s citizens.  

They may not be visible, but the leftover dirt and debris circulating in the air are causing lung irritation. The debris and mold may also act as an asthma trigger. 

  Subtle symptoms like red itchy eyes or a tickle in the back of the throat can be the result of exposure to allergens. According to Dr. Rubina Abrol, asthma program manager at the American Lung Association, the air quality is so poor people who haven’t had problems with allergies are now having them. “And for those living with allergies, they can get worse over time.”  

“Not only are allergens an issue for residents, but some Houston area providers and community health workers are seeing an uptick in patients with asthma symptoms, including some people who may not have been previously diagnosed with asthma,” she says. 

Monitoring the daily air quality can help people prepare and manage potential flare ups. The American Lung Assocation offers a free app, State of the Air, to display the day’s color-coded EPA Air Quality Index by location, featuring both ozone and particulate pollution counts.  

Another serious threat to lung health from the receded flood waters is indoor mold. While some people who are exposed to mold don’t have any problems, others, especially those with asthma or serious lung conditions, can have health problems triggered by mold.  Research suggests that exposure to molds may increase the risk of developing asthma. Additionally, exposure to mold can lead to a greater risk of developing colds or upper respiratory tract symptoms. 

Mold living in damp areas like walls and recessed places can lead to allergy attacks, asthma flare-ups, and sinusitis symptoms. Mold requires moisture to grow. The mold makes tiny spores to reproduce, just like plants make seeds. The spores then drift through the air, where they can be inhaled.  

Telltale evidence of molds includes leaks, visible moisture, a musty odor, and water stains in places like showers, leaky plumbing, basements, and attics. Moldy items made from absorbent or porous materials, such as carpet and ceiling tiles, need to be tossed out. 

“While everything is dried up outside, we are worried about mold because it likes to hide,” Dr. Abrol says, “People who have returned to live back in their homes need to be aware of mold. Mold can be hiding in the insulation, behind the base boards, anywhere damp or wet.  If there is mold in the house, people may start exhibiting irritated lungs and/or allergy symptoms.” 

Allergy symptoms can include: 

  • Sneezing
  • Itchy, watery eyes
  • Itchy nose, mouth, and lips
  • Runny or stuffy nose

Also at risk are the community health workers and volunteers who are helping to clean out houses. Dr. Abrol says a N95 mask with special filter is still relatively inexpensive. “Better safe than sorry,” she says. “We want to make sure they are protecting their lung health.” 

  The Environmental Protection Agency recommends consulting a mold removal professional if mold covers more than 10 square feet. To get the cleanup underway, scrub mold off hard surfaces with soap and water. Then dry the surface completely.  

Once the mold is out, these steps may help to prevent it from sneaking back in: 

  • Use an exhaust fan or open a window when cooking, washing dishes, and showering.
  • Vent clothes dryers to the outside.
  • Run an air conditioner or dehumidifier if it gets too humid inside. The humidity level can be checked with a hygrometer, sold in hardware stores. Aim for an indoor humidity level of 30 to 60 percent.

HCSC and the American Lung Association have been collaborating to help improve asthma rates in the community since 2012. Learn more about our initiatives at Taking on Asthma.

Sources: Environmental Protection Agency; Centers for Disease Control and Prevention 

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