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Mold: a common asthma trigger

Mold: a common asthma trigger
Raoul Jacques (left) from the Breathe Easy at Home program discusses the results of a home inspection with Mary White. (Photo: Courtesy Boston Public Health Commission)

It wasn’t the 110 inches of snow in Boston that bothered Mary White. It was the mold it caused from roof damage. All three of her children have asthma, and mold is a trigger. “We were back and forth to the emergency room,” she said.

White was referred to the Breathe Easy at Home program, a department within Boston Inspectional Services Department. The program is a joint effort among several players: patients, clinicians, landlords and inspectors from the program. If clinicians suspect something in the home is contributing to multiple flare-ups, emergency department visits or hospitalizations, they can request an appointment.

The inspectors look for violations of the state sanitary code for housing. Their targets in particular are moisture, mold, cockroaches and mice, all of which can trigger asthma attacks.

The repairs to White’s ceilings were made in two months, but mice posed another temporary setback. That is not unusual. A study found that 82 percent of homes in the United States — regardless of their location — had mouse allergens, which can cause asthma symptoms. The inspector checked all the spots that mice tend to favor — behind the refrigerator, behind the stove and in all the cabinets. Mice enter homes through cracks and holes in walls, floors and foundation. Specialists in pest control warn that a hole the size of a dime is all that’s necessary for a mouse to enter. If the head fits the body easily follows.

Although cats are nature’s mouse predator, that wasn’t an option for White because of allergies. Her family is allergic to pet dander, or dried flakes of skin that cats shed. She chose instead Integrated Pest Management, an environmentally friendly, common sense approach to controlling pests. IPM, which is favored by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, emphasizes prevention techniques and use of cleaners less detrimental to humans and the environment.

Rather than sprays and poisons she used copper mesh to seal cracks and holes and door sweeps to block entry under doors. She stores sponges in plastic containers and is quick to clean up crumbs and spills. “Small amounts of water and a crumb are a feast [for a mouse],“ she said. Baking soda and lemon juice to clean counters and stoves have replaced caustic cleaners.

The inspection is over but the lessons learned are not. White ticks off a number of tricks. “Keep the vent in the bathroom running a little longer after the shower,” she advised. “It helps absorb the moisture.” She runs the vent over her stove when cooking. Kitchen vents remove fumes, smoke, odors, heat and steam. Vents can remove triggers, but deposit them as well. She cleans them regularly to prevent dust buildup. She traded her carpets for bare floors.

She doesn’t use candles or air fresheners. Windows are closed when the pollen count is high. Smoking is not allowed.

White, who is a Parent Asthma Leader, said she urges other families with asthma to take a room-by-room assessment to root out triggers. If you can’t do it alone, request an inspection by Inspectional Services, she advised.

White is not shy about speaking up. “I listen,” she said. “And then I ask questions.”

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