Is Fungus the Cleaning Industry’s Next Biggest Challenge?
Fungal pathogens could become a bigger problem in an increasingly warm, wet, and ill world.
In 2020, the cleaning industry began its battle against COVID-19. In 2022, it dealt with the threat of mpox (monkeypox). Will 2023 be the year of the fungus?
According to a recent article by CNN, fungal pathogens, such as mold, are increasing and could become worse due to warmer and wetter conditions worldwide and a growing number of immunocompromised human beings.
Not all fungi are a life-threatening threat to humans, but most are extremely contagious and cause at least bothersome conditions, such as athlete’s foot, ringworm, thrush, and dandruff. Others, however, can be toxic and deadly, especially to people who have a suppressed immune system or pre-existing lung disease. According to the Microbiology Society, about 1.5 million people die globally from fungi infections every year.
In October 2022, the World Health Organization (WHO) released for the first time ever a list of health-threatening fungal pathogens, which noted that fungi are become more and more resistant to medications.
“Fungal pathogens are a major threat to public health as they are becoming increasingly common and resistant to treatment, with only four classes of antifungal medicines currently available and few candidates in the clinical pipeline,” the WHO release stated. “Most fungal pathogens lack rapid and sensitive diagnostics, and those that exist are not widely available or affordable globally.”
Types of Fungi Plaguing Facilities
According to the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH), mold is a fungal growth that forms and spreads on various kinds of damp or decaying organic matter. As a facility manager or business service contractor, you might already be familiar with what’s commonly referred to as black mold, also known as Stachybotrys chartarum (S chartarum)—a greenish-black mold that grows on material with a high cellulose content, such as fiberboard, gypsum board, and paper. Growth occurs when there is constant moisture occurring, typically from water damage, water leaks, condensation, water infiltration, or flooding. Molds such as S. chararum produce mycotoxins, which are hazardous to humans.
Another fungi that can plague facilities, particularly those providing health care, is Candida auris (C. auris), a highly contagious yeast that can exist on surfaces and medical equipment. According to CNN, the behavior of C. auris is more like that of a bacteria than a fungus, with the ability to become resistant to medications and cleaning disinfectants. “We’ve seen it become resistant to all three classes of antifungals, making it a superbug, making it really untreatable, because there is no drug that kills it,” Dr. Tom Chiller, chief of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s (CDC) Mycotic Diseases Branch, told CNN.
Yet another fungus appears to have escaped facilities out into the public. A recent article by Insider reported that barrel houses owned by liquor distiller company Jack Daniel’s have been releasing a very noticeable “whiskey fungus” into Tennessee community—drawing complaints from local residents. The black-colored mold, known as Baudoinia compniacensis, is produced by the ethanol vapor generated by the Jack Daniel’s barrel houses. The mold has been smothering residential property, cars, and street signs since the construction of six barrel houses in 2018—and another 14 barrel houses are planned to be built.
People living in the affected area of Lincoln County, Tennessee are now questioning the quality of the air they breathe. One of those residents, Patrick Long, has since filed a lawsuit against the county. Long told Insider that he spends about US$10,000 a year to power-wash his house with water and bleach to get rid of the black substance. He also claimed that local authorities have given up cleaning the mold off of street signs; they now simply remove and replace the signs when they become too blackened.
In 2021, CNN reported on yet another fungi outbreak, this one in India, which was affecting many of those whose immune system was already weakened by COVID-19. Around 85% of the 45,000 Indians affected by mucormycosis (also known as black fungus) were COVID-19 patients. The infection, which carries a mortality rate of more than 50%, causes skin and bone to blacken and rot, risking permanent damage to the face and the loss of vision.
What Can Be Done
According to NIOSH, it’s important to first understand that no indoor space, including surgical operating rooms, is completely free from mold spores. Fungi are everywhere, making exposure virtually unavoidable. However, there are several things can be done to decrease exposure and lower the risk of illness from fungal infections.
The biggest way to prevent fungi growth is to eliminate moisture. The CDC suggests:
- Controlling humidity levels to between 30% and 50% all day long
- Promptly fixing leaky roofs, windows, and pipes
- Thoroughly cleaning and drying after flooding
- Ventilating showering, laundry, and cooking areas
- Avoiding the use of carpeting in high-moisture rooms.
But, if you find that you do have an issue with fungi in your facility, the CDC recommends the following:
- Eliminate any moisture from the affected area, as previously outlined, as quickly as possible
- Remove and replace all affected items, especially soft items such as upholstering and carpeting, but also insulation, ceiling tiles, drywall, or wallboard
- Be mindful of heating, ventilation, and air conditioning (HVAC) systems that have been flooded, as they will need special consideration due to moisture contamination
- Follow up removal by cleaning hard surfaces (such as flooring, molding, wood and metal furniture, countertops, and sinks) within the affected area with commercial cleaning products, soap and water, or a bleach solution of no more than 1 cup (8 ounces) of bleach in 1 gallon of water to kill mold on surfaces
- Finish by completing drying the area.
If using bleach, workers should make sure that the area is well ventilated. Bleach should never be mixed with ammonia, vinegar, or other household cleaners. Workers using bleach should also wear appropriate personal protection, such as gloves, goggles, and masks.
If you have an extensive amount of mold in your facility and you do not think you can manage the cleanup on your own, you might want to contact a professional with experience in cleaning mold in buildings. To learn more about the complexities of mold mitigation, including safety issues, check out this recent Cleanfax article, Mold Safety Concerns.
On a bigger level, WHO recommends that countries improve their diagnostic capacity for fungal infections, increase surveillance, and invest more money into research. Right now, according to WHO, fungal infections receive less than 1.5% of all infectious disease research funding.
However, there’s another problem when it comes to trying to eradicate fungi. Dr. Matt Nelsen, a researcher at Chicago’s Field Museum, told CNN that because animals and fungi are so close to each other biologically, we could be endangering ourselves as well.
“We share a lot of biochemical similarities, and so when we are trying to kill off the fungus, we need to be careful that we’re not also killing ourselves,” he said.