A class-action lawsuit has been filed against Seattle Children’s Hospital after six children died and many others were sickened from Aspergillus mold.1 The lawsuit claims the hospital knew about “systemic problems” with its air-handling system and the related risks as far back as 2000, but “engaged in a cover-up” that left vulnerable patients exposed to potentially dangerous Aspergillus mold.
Since 2001, Seattle Children’s has identified 14 patients who contracted Aspergillus infections during or after hospital stays; six of those patients died as a result.2 Attorneys suggest, however, that many more children were likely affected and the numbers could be as high as “dozens if not hundreds.”3
As of December 4, 2019, all 14 operating rooms at the hospital’s main campus remained closed as a new air handling unit was moved into place. “We are incredibly sorry for the hurt experienced by these families and regret that recent developments have caused additional grief,” Seattle Children’s said in a statement. “Out of respect for privacy, we do not intend to share details about our patients or comment on specific cases or legal action.”4
Hospital’s Air Handling System Led to Deadly Mold Infections
Patients affected by the toxic mold at Seattle Children’s Hospital range in age from 2 months to 17 years.5 The infections occurred from 2001 to 2019 as a result of the hospital’s negligence at maintaining and testing its facilities, leading to the transmission of Aspergillus mold spores to hospitalized children, according to the suit.6
In 2019, the hospital admitted that it was contaminated with Aspergillus mold since 2001, sickening patients as a result. Air tests conducted in November 2019 also revealed the presence of Aspergillus in several operating rooms.7
However, this wasn’t a new revelation, as the suit alleges that the hospital knew by at least 2005 its air-handling system could be transmitting Aspergillus, when a family sued them over the issue. “During the course of that lawsuit troubling information surfaced regarding the Defendant’s failure to maintain and staff its air-handling systems,” the complaint reads.
The lawsuit was settled in 2008 under confidential terms, but the hospital continued to keep “a deadly secret” in assuring patients and the public that it was safe, when in fact the mold persisted.8
Further, as early as 2002, an engineering consultant as well as the hospital’s lead engineer warned the hospital about “filthy conditions” of its air-handling units, including water leaks, birds in fan shafts, units “rotting out” and failure to test equipment.9
The hospital also published an internal investigation in 2007 looking into three Aspergillus infections, but concluded they were isolated incidents. Seattle Children’s CEO Dr. Jeff Sperring said in a statement:10
“As we have previously shared, Seattle Children’s has had seven Aspergillus surgical site infections since the summer of 2018. We are deeply saddened that one of those patients died. As we have looked more closely at our history of Aspergillus infections, we believe there are connections between recent and past infections. Between 2001 and 2014, seven patients developed Aspergillus surgical site infections. Tragically, five of those patients died. At the time, we believed most of these were isolated infections. However, we now believe that these infections were likely caused by the air handling systems that serve our operating rooms. Looking back, we should have recognized these connections sooner.”
Dangers of Aspergillus Infection
Aspergillus is a common type of mold found both indoors and outdoors, in decaying leaves and on plants, trees and compost.11 While most people come in contact with Aspergillus daily without any ill effects, certain strains can be dangerous for people with weakened immune systems or lung diseases.
Disease caused by Aspergillus is known as aspergillosis, which can lead to allergic reactions and infections in the lungs or other organs.12 The CDC lists seven types of aspergillosis, which range in severity from mild to life threatening:13
Allergic broncopulmonary aspergillosis, which occurs when the mold causes allergy symptoms and lung inflammation.Allergic Aspergillus sinusitis, which occurs when the mold causes sinus inflammation and symptoms of a sinus infection.
Azole-resistant Aspergillus fumigatus, caused by A. fumigatus, a type of Aspergillus that’s resistant to certain medications used to treat it.Aspergilloma, or “fungus ball,” which refers to a ball of Aspergillus that grows in the lungs or sinuses.
Chronic pulmonary aspergillosis, which is Aspergillus infection that causes cavities and sometimes fungal balls in the lungs.Invasive aspergillosis, a serious infection that typically affects people with weakened immune systems; it commonly affects the lungs but may spread to other areas.
Cutaneous (skin) aspergillosis, which occurs when the mold enters a wound or other skin break and leads to infection.
Aspergillosis isn’t a reportable disease in the U.S., which means numbers on its incidence are scarce, but the CDC estimates that nearly 15,000 aspergillosis-associated hospitalizations occurred in the U.S. in 2014, with costs of $1.2 billion.14 Further, they noted, “In a broad U.S. health care network of intensive care unit autopsy studies, aspergillosis was one of the top four most common diagnoses that likely lead to death.”15
Aspergillosis Outbreaks in Hospitals
While clusters of cases of dangerous invasive aspergillosis are rare in the general population, outbreaks have occurred previously in hospital settings, particularly among immunocompromised patients.
Recently, lung infections caused by Aspergillus have been reported in people hospitalized with severe influenza and, in one study, invasive pulmonary aspergillosis occurred even in people without a compromised immune system.16 The CDC also reported:17
“Although most cases of aspergillosis are sporadic (not part of an outbreak), outbreaks of invasive aspergillosis occasionally occur in hospitalized patients. Invasive aspergillosis outbreaks are often found to be associated with hospital construction or renovation, which can increase the amount of airborne Aspergillus, resulting in respiratory infections or surgical site infections in high-risk patients. Outbreaks of primary cutaneous aspergillosis and central nervous system aspergillosis in association with the use of contaminated medical devices have also been described. The incubation period for aspergillosis is unclear and likely varies depending on the dose of Aspergillus and the host immune response.”
While it’s virtually impossible to avoid exposure to aspergillus in the environment, hospitals have a responsibility to ensure they aren’t exposing patients to this potentially dangerous fungus via an ill-maintained air handling system. As for Seattle Children’s, they’re installing new air handlers in an attempt to resolve the mold issues:18
“Seattle Children’s will install a new rooftop air handler as well as custom-built, in-room high-efficiency particulate air (HEPA) filters in every operating room and adjacent supply area. HEPA is an extremely effective filtration system that removes 99.97 percent of particles from the air that passes through the filter. This is the highest level of filtration found in operating rooms today. These operating rooms will remain closed until the enhancements are fully in place.”
Is There Mold in Your Home?
Common health problems that can be attributed to poor and potentially toxic indoor air quality courtesy of mold growth include but are not limited to the following. If you have any of these issues, it may be worthwhile to consider your indoor air quality, and the possibility that your health problems may be related to mold.
Neurological problems; poor concentration and forgetfulness
Stomach and digestive problems, such as dysbiosis, leaky gut and frequent diarrhea
Joint aches and pains
Asthma or trouble breathing
To determine if mold is lurking in your home, first look for signs of visible mold or musty odors. However, not all mold is easily detectable, so if you can’t see any visible traces of mold, take an air sample and use a moisture meter to determine the moisture level in the area.
Wood flooring should have a maximum moisture content of 10% to 12%, for instance, as anything above that is a breeding ground for mold. Exterior walls should not have a moisture content above 15%. In addition to air sampling, proper lab testing of bulk samples of the mold growth is recommended.
This will require cutting out a piece of the affected area. The U.S. EPA has a test called Environmental Relative Moldiness Index (ERMI), which tests for 31 different species of mold. If all you have is a small area of surface mold, you probably don’t have to call in an expert. However, only attempt to clean it if it’s limited to the surface of a small area. Any deep-rooted mold will require professional assistance to remediate.
Mold Is Serious, Here’s What You Can Do
Download Interview Transcript
Aspergillosis is an example of what Dr. Ritchie Shoemaker calls biotoxic illness. Most biotoxic illnesses are difficult to diagnose and treat as all of them, including mold, affect multiple systems in your body and produce a wide array of symptoms.
Shoemaker, a pioneer in the field of biotoxin-related illness, explains that the underlying commonality, whether the disease is caused by dinoflagellates, mold or spirochetes, for example, is chronic inflammation. The inflammation induced by exposure to the toxins and metabolic products produced by these microorganisms is what wreaks havoc on your health. “In order to treat them, we need to both remove them from exposure and remove toxin from their body,” Shoemaker said. Many of his patients have had success using cholestyramine (CSM), a rarely used cholesterol drug that binds to not just cholesterol, but just about everything of a particular molecular shape and size. “Binding CSM to the toxin prevents its reabsorption. There’s another cholesterol-lowering resin called Welchol that also has these net positive charges … Even though people have used clays — and Bentonite is one — with some success, cholestyramine is so much better that people would put up with the common side effects of constipation and some reflux,” he said. This is only the first step in his protocol, which includes 10 additional steps intended to stop the inflammatory process initiated by the mold (or other toxin) exposure. For more information, SurvivingMold.com is a great resource for medical practitioners and patients alike.19
I also discuss helpful tests and diagnostic tools for mold-related illness in “Mold: The Common Toxin That Can Be Far More Damaging Than Heavy Metals.” Overall, your best approach is to find a well-informed physician with expertise in environmental medicine. Together you can devise an appropriate treatment plan. For a list of physicians with experience in treating mold-associated disease, see DrThrasher.org.