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Luis Cosme poses sitting in an armchair in what is left of his house destroyed by Hurricane Maria, in Morovis, Puerto Rico, Sunday, Oct. 1, 2017. Cosme, a worker at a cleaning company, felt the high winds and ran to the shelter at the Catholic church building. In the morning he came out and saw his house gone. "Thank God I am alive" he said.
Ramon Espinosa/AP
Gesundheit

Mold Looms as Potential Health Crisis in Waterlogged Puerto Rico

As the hurricane relief effort continues in Puerto Rico, a looming menace is growing: mold.

Throughout the island, homes remain waterlogged, humid, and without electricity that can power ventilation, which can add up to a potent recipe for the growth of mold.

Fungus in the form of mold is a possible threat whenever extreme storms or flooding fill communities with water, and Puerto Rico is no different, according to Oxfam.

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Throughout the island, according to a press release by Zimmetry Environmental, “countless residential, commercial and institutional properties across the islands that have considerable mold contamination.”

The presence of mold in people’s homes, appearing as dappled spores on walls and ceilings, is dangerous to anyone who is breathing in the air, but it’s especially harmful to people with asthma, because it can trigger reactions.   

“A lot of times in hurricanes people forget to talk about just how hard it is to clean out your house, and the mold,” Martha Thompson, a health consultant, told Oxfam. “It’s an increasing problem. People are just beginning to realize it.”

“You need a whole kit to take mold off,” she said. “You need to educate people about that. And so how do you do that when there is no communication?”

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Puerto Rico has a higher rate of asthma than the general US population — 19% to 8% — and the lack of electricity, passable roads, and a fully-functioning medical system is turning the spread of mold into a potential health crisis, according to Oxfam.  

This is especially dangerous because many asthmatics on the island are currently unable to fill prescriptions for inhalers and medications, according to Harvard Medical School News.

Further, Oxfam reports that people are having trouble obtaining tarps that can temporarily cover the mold until more clean-up efforts can be conducted.

According to the Environmental Protection Agency, mold requires three things to grow: a surface to grow on, food (wood, carpet, etc.), and water to spread. If you remove the moisture, however, it will stop spreading and will eventually die with the help of substances like chlorine.

Read More: Puerto Rico’s Crisis Is Not About ‘Broken Infrastructure.’ It’s About Poverty

“If mold does not get taken out of the homes,” San Juan mayor Carmen Yulín Cruz said on the Rachel Maddow Show in October, “you’re really creating a very toxic environment for everyone in there.”

The mold problem is part of the bigger health crisis in Puerto Rico.

In parts of the island, up to 32% of the public doesn’t have safe, reliable access to water. There have been reports of people drinking from contaminated streams and other sources of water and contracting illnesses.

Many people with severe, but treatable, health problems such as high blood pressure and diabetes are unable to receive medical attention, according to Harvard Medical School News.

Read More: The Water Crisis in Puerto Rico Is Still Affecting Millions

“Over time, the population burden of preventable illness, including the long-term complications of diseases such as diabetes and hypertension — blindness, neuropathy, kidney failure, heart attack, and stroke – will increase,” Michael Charness, chief of staff of the VA Boston Healthcare System, told Harvard Medical School News.

Close to 37% of Puerto Rico has access to electricity, in what has become the biggest blackout in US history. Getting back to 100% electricity could take months and as the wait drags on, problems like mold may continue to grow.

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