Humidifiers a Potential Link to SIDS
by Journalist, Sarah Schilling
© Copyright 2002 Sarah Anne Schilling, All Rights Reserved
Consumer News Article
Oct. 14, 2002
Humidifiers a Potential Link to SIDS
Each winter, a number of pediatricians recommend using humidifiers in infants' bedrooms to ease cold symptoms and other respiratory ailments. However, humidifiers can facilitate mold growth, which ironically has the potential to cause additional illnesses and is being investigated as a possible cause of Sudden Infant Death Syndrome.
Sudden Infant Death Syndrome, or SIDS, is the sudden unexplained death of an otherwise apparently healthy infant where no detectable medical explanation can be found even upon autopsy. One in ten U.S. infants died from SIDS in 1998, primarily between the ages of four weeks to one year, ranking SIDS the third highest cause of infant death.
With an extreme death rate for SIDS, Indoor Air Quality (IAQ) experts are seeking to inform and warn parents of the risks that humidifier-induced mold may pose to their infants' health.
IAQ experts have discovered that, if used in excess, humidifiers can aid bacteria, dust mite population, and mold growth on indoor surfaces, such as walls, furniture, carpet and bedding, all prime places for infant contact.
Bacteria, mites and mold are present in all indoor environments, but proliferate when food sources and moisture are available. Unfortunately, the food source is readily available because it consists primarily of house dust, which, for the most part, is dead skin sloughed off from the humans that live in the home. When the moisture level is increased through the use of a humidifier, the probability of unsafe levels of dust mite, bacteria and mold contamination rises.
In particular, when infants crawl across or play on carpeting, they can be inhaling higher concentrations of mold and dust mite excrement, both of which are known to have toxigenic properties. When infants are placed in their cribs, in close contact with blankets, pillows and stuffed animals, similar conditions exist, which leads to the suspicion of a potential cause of SIDS.
In addition, humidifiers that are improperly maintained can harbor mold and bacteria inside of their water reservoirs, which is then blown out into the breathable air and inhaled by vulnerable infant lungs.
“Being that indoor mold contamination is such a significant contributing factor toward adult respiratory ailments, like asthma and bronchitis, it stands to reason that infants with undeveloped immune systems could fall victim to even small amounts of indoor mold contamination,” said Daniel Schilling of Madison, Wis., an indoor air specialist with Residential Inspections, LLC.
The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) terms the resulting illness, in infants and adults, “humidifier fever.” According to the EPA, however, infants are “particularly susceptible to disease-causing biological agents in the indoor air” that contribute to the “fever” and possibly SIDS.
In the case of SIDS, deaths are usually sudden and unexpected, but the American Lung Association has identified the winter months as a risk factor for SIDS. An increased SIDS death rate in winter is simultaneous with an increase in humidifier use.
Why then do doctors continue to recommend humidifiers? Many doctors do not understand the energy efficiency changes that have been made in housing over the last 20 years. Prior to energy efficiency improvements, homes lost a lot of heat and subsequent moisture. In those days, it was necessary to add more humidity to the air to aid breathing.
In today's homes, the situation is the opposite, in that we need to reduce indoor humidity, not add more. Therefore, doctors who are making recommendations based on old housing conditions are unknowingly compounding the problem of indoor biological contamination, unbeknownst to homeowners and parents.
Many doctors are unaware of indoor environmental issues, and patients and parents are left in the dark as a result. “[Doctors] know about the classic allergies,” says Dr. John Ouellette, an allergist with UW Health. “And it is easier to write a prescription than to find the cause of illness.”
Dr. Ouellette believes if a physician repeatedly sees a patient with a respiratory infection it is not unusual to find mold in the patient's home. As a result, he advocates that doctors look at epidemiological studies that indicate mold as a frequent cause of illness in adults and infants alike.
A doctor's next step is to inform their own patients until knowledge concerning household biological contamination is better disseminated in the consumer market.
A few simple guidelines for home and infant health include:
If humidifiers are used at all, be certain to maintain them according to manufacturer's instructions. For example, cleaning and filling them with fresh water daily. There are now portable humidifiers available that use ultraviolet light and ozone to maintain sanitary interiors.
Monitor the humidity levels in your home with a humidity gauge, commonly found at hardware and building supply stores. Maintain levels between 30 and 50 percent relative humidity. Use a dehumidifier if necessary.
Change bedding often and use pillow and mattress casings. Avoid stuffed animals, especially in an infant's crib.
Use a high efficiency vacuum with multiple-stage filtration and/or High Efficiency Particulate Air (HEPA) filtration.
Make use of air filters and purifying systems, and use the highest quality furnace filters.
It is not possible to visibly identify species of mold without laboratory analysis. All mold growth indoors is considered unhealthy; it is best to treat all mold with the same respect.
If you suspect mold in your home, but are unsure where it may be, you may need to contact a professional mold investigator or an industrial hygienist.
If you know where the mold is located, it is best to remediate the problem as soon as possible because mold contamination never gets better on its own, it only gets worse.
with those you care about.