Mold is likely not the first thing that comes to mind as a risk associated with a hospital stay. Superbug infections like MRSA or medical errors are probably more concerning, but a new report concludes it should be considered equally as seriously.
According to media reports over the past week, mold infections have been responsible for five deaths since October 2014 at two University of Pittsburgh Medical Center (UPMC) hospitals. The five patients who died were organ transplant recipients and therefore at higher risk of infection.
The hospital commissioned a report from two hospital environmental specialists back in 2015, which they received in May of 2016. It was recently filed in the Allegheny County Court of Common Pleas in two wrongful-death lawsuits brought against the hospital.
According to the 16-page report, a cart of wet linens in the Montefiore campus included “heavy fungal growth of Mucor and rhizopus.” The specialists also found buildup of lint and mold near a vent at a laundry facility that supplied linens to UPMC facilities.
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It is important to note the kinds of mold found in the UPMC hospitals are commonplace in many indoor environments, and the official medical position remains that they're unlikely to cause infections in most healthy people. In fact, according to a strongly-worded statement from UPMC on the situation, the mold “…does not cause illness in anyone except for those with the most severely compromised immune systems.” These fungal infections are also infrequent even among transplant patients with suppressed immune systems, and they “occur at most major transplant centers without any discernible source.”
While this may be technically correct in relation to the specific types of mold found in these hospitals, there is a large and growing body of scientific evidence demonstrating that mold as a whole is an environmental toxin that can trigger neurological, psychological and immune disorders in otherwise healthy individuals (see 'Neurological and Immunological Problems associated with Mold and Mycotoxin Exposure').
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) investigated the situation at the hospitals in September of 2015, and the area was evacuated and cleaned. The CDC’s review found that linens were not the cause of the fatal infections, although the grieving families of the patients affected have questioned this conclusion.
The UPMC says the CDC was unable to determine a definitive source of the fungal infections. They’ve implemented changes to protect their patients, including the addition of specially treated bioburden-reduced linens for the highest-risk patients.
According to the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, the CDC stands by their report and believes there’s no evidence of an ongoing outbreak.
(Update: The above CDC report has since been brought into question as a sixth mold-related death (of a leukemia patient) at one of the same UPMC hospitals was widely reported on February 14th.)