Mold contamination.

Mold is a major health hazard in communities of the Eastern Coachella Valley, according to researchers from Loma Linda University and the Environmental Protection Agency.

Researchers from Loma Linda University School of Public Health and the Environmental Protection Agency reported that homes in the Eastern Coachella Valley have much higher concentrations of mold contamination than the rest of the United States, and that children living in those homes tested more than twice the national average for asthma and other respiratory illnesses.                                          

Principal investigators Ryan Sinclair, PhD, an associate professor of environmental microbiology at the school, and Stephen Vesper, PhD, a research biologist at the EPA, published their findings in an Oct. 15 article in the Journal of Environmental and Public Health.

The pair used the Environmental Relative Moldiness Index (ERMI) to test mold contamination in the communities of Mecca and Coachella. Previous studies have shown that higher ERMI levels are associated with asthma development or exacerbation.

Household mold contamination in the city of Coachella and the community of Mecca was higher than other areas. The average ERMI value in the ECV was 9. By comparison, the Riverside County average was less than 2.

Sinclair, who has been studying environmental health conditions in the ECV for a decade, said he wasn’t surprised at the findings. Some families pay upwards of $600 a month for housing with aging water and wastewater pipes, inadequate building materials, and failing electrical infrastructure. All of those physical deficiencies allow moisture and mold to be a major problem in the region.

“ Some families pay upwards of $600 a month for housing with aging water and wastewater pipes, inadequate building materials, and failing electrical infrastructure. All of those physical deficiencies allow moisture and mold to be a major problem in the region.”Ryan Sinclair, PhD

For the study, housing units were divided into four categories: apartments, modern homes, trailers and mixed-use residences. Modern homes were defined as single-family homes built after 1990, and mixed-use neighborhoods were defined as homes with other informal housing units, like garages, adjacent mobile homes and other accessory units.

Dust samples were collected at a subset of homes by local community members when occupants gave permission. Samples were taken from the tops of doorways, bookshelves and other surfaces and tested for spores of 36 indicator mold species.

Many of the residents of Coachella and Mecca are low-wage workers and there is often not enough money for food, let along healthcare, after rent and utilities are paid.

Sinclair is working with a network of organizations to bring environmental justice and advocate for policy change that will protect the health of low-income renters. The organizations operate under the Alianza Coachella Valley, described on its website as a “collaborative of diverse organizations and community members working together to transform the socioeconomic conditions of the Coachella Valley so that people in all communities have opportunities to prosper.” The group recently instituted a community science program in which young people are trained to test indoor air contamination, describe their findings in scientific terms, and advocate for solutions at state and local levels.

Sinclair lauds the recently passed Senate Bill 1000 for incorporating environmental justice into California counties’ general plans. “The general plan for Riverside County will be rewritten in 2020, and Alianza is working with the county to build environmental justice measures into it,” he said. 

The Alianza is also made up of other groups such as Pueblo Unido, which works closely with landlords of the mobile home parks to identify funding and other grant opportunities for economic development. Those efforts will ultimately improve the health and housing issue in the valley.

Sinclair worries about the children. “The children are at the greatest risk,” he says. “Any time you have an ERMI number greater than 5, you run the risk of initiating asthma in kids. The average number in the Eastern Coachella Valley is 9.”

“The children are at the greatest risk. Any time you have an ERMI number greater than 5, you run the risk of initiating asthma in kids. The average number in the Eastern Coachella Valley is 9.”Ryan Sinclair, PhD

This mold project was funded by the California Endowment through the California Institute for Rural Studies.