Is My Washer Making My Family Sick?

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One of the routine checks we do when performing an indoor environmental health assessment on a home is check the door gasket of the front-loading clothes washers. More often than not we find nasty gunk on and under the gasket. Usually the worst of the contamination is under the fold where it can't be seen without pulling it up and viewing with a flashlight. 

There have been several projects where we found this contamination and the family had been experiencing recurring illnesses including fever and malaise in the children. After removing the washer from the home the illnesses mysteriously disappeared. Can we make a strong connection to this or is it coincidence? We may never know but it sure is something to be aware of. 

When mold and bacteria is allowed to grow and thrive in a wet or damp indoor environment it can certainly affect the indoor air quality. Think about the release of the mold and bacteria into the air when the washer door is open. It smells really foul sometimes and that is the MVOCs or Microbial Volatile Organic Compounds which are the airborne emissions of the gasses produced by these molds and bacteria while they grow. Some of the molds and bacteria could also have toxins they produce as part of their growth process. These toxins don't go away when the mold or bacteria is "killed".  Some molds and bacteria can  become infectious agents if we inhale them or get them into a cut on the skin, into the eyes or other sensitive membranes. 

What about the contamination on the items being washed? When those items are used or worn could they transfer some of these infectious or toxic elements to the person? We've often noted moldy odors on clothing and towels in these homes and sometimes the occupants have become desensitized to the odors and can't smell them any more. 

Some of the front loading washer manufacturers are involved in law suits due to this contamination issue. They have recommended cleaning methods and products to help keep this gunk from building up and causing a problem supposedly. Another tip is to keep the door open when not in use and allow air to circulate around the laundry room. Taking clothing out immediately after wash cycle is finished is also helpful.

The solution is NOT to use a toxic detergent or treatment to try to cover up or "kill" the odors. There are non-toxic products to try such as white vinegar, a paste made of baking soda, an enzyme-based cleaner, Thieves cleaner from Young Living, and other such alternatives. 

When cleaning the gasket be sure to wear disposable gloves, an N-95 mask or respirator, goggles and keep your clothing protected. You will likely stir up and send some of the contaminants airborne so be cautious. The soap dispensers and surrounding areas are also a site of contaminant build-up so clean them carefully too. 

If you find you still are having some of these odors and suspected related illnesses even after cleaning your machine you may want to seal it up or remove it to see if the symptoms improve. You may decide it's wise to replace it with a top-loader. Of course, no matter what machine you use, you will need to keep it clean. 

Linda Eicher is an Indoor Environmental Health Professional specializing in assessing indoor air quality, water quality and mold since 1995. She and her husband and partner John own Environmental Services Group Carolinas, LLC.  Linda also serves as the National Training Director for Best Training School, a training provider for environmental professionals, NORMI certifications and state mold licensing requirements.