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FERRISBURGH, Vt. (WCAX) – It’s 2010, and newlyweds Lissa Nilsson and David Fontaine have just moved into a beautiful Ferrisburgh house. But, skilled cartographer Nilsson immediately notices a cognitive decline.

“Basic beginner things I couldn’t remember how to do, and it was really frustrating. I couldn’t believe it was happening. It was like my brain was just checking out,” Nilsson said. Soon, the athletic 40-year-old who’d routinely hike five to eight miles could barely walk.

“Just exhaustion,” she said.

Doctors diagnosed Nilsson with Chronic Fatigue Syndrome (ME/CFS), but treatments continually failed to improve her condition. After years of disappointment and misdiagnoses, a naturopathic physician suggested a mold-related illness could be the cause.

Reporter Christina Guessferd: What were you thinking when that came up, and how were you feeling about kind of getting to the bottom, potentially, of what was going on?

Lissa Nilsson: I felt very validated. I’d already been sick in that house for at least seven years with no answers. It suddenly just made sense. It didn’t make sense to us because of our house, because it was clean, and we couldn’t see anything or smell anything.

Then, while renovating their bathroom, Fontaine made a devastating discovery.

“I pulled a piece of baseboard out that had a patch of black behind it. I was instantly disorientated. I describe it to friends like I got hit in the face with a shovel. My speech became slurred, my balance was lost,” Fontaine said.

Slammed by a wave of spores, Fontaine had uncovered the mold that was releasing hazardous mycotoxins into the air, slowly, silently deteriorating the couple’s health.

Thus, their dream home became a nightmare. They spent months digging deep into their pockets to salvage the structure. But it became clear remediation wasn’t an option. The water damage was too widespread and the contamination too deep.

“There’s a lot of water damage in the spaces that we spend all of our life in,” said Dr. Lauren Tessier, a naturopathic physician who owns Life After Mold in Waterbury. Her patients travel from all over the world to Vermont.

She says the correlation between moisture and toxic mold is evident. Plus, many of her clients with mold-related illnesses reside near rivers or ponds, some in the flood planes of Hurricane Irene.

“To be clear, there are spores everywhere, spores are ubiquitous. They’re in the air, they’re outdoors in nature, you open the window, they come in. It’s when they get into a space and they have a climate and condition in which they can really thrive and grow,” Tessier explained.

That’s when side effects can surface.

Mold toxicity symptoms often fall into two categories — allergic and toxic. An allergic person might experience respiratory problems, dry/itchy eyes, sinus pressure, cough, and sore throat. A toxic reaction manifests as hormonal imbalances, neurological issues, brain fog and fatigue.

Treatment varies by individual because Tessier says every body detoxes differently due to genetics.

“You can’t make someone immune to a toxin, you can’t. We can only support your body to clear it out and move on,” Tessier said.

Take, for example, a family of four with two genetic offspring.

“You will see that maybe the wife has more complaints of brain fog, fatigue, muscle pain, and the husband may not have any symptoms or he might have some stuffy sinuses or difficulty breathing, more of an allergic picture,” Tessier said. “And you’ll look to the kids and you might see one of the kids leans a little bit more allergic in that moldy house, and potentially one of the kids might be a little more toxin-sensitive the way the mother is. It’s just phenomenal to see these patterns in a clinic setting.”

Mold toxicity masquerades as many other medical conditions, and it’s difficult to detect in tests since every person excretes some level of mycotoxin naturally. It just depends on how efficiently an individual’s system is capable of recovering from it.

That’s why Tessier stresses doctors rule out any other possibilities before making a definitive diagnosis.

“So, if someone is coming in with numbness and tingling, I want them to be worked up for MS and other things before I go, ‘Oh, it’s mold toxicity.’”

In 2017, Nilsson and Fontaine launched their website The Great Mold Escape. Now living in an RV parked in the Arizona desert, the couple travels the country sharing their story.

They helped craft a bill now before the Vermont legislature that would establish a toxic mold working group aimed at addressing the dangers of mold in Vermont’s water-damaged buildings.

Reporter Christina Guessferd: Why become advocates for this cause?

David Fontaine: All you want to do is try to stop it from happening to other people. People aren’t being given the straight story of just truly how dangerous this stuff is.

Lissa Nilsson: Be the change. Unfortunately, so many people don’t truly understand until it happens to them, and we were probably in that same place, too.

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