Brittany Murphy Killed by Toxic Mold?

We’ve all seen the pictures of houses with “toxic mold.” That black fuzzy stuff peppering the walls of houses after floods… Yuck!

Now Sharon Murphy, mother of Brittany Murphy, is claiming that toxic mold killed both her daughter and her son-in-law Simon Monjack. She is planning on suing her lawyers who “tricked her” into a settlement with the builders of the house where she lived with Brittany and her husband.

As you recall, 32 year-old Brittany Murphy died in December of 2009. Her autopsy showed that she  suffered an accidental death from pneumonia complicated by iron-deficiency anemia and “multiple drug intoxication.

In an ironic twist of fate, her husband, Simon Monjack, died 5 months later. The Los Angeles Coroner’s report attributed his death to “acute pneumonia and severe anemia.”

What is “toxic mold”?

Mold are microscopic fungi. They live on plant or animal matter and aid in the breakdown of dead material and recycle nutients in the environment.

Mold spores occur in the indoor and outdoor environments.  They enter your house through open doorways, windows, and heating, ventilation and air conditioning systems. Outdoor spores also attach themselves to people and animals, making clothing, shoes, bags, and pets convenient carriers for bringing mold indoors.

When mold spores drop on places where there is excessive moisture, such as where leakage may have occurred in roofs, pipes, walls, plant pots, or where there has been flooding, they will grow. In addition, many building materials are perfect growing environments for mold, especially when they are damp or wet.

The term “toxic mold” is not accurate. While certain molds are toxigenic, meaning they can produce toxins (specifically mycotoxins), the molds themselves are not toxic or poisonous. According to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), “Hazards presented by molds that may produce mycotoxins should be considered the same as other common molds which can grow in your house.”

How does mold affect people?

Some people are sensitive to molds. For these people, exposure to molds can cause symptoms such as nasal stuffiness, eye irritation, wheezing, or skin irritation. Some people, such as those with serious allergies to molds, may have more severe reactions.

Specific reactions to mold growth can include the following:

Allergic Reactions
Inhaling or touching mold or mold spores may cause allergic reactions in sensitive individuals. Allergic reactions to mold are common and include hay fever-type symptoms, such as sneezing, runny nose, red eyes, and skin rash (dermatitis).  Repeated or single exposure to mold or mold spores may cause previously non-sensitive individuals to become sensitive.

Molds can trigger asthma attacks in persons who are allergic (sensitized) to molds. The irritants produced by molds may also worsen asthma in non-allergic (non-sensitized) people.

Hypersensitivity Pneumonitis
Hypersensitivity pneumonitis may develop following either short-term (acute) or long-term (chronic) exposure to molds. The disease resembles bacterial pneumonia and is uncommon.

Irritant Effects
Mold exposure can cause irritation of the eyes, skin, nose, throat, and lungs, and sometimes can create a burning sensation in these areas.

Opportunistic Infections
People with weakened immune systems may be more vulnerable to infections by molds (as well as more vulnerable than healthy persons to mold toxins). Aspergillus fumigatus, for example, has been known to infect the lungs of immune-compromised individuals. These individuals inhale the mold spores which then start growing in their lungs.

Healthy individuals are usually not vulnerable to opportunistic infections from airborne mold exposure.

How can I decrease my mold exposure?

Sensitive individuals should avoid areas that are likely to have mold, such as compost piles, cut grass, and wooded areas.

Inside homes, mold growth can be slowed by keeping humidity levels between 40% and 60%, and ventilating showers and cooking areas.

If there is mold growth in your home, you should clean up the mold and fix the water problem. Mold growth can be removed from hard surfaces with commercial products, soap and water, or a bleach solution of no more than 1 cup of bleach in 1 gallon of water. (Additional guidelines for using bleach for cleaning mold can be found at the CDC site here.

Other specific recommendations include:

  • Use an air conditioner or a dehumidifier during humid months.
  • Be sure the home has adequate ventilation, including exhaust fans.
  • Add mold inhibitors to paints before application.
  • Clean bathrooms with mold killing products.
  • Do not carpet bathrooms and basements.
  • Remove or replace previously soaked carpets and upholstery.

More information about cleaning up a house with mold can be found at the EPA website.

Have you had a mold problem in your house? Have you had any mold related health issues?


Michele R. Berman, M.D. was Clinical Director of The Pediatric Center, a private practice on Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C. from 1988-2000, and was named Outstanding Washington Physician by Washingtonian Magazine in 1999. She was a medical internet pioneer having established one of the first medical practice websites in 1997. Dr. Berman also authored a monthly column for Washington Parent Magazine.

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