Dust mites and fungus in San Diego

They feast on flesh and wood and live inside your house

Westfall inspecting sampler filter

Lying on my back under a window in a corner of my mother’s dining room, I wondered what the particles floating in the sunbeam above my face were. Insects? Germs? Angels? “Dust motes” I had heard them called, always struck me as an indeterminate term to describe indeterminate things.

J.R. Westfall: “We’ll give that five minutes. You have a stopwatch there. Why don’t you time it for five minutes?”

J.R. Westfall: “We’ll give that five minutes. You have a stopwatch there. Why don’t you time it for five minutes?”

I was smart enough to know that if they were in the sunbeam, they were in the rest of the house, which meant I was inhaling them. I wanted to know what these things were that I was breathing every day of my life. My curiosity on the matter faded over the years, but now my 16-month-old daughter points at dust motes in our house and babbles questions that, even if phrased in perfect English, I couldn’t answer, not until J.R. Westfall visited my house.

Westfall’s resume says he is an industrial hygienist, but “fungus guru” would be more apt. For more than 40 years he has studied the effects of fungus on everything from spacecraft to houses to people.

Meruliporia incrassata.  Westfall worked at Caltech’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory testing spacecraft for fungus-related malfunctions.

Meruliporia incrassata. Westfall worked at Caltech’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory testing spacecraft for fungus-related malfunctions.

Trained at Caltech in Pasadena in the late ’50s and early ’60s, Westfall worked at Caltech’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory testing the Jupiter intercontinental ballistic missile, the Sergeant and Corporal ballistic missiles, and deep-space probes Ranger, Surveyor, Voyager, and Mariner for fungus-related malfunctions. In the late ’60s he worked for Aerojet on the Mark 46 torpedo and for the Giannini Corporation on the Apollo moon lander. Working for the Singer-Kearfott Corporation in the 70s, Westfall performed tests on the navigation systems of the A-7D carrier-based attack fighter and the FB 111 fighter/bomber. For the last 15 years, he and his wife of 47 years, Martha, have run J.R. Westfall and Company out of their Escondido home. He tests houses and other structures for fungal contamination, often in conjunction with lawsuits. In 1996 and 1997 he did an environmental analysis of 20 Oceanside homes in connection with a lawsuit filed by the Ocean Hills Homeowners’ Association against the developer. Leisure Technology. On this December day, he’s going to test my house.

Westfall pulls up in his gray sedan at 3:00 p.m. Dressed in gray slacks, plaid shirt, and blue cardigan, he extends a hand in greeting as he gets out of his car. A man of 70 years, his straight white hair hangs over his ears and he speaks with a soft, lilting voice. From his trunk he removes two small suitcases and an Igloo ice chest, which he gives me to carry into the house. Sitting with a soft grunt on the piano bench in the living room, Westfall takes a stainless steel cylinder, eight inches in diameter and ten inches tall, from one of the cases. “This is an Andersen sampler,” he explains. “I use it to take samples of the air. From those samples I’ll take fungus counts to see how clean your air is.”

Westfall fixes the sampler on a photographer’s tripod. From the other suitcase, he takes an electric suction pump about the size of a large toaster. After attaching one end of a clear plastic hose to the pump and the other to a nipple at the bottom of the sampler, he plugs the pump’s cord into a nearby wall outlet for a test. “Okay,” he says when the pump starts sucking away, “now for the agar dishes. Could you hand me that ice chest?”

Inside the ice chest is a large Ziploc bag containing ten clear-plastic petri dishes, each filled with a transparent, gelatinous, dextrose-based substance called agar. I recognize the dishes from high school biology class as vessels used to grow fungi and bacteria, though the ones we used had red agar. On the lid of each dish, Westfall has stuck a white label preprinted with a number, a location, and either “upper stage” or “lower stage” (e.g., Dish #1, Living Room, Upper Stage), along with my last name and today’s date. I ask what the “upper” and “lower” signify.

“The location in the sampler,” he says. “I’ll show you, but first, put these on.” He hands me a pair of latex gloves and a particle mask. “These are so we don’t contaminate the dishes with our breath or our hands.”

Masked and gloved and looking like an elderly surgeon, Westfall pulls the cylindrical sampler into four smaller cylinders. I hadn’t realized it wasn’t one piece. “The dish marked ‘lower’ goes in here,” he says, tapping the bottom section of the cylinder and loading the agar dish into it. “Then this part goes over it,” he shows me a section perforated with small holes. “The air comes through these holes and blows onto the agar. The dish marked ‘upper’ goes on the next level and the air comes through these holes,” he points to the top plate of the cylinder, which is also perforated but with larger holes. “The holes above the upper agar dish correspond to the volume of air that comes into your nose, and the holes above the bottom dish correspond to your lungs,” he explains.

Once the agar dishes are loaded and the sampler put back together, Westfall plugs in the pump, which starts sucking air through the sampler. “We’ll give that five minutes,” he says, taking a seat on the piano bench. “You have a stopwatch there. Why don’t you time it for five minutes?”

Starting my stopwatch, I ask how a house becomes contaminated with fungus. “Usually fungal infestations involve water events,” Westfall answers. “A typical water event would be a pipe that broke in the slab. What that does is cause the moisture level to rise very high on the slab. Drywall is very susceptible to wicking, so if the floor is sopping wet, the water will wick up the walls as well. The walls could get as high as 25 to 35 percent saturated. In houses that are built on foundations, sometimes you will have underground streams which pass beneath the house, for instance in subdivisions where they graded what used to be a watercourse and built houses on it. You’re living in the house and all of a sudden everything is very wet. In one case — it’s in litigation right now so I can’t tell you the exact location — there was a pipe feeding a dam right underneath a whole bunch of houses, and it got very wet underneath them. With a big pipe — and it was eight feet in diameter — they expect a lot of leakage. So these houses were very wet and they all had mold. When I checked out the air conditioners, I found out that they had been improperly installed to draw fresh air from beneath the houses, where all of the mold was, and there was a lot of sickness. One lady showed me a gunnysack full of pills she was taking. She never got well and finally had to move out of there. Another guy got an infection in a wound and they took two pounds of flesh off his body trying to get rid of it. You’ve heard of flesh-eating bacteria, well, there is also flesh-eating fungus. When you have a wet area for it to grow in, instead of being exposed to, say, 200 spores per cubic meter [of air] in your house, you might be exposed to 2000.”

“What does it grow on?”

“Fungus will grow on anything and in anything, usually associated with water. I’ve seen it grow in bricks, plaster, drywall, wood, plastic — just about everything. When I was working on aircraft, often they had integrated circuits that looked like the circuits you see on a computer circuit board. Fungus would grow on that, and the thing would quit working right. I told you about the guy that got it into a wound. It was airborne fungus that landed in the wound and started growing. He tried to doctor it himself and it didn’t work out. By the time he got to the hospital, the doctors told him, ‘You had better put your affairs in order—we don’t think we can save you.’ Hey, how’s that time doing?”

“Six minutes.”

“Uh oh,” Westfall says, pulling the pump cord from the wall socket. “I’ll have to adjust my calculations for six minutes instead of five.”

Westfall calculates how many spores per cubic meter are in the air by drawing air through the Andersen sampler at a constant rate for a fixed amount of time, in this case 28.3 liters per minute for six minutes for a total volume of 169.8 liters of air. Then he counts the number of spores that grow into fungal colonies on the agar dishes. Converting liters into cubic meters (1000 liters = one cubic meter) he arrives at a spores-per-cubic-meter figure.

As he unloads the agar dishes from the sampler and tapes on their lids, I fill out the experiment logbook, which has preprinted entries corresponding to the labels on the lids. Next to dishes numbers one and two, I write, “Living room, six minutes, 3:30-3:36 p.m., December 10, 1997.”

After taking the sampler and pump out to the front porch to test the outside air for comparative purposes we haul them upstairs to the bathrixim, which has black spots growing on the walls. I discovered them when I tore down the wallpaper a year ago. Westfall puts two fresh agar dishes in the sampler, plugs in the pump, and sits on the toilet to wait out the six minutes. Inspecting the black-spotted wall next to him, he shakes his head and says, “The fungus is in the wall. You’re going to have to rip it out. If this were my bathroom I’d cut this wall out.”

The six minutes up, the dishes taped, and the logbook filled out, Westfall heads to his car for a drill to cut a sample of wall so we can see the extent of the fungus damage. Returning a little winded, he gets down on his knees, attaches a disk-shaped bit to the drill, and cuts into the wall about eight inches up from the floor and eight inches from the bathtub. As he drills away, I wonder how my wife will react to a hole in her bathroom wall. After a minute or two of loud drilling, a round chunk the size of a hockey puck falls into the room revealing a second layer of dry-wall behind it. Westfall inspects the chunk. “It looks pretty clean so far, though there is some fungus there.”

He cuts out another hockey puck, this time revealing the empty space inside the wall. "This one is clean too. It looks like all of the fungus is on the surface, so you won’t have to tear out this wall. You can skin this [surface fungus] all off. At the hardware store they have abrasive scrubbing blocks which you can use to remove a sixteenth of an inch of this surface very easily. It will just strip it right off. Then, they sell a paint that’s a fungal inhibitor. You paint it on before you put your wallpaper back on and it will stop the fungus from growing.”

Westfall peels off two pieces of the fungus-covered surface of the outer-drywall puck. “I think it’s important that we identify the species here,” he says, laying them side by side on an agar dish, which he passes to me. “Tape that up and label it ‘bathroom, east wall, eight inches from the floor.’ ”

I help Westfall pack up his equipment and samples, and, snapping a picture of me with my wife and kids, he leaves with a promise to call in three days. He’ll put the samples in an incubator in his home laboratory. Three days at 85 degrees will cause any fungus in the dishes to grow to a recognizable size.

December 13, J.R. Westfall calls from his-home in Escondido, “Ernie, you’ve got some real beautiful fungi growing up here.”

“Can I come up and see them?”

“Sure, hold on...,” I hear him conferring with Martha. “How about Tuesday the 16th, about two o’clock?”

“Great, I’ll be there.”

Before I leave for Westfall’s house on the 16th, an idea occurs to me: I’ll gather up dust samples from around the house and take them to Westfall’s. He’s got microscopes up there — I saw one in the trunk of his car—and maybe we can examine my dust underneath them. Then I’ll know not only what’s floating around in the air in my house but what’s lying on every surface. Let’s see, where are the dustiest spots in the house...the bookcase in the family room where the chessboard is — it must be half an inch thick there. I push as much of it as I can into a small Ziploc bag and I hand it to my wife, who labels it with a black permanent marker. On the baseboard behind our bed I find a promising dust ball. Underneath my desk I gather a sample that looks sandy. From the top of my refrigerator I roll up a blob of black, greasy dust. My wife labels them all and I’m off for Escondido.

Westfall meets me at the door of his low-slung ranch-style home. “Before we look at your fungi,” he says, leading me to the antique-filled living room, “I want to show you a couple of videos.”

The first video is a home movie of a house —“in the beach area” — that is infested with fungus. The owners of the house, a couple in their 30s, guide the cameraman through it, pointing out three-foot-wide holes in the hardwood floors, mildew spots on the walls, and an omnipresent black dust — Westfall says it is billions of fungus spores—covering every horizontal surface, even inside the cupboards. Under the house, fungal colonies as thick as bricks grow on all of the wooden beams and joists supporting the house. The second video is a Channel 10 news report from December 10, 1996, about a house in Chula Vista that was destroyed by a rare wood-eating fungus called Meruliporia incrassata. The $250,000 house was a total loss. “Kind of creepy, isn’t it?” Westfall says as he hops up to rewind the tape. “Now let’s look at your fungi.”

On the dining room table, Westfall has spread white paper on which sits a large microscope with dual eyepieces. Behind my chair stands a yellow shop light — two floodlights on a bar mounted on a five-foot tripod. Ducking into his lab, a five-by-ten room separated from the dining room by a curtain, he grabs the Ziploc bag of fungus samples from my house and a few computer printouts. He pulls up a chair to my right, next to the microscope, and sets one of the printouts, a bar graph titled “Grimm Count,” on the table. “This is a graph of your fungus count. In your living room,” he points to the bar farthest left, “it’s 207 [spores per cubic meter of air], '['hat’s not terrifically high. You can see outside on the porch it was half of that. That particular day the count was probably very modest. Some days the outside mold count can get up to 800, in which case it will dwarf the inside count. The fact that it had rained a couple of days earlier took a lot of crap out of the air.

“Okay, the upstairs bath wasn’t too bad,” he places the tip of a pen on the third bar. “We opened that hole in the wall and there wasn’t anything in there. It seems to me that it was mainly on the surface of the wall, because the airborne fungus count [210) isn’t really much different than the living room. It’s not a great deal higher than the outside air either. It’s not unhealthful in that sense. Then we come to the two control dishes and there isn’t anything there, which means the dishes we were using weren’t pre-contaminated. Then, remember we buried two pieces of the bathroom wall on an agar dish —now this is not volumetric because we didn’t use machinery, we just stuck them on there — they grew an enormous amount of fungus.” “Should I be worried about these counts?”

“The fungus you have has the potential to hurt you, but it’s not that bad,” Westfall says. “I deal with it all of the time, but I always take showers, I change clothes often, and Martha always washes my clothes. I scrub my hands with a brush. I don’t take any chances, I’m very clean. It’s mainly aspergillus of one kind or another in your dishes, which is an environmental fungus. We breathe it. You’re breathing it right now. If it was a big pathogenic fungus, 1 would recommend that you do something.”

“What does ‘pathogenic’ mean?”

“It means it causes disease. Some fungi are worse than others. Aspergillus can cause lung problems for old people, and if you had an enormous problem like 1000 or 2000, I’d tell you to look out for your kids.”

Getting up from his chair, he says, “I’m going to switch places with you so you can see your own fungus under the microscope. It’s like watching your own appendix being operated on.”

Westfall flips on the shop light behind me and I feel its warmth on the back of my neck. Then he gives me a particle mask and a pair of latex gloves to put on. Uncovering one of the agar dishes — an air sample from my living room — he slides it under the microscope. I struggle to see through the double eyepieces, which aren’t wide enough for me, and finally get a clear view. And what a view it is. About half of the d ish is covered with fungal growths of various shapes and colors. Some are a fuzzy forest green trimmed with white. Smooth blobs, bright orange and yellow, dot the dextrose landscape. They look like gumdrops with the sugar sucked off. Fluffy clouds of white fungus here and there resemble little cotton balls. I look in awe until Westfall breaks the silence, “It’s a little wonderland in there, isn’t it?”

“It is...Wow! What are these white things that look like worms sticking up through the fuzzy green fungus?”

“You’re looking at hyphae,” he answers. “They are how fungi move through the wood or move through the plaster. The hyphae spread out sideways. There are also rhizoids, which are rootlike things which can actually go right through the plaster.”

I look at the rest of the agar dishes, all of which have differing amounts of the same types of fungus, aspergillus — the bathroom wall samples having the most. After retaping the last dish, 1 ask if we can look at the dust specimens I brought from home.

“Of course,” he answers, “let me get the projection microscope.”

Westfall hops up and ducks behind the curtain hiding his lab. He emerges a couple of minutes later without the microscope. “Martha,” he calls to his wife, who’s in the garage a few steps away, “is that thing that projects images on the wall in there?”

“It’s in the trunk.”

“Oh,” he says, smiling at me on the way out to his car. Returning with the microscope, he sets it on the tabic and gets some glass slides from the lab. The royal blue microscope stands three feet tall. Unlike a traditional microscope with which you look down through a magnifying lens at your subject, this microscope shines a light through the subject, the image of which goes through a lens below, reflects off a mirror under the lens, and is projected onto a screen or wall. No squinting or fighting with aggravating eyepieces.

“Here,” he says, handing me a slide and a roll of Scotch tape, “spread out the dust nice and thin on the slide and then you can cover it with the tape.”

I do my best to spread out the dust from the baseboard behind my bed and tape it down as instructed. After placing the slide on the microscope platform, I flip a switch on its base and the light comes on. Westfall adjusts the mirror to project an image on the wall behind me and turns the focus knob to sharpen it, but it won’t sharpen. He moves the mirror and the image projects down onto the white paper covering the table. The image is a little clearer but not much. It looks like a fuzzy, fibrous mess. “Too light in here,” he suggests. “I jet me turn this light out over here.... Did that help?”


“I’ll turn off the living room lights too." He does and closes the curtains as well, but all I’m seeing is fiber. We’re both baffled. “I think what we’re seeing is grains of wax in the tape,” Westfall says. “Why don’t I get some clearer plastic tape.” As he scurries to his lab to find clearer tape, I discover the problem. I never removed the protective paper from the slide. Once this problem is corrected, the image on the white paper is clear. With the tip of a pen, Westfall points out a long, curving, auburn brown line with thinner lines branching off it. “That’s the antenna of a large insect,” he says, “probably a cockroach. The solid black lines are human hairs. Do you see the gold-colored things that look twisted, like a rope? Those are carpet fibers. We’ve seen a lot of stuff on this slide, let’s try another one.” Next up, the family- room bookshelf dust. I move the slide around under the light to illuminate different parts, and at first all we see are uninspiring black bits of stuff. Westfall says, “I think you’re seeing finer and finer graduations of just plain old dirt. Some of this stuff is probably from outside plants. They put out huge amounts of crap. Certain plants just litter the world with all of this fuzzy stuff.”

I keep moving the slide. A silent minute goes by and then I notice a smear of tiny black circles close together at one end of the smear and farther and farther apart toward the other. I ask Westfall about them. “1 think they’re aspergillus spores that were in the deposit and got smeared over the surface of the glass like a tidal wave.” “When I spread it out?” “Yes, you didn’t mean to but you did. They probably all landed on the shelf together in a lump because they don’t weigh anything by themselves. You carry them on your clothes and your body. If you go into the bathroom to brush your teeth and you touch the wall on the way out, you’ve got the spores on your hand. Then you go over and put a book on the shelf and they fell onto the shelf. They distribute themselves all over the house.”

Next we notice some twisted fibers that appear black in the middle but toward their edges have colors. Westfall says they’re clothes fibers. “Clothes shed like crazy,” he explains, “especially rayon clothes and silk. They are just tcensy threads. It takes a lot of silk to make a thread, so as these things break down, you get these little strings of nothing which float up and land on your shelf.”

The longer we look at the dust, the easier it is to recognize things. A patent leather-black line with a bend in it is a spider leg. The piece of reddish yellow translucent matter the shape of a butcher’s knife with a blunted point is a fly wing. “You’ve actually got a pretty dean house,” Westfall says. “I don’t see a lot of varmints in there. It’s mainly just soil, clothing fibers, and aspergillus spores.”

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