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Moulding the Truth

Updated: Oct 20, 2023

In 2021, UK Research and Innovation (UKRI) called for an international effort to study fungal infections. One year later, the World Health Organisation (WHO) released its first list of fungi with health-threatening hazards. This explosion of interest in fungi lends itself to research into the medicinal abilities of mushrooms, a diverse class of fungi, and the ‘Woodwide Web’: a cross-kingdom structure which connects plans. They serve as pesticides and are a catalyst which turns grain into beer. More formidably, fungi make their way into our homes: not just as a desire for mushroom risotto, but as mould. St Andrews is full of it.

Of the student rituals which define my term-time experience, a weekly wipe-down of my bathroom’s persevering mould is not one of them.

“When we moved in, there was probably already mould”, says Sophie, a third-year student at the University. She points out the window to the garden: overgrowth, a garden shed, and several chairs stacked one atop the other in the rain. Sophie and her flatmates live just past the Kinnessburn, a winding stream which defines, as students claim, the divide between university and suburbs (“town” and “ends”). The Kinnessburn also represents the overarching effects of geography. There is never a time when the brush aside the river is not green. In the summers, the air grows sticky and wildflowers begin to grow, responding well to the infrequent sun. This same stickiness — the amount of water in the air — is what creates an environment where mould can thrive. Within the understanding of mould is that of the dew point: the temperature at which water is cooled to saturate with water vapour. When fungi develop in a home, humidity and temperature have hit an optimal point for growth. “Mould is in most of my friend's houses, too. The houses are quite old and I don’t think there’s any way to avoid it.”

Research into mould growth has flourished in recent years: the perspective that our indoor environments are more impactful on our health than our outdoor surroundings is strong. The structural integrity of buildings is also a risk factor for mould, the WHO reports. Still, Fife boasts a higher average housing sufficiency in the Scottish Housing Quality Standard, a metric which examines energy efficiency and potential damage. This statistic denies other factors which cause mould to grow limitlessly in student homes — climate, and a possible weight of student negligence.

Illustration by Calum Mayor

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