Stephen Champagne says the mold in his rented Elm Street home has sent him to the hospital twice and is responsible for the headaches, fatigue, memory loss and respiratory ailments he has suffered since he moved in a year and a half ago. His son, who lives with his mother, is no longer allowed to go inside the house, he said, because 4-year-old Stefan’s neck balloons to the size of a football and his nose bleeds. Champagne’s landlord, Henry Bissonnette, said he has removed the mold, and the local health department considers the matter closed.
But Champagne says his maladies have continued. He has been withholding his rent payments until he is satisfied the mold problem has been corrected. His landlord, meanwhile, has served him with an eviction notice, and Champagne said he is considering legal action to compel his landlord to address the mold problem. Mold has yet to cause the explosion of lawsuits and health concerns in Connecticut that states such as Texas and California have seen. But more people in private homes, schools and office buildings are sounding the alarm over its effects. For example: Six Simsbury police department employees have filed a notice they intend to sue the town because of health problems they acquired while working in the town hall basement, which contains mold.
In the fall, Fairfield received $1.2 million in an agreement from its insurance company because of mold at McKinley Elementary School that led to health problems for students and staff. Fairfield is rebuilding McKinley for about $23 million. A legislative aide who works at the state Capitol said she fielded a call six months ago from a constituent who said the mold in his new home was making his family sick. He “was trying to figure out who to sue,” the aide said. Champagne said he has asked lawyers the same question but has yet to retain an attorney. When he moved into the house at 153 Elm St. in May 2001, the kitchen sink, dishwasher, bathtub and a number of pipes were leaking, he said, and in June 2001 the basement flooded, soaking the carpet.
About a month later, he said, he began to feel fatigued and started coming down with the runny nose, sore throat, sinus infections and other ailments. Whenever Champagne leaves the house for more than a day or two he gets better, he said, but relapses upon his return. He said he has racked up roughly $16,000 in medical expenses – he has no health insurance – and said he has missed work for weeks at a time because of his condition. He has thought about leaving the house, but would like to stay to avoid moving expenses and because his son lives just down the street. In September, Champagne had the house tested for mold.
A Westfield, Mass., firm, Home Environmental Services Inc., found elevated levels of mold in his basement, the cold air return and in his mattress. In October, Bissonnette called the North Central District Health Department, which sent out an inspector. At first the inspector said he didn’t see any mold, but after Champagne showed it to him he advised Bissonnette to clean it up and brush the affected areas with mold-resistant paint, according to the inspector’s report. “We went in and cleaned up what there was of it. It was like mildew; everybody gets mildew, it’s no big deal,” Bissonnette said. In November, the health inspector returned, examined the cleanup and said no further action was required.
Champagne said that there was still mold in his basement as of December and that nothing had been painted. “Generally we get the landlord and tenant to work it out,” said William Blitz, the head of the health department. Mold “is not really a specialty of ours.” “I guess anybody has the right to sue anybody they want if they feel like it,” Bissonnette said when asked about Champagne’s potential suit. “I don’t know if he’s got a leg to stand on.” Mold-related lawsuits have grown steadily across the country since the late 1980s, but it wasn’t until Melinda Ballard of Texas won $32 million from Farmers Insurance in 2001 that insurance companies, lawyers, builders and media across the country began to take notice. A Texas appeals court reduced Ballard’s award to $4 million on Dec. 19.
Since Ballard’s verdict, insurance companies, which have been the target of most lawsuits, have lobbied hard to change state and federal guidelines to limit the amount of money policyholders can receive for mold-related claims. In August, the Connecticut Insurance Department, which regulates the state’s insurance industry, capped the amount homeowners can receive for mold damages resulting from fire or lightning at $50,000. The department set the cap for other mold claims at $10,000, and insurance companies no longer have to offer mold coverage on commercial policies. “Insurance companies point to the dramatic change in mold-related claim frequency and severity in Texas and California to support filings. Information submitted suggests the increase in mold-related claim costs could expand to Connecticut and other states,” a preface to the state guidelines says.
George Lang, a lawyer from Chicago, said his firm has more than 260 mold-related cases pending in 34 states. Increased awareness about mold-related health problems, along with modern building practices and materials that trap moisture and provide nutrients for mold to grow are the two biggest reasons for the increase in litigation, Lang said. But that litigation has yet to occur on a large scale in Connecticut. “We keep a pretty good handle on the kinds of cases that are going on in the state of Connecticut, and quite frankly, I have not seen a lot of discussion involving tort cases that have to do with mold,” said Neil Ferstand, executive director of the Connecticut Trial Lawyers Association. Spokesmen from the Connecticut Property Owners Association and the Homebuilders Association of Hartford County, whose members would traditionally be prime targets for lawsuits along with the insurance companies, also said that mold is not a big issue. Molds are microscopic organisms that are “found virtually everywhere” and “live on plants, foods, dry leaves, wood and other organic materials,” according to a fact sheet put out by the state Department of Public Health. “Certain types of molds … are toxic to humans, animals and plants,” the sheet says, and can cause allergic reactions, including breathing problems, red eyes, sore throats, nasal and sinus congestion, skin irritation, dizziness and headaches.”
The fact sheet urges residents to consult their physicians for mold-related health problems and recommends fixing water leaks and cleaning mold when it’s a problem. “[Mold]’s fairly low on our radar screen at this point,” said state Rep. Mary Eberle, who will retire at the end of the year as the co-chairperson of the legislature’s public-health committee. Gary Ginsberg, a toxicologist with the department of public health, said scientists have yet to establish an air-quality standard for mold. “The science has not evolved,” he said. Al Reigins has tested mold levels in homes for 10 years, and the company he works for, Northeast Laboratories of Berlin, analyzed the mold samples found in Champagne’s basement.
Northeast identified one of the samples as Cladosporium, a common mold that causes respiratory allergies for some people. “For me and you, [Cladosporium] probably doesn’t matter, but for some, yes,” Reigins said. A tenant who lived in Champagne’s house for eight years before him said that she never had health problems. Nor did anybody else in her family. That’s little consolation for Champagne, however, whose home hovered at 44 degrees one December day because he said the heating system sucks up mold spores from the basement and spreads them around the house. He won’t turn the heat on because of it.
“All I wanted [Bissonnette] to do was just come over here and get rid of the mold,” he said.