PINE RIDGE, S.D. – After living in their Pine Ridge Indian Reservation home for 12 years, Jerome High Horse’s family moved out in 2002 because black mold made living conditions unbearable. “It looked like somebody took black paint and started to paint in the corners of the walls and ran it down to the floor,” said High Horse. “To breathe in there was like trying to breathe with a trash bag over your head.” He attributes the mold to poor construction that led to ventilation problems. Haz-Matters Inc., of Black Hawk, inspected the High Horse home in 2002. Its report says fungal spores in the home exceeded safe levels. The firm’s recommendations said the home may be considered uninhabitable, depending on the health and medical conditions of the occupants.
On the Pine Ridge Reservation, one of the poorest areas in the nation, the tribal Health and Human Services Department has created a Mold Task Force with a five-year plan to address the problem, but it may be short of money. The task force would like to hire two more inspectors for the reservation, which has 1,650 HUD homes and hundreds more that are outside the HUD program. Fifty-five percent of all homes on the reservation are infected with black mold or other strains of mold, according to the team. Task force inspections indicate that more than half of the infected homes are at level three, the highest level of contamination, said Rick Palmer, a task force member. A level three home has more than 100 square feet of mold. “We can’t say we have this under control because we don’t,” said Jeff McDonald of the Mold Task Force. “What we do have under control is knowing what we have to do about it.”
The Native American Housing Assistance and Self Determination Act, funded through the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development, gives tribes money to hire contractors and for maintenance and upkeep, said Donna White, a HUD spokeswoman in Washington D.C. HUD has given $630 million to all tribes through the act, and there should be enough money in the fund to deal with the mold issues, she said. However, according to a release from Sen. Tom Daschle’s office, President Bush plans to cut back the Section 184 and Title VI programs that provide funding for Indian housing. Congress should oppose the president’s plan, the senator said. “It’s inconceivable that the Bush Administration would consider cutting back funding for tribal housing initiatives at a time of such great need,” Daschle said. Funding for Section 184 and Title VI programs, administered through the Bureau of Indian Affairs, need to be increased soon, not cut, he said.
The BIA’s Aberdeen area office referred a reporter to the agency’s Washington office, where no one was available for comment Wednesday. Sen. Tim Johnson’s office is looking to the Environmental Protection Agency for help, said Julianne Fisher, a spokeswoman in Johnson’s office. “We have been following the situation, we’ve written to HUD,” said Fisher. “In general we’re working to find the best avenue.”
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention Web site lists hay fever-like allergic symptoms as one of the health concerns from molds. But people with asthma may have trouble breathing, the CDC says. Severe reactions may include fever and shortness of breath. People with chronic illnesses, such as obstructive lung disease, may develop mold infections in their lungs.
The mold problem isn’t confined to American Indian reservations. The Insurance Information Institute in New York estimated last year that 10,000 mold-related lawsuits are pending in the United States – a 300 percent increase from 1999. Home insurance companies have redefined policies to exclude mold coverage in light of thousands of recent mold damage claims and conflicting opinions from scientists on how serious a threat mold poses for general health.
“The mold is everywhere,” said Marc Menetrez, an environmental engineer who heads up one of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s black mold research teams in North Carolina, “from the desert of Las Vegas to the high humidity conditions of Florida, to the cool areas of Washington state. … The public needs to be aware of this and the public needs to deal with this quickly.”
Written by Shannon Shaw, Associated Press