Black terror Toxic mold a nightmare for affected households
Jeff Hall, Times Record News
Sun, July 21, 2002
Their description stirs up memories of a pre-slasher horror movie. Weeks, even months of feeling out of sorts, an undefined feeling of dread that something is wrong and then the expert comes in, holds up a strange looking apparatus in the air and announces in a tone full of doom that the occupants of this house must leave NOW! But it’s not spirits and poltergeists that are driving people from their houses these days, it’s “black mold,” known to scientists as stachybotrys atra. “It’s an experience you’re not expecting,” said Bowie resident Price H. Dosier, who just recently was able to return to his home after weeks of mold remediation and remodeling. “You just walk away and leave your home to strangers.” It can be a life-altering experience. Just ask Wayne Harden, pastor of a Baptist church in Graham, who took on a second job as a mold remediator after stachybotrys mold drove his family from their home. “I can tell you it is a problem because my whole family was sick . when we got out of that house, (the illnesses) went away,” Harden said. Mary Kemp still can’t get into her home in Wichita Falls. Part of it, according to Charlie Woodruff, her mold remediator, is that air samples show her home is infected with exceptionally high levels of toxic mold, which explains her rising medical bills. And part of it is her insurance company balking at paying for the work needed to remove the mold from her home, Kemp said. “This is so devastating. I have had to pay to live in a hotel, I can’t get my clothes out of my house,” she said. “It’s so much worse when every day you don’t know what is going to happen. It really feels like nobody cares. It’s just a nightmare.”
Clean up troubles Another Bowie resident, Tammy Bell, just got out of the hospital this past week after suffering kidney problems. It was the first time in her life she had been in the hospital for something other than to give birth to her two children. Bell said she didn’t have nearly as much trouble with her insurance as she did with the man she hired to clean her 2,500-square-foot home of mold. “I fired him once, completely fired him,” she said. Black mold is also a matter of controversy. Many health experts say people are over-reacting, that only a tiny fraction of the more than 10,000 different types of mold cause any kind of illness. The insurance industry in Texas has reacted by refusing to insure homes with a recent history of water damage and raising rates. “For the past nine years, homeowners insurance has generally been a loss leader for companies, but even that experience pales in comparison to the huge losses we have seen the last two years,” Jerry Johns, president of Southwestern Insurance Information Service, told the Associated Press recently, citing a record $1.2 billion in water-related losses last year.
How it starts Unlike floods or hail damage, mold problems can spring from just a few drops of water from a leaky roof or a bad fitting on a water line. That’s what happened to the Kemp home. After a particularly bad hail storm about two years ago, the roof on her 10-year-old frame house developed a leak, she said. All of her neighbors got new roofs, Kemp said, except for one neighbor who had the same insurance company. The insurance adjuster told her husband Jesse the Kemps wouldn’t need a new roof, just a few square feet of repair work that the homeowners could do themselves, she said. The work got done, but the real problems didn’t surface until January of this year, Kemp said. At the time, they didn’t make any connection between their health problems and the roof leaks, she said. “I didn’t have any idea where it was coming from,” she said. “My eyes have been burning like I was in chlorine 24 hours a day.” Both she and her husband have experienced lung problems, her grandson developed rashes that looked like ringworm, her daughter and granddaughter were affected, Kemp said. “I didn’t suspect it had anything to do with the mold until I went to see an ophthalmologist,” she said. When she told her doctor she didn’t have allergies, he questioned her more closely, Kemp said. After hearing about the water leak and the patches of mold she had seen in her garage and on the ceiling, the doctor had one piece of advice, she said. “He told me to get out of the house or none of us would get better,” she said.
A leaky roof Like the Kemps, the Dosier home had a leaky roof. The couple first noticed water leaks in their roof in February of last year, but they were small and the insurance agent said it wasn’t a big deal. Then last September, the entire city of Bowie was smacked by a violent “downburst” rainstorm that caused water to pour in behind a wall in his laundry room. The insurance company decided to repair a two-foot section of the wall and sent in some contractors, who cut open the wall and made an unpleasant discovery. “At that point we saw all the mold and it was all over the walls. We told them to stop right there,” Dosier said. By happenstance, the couple was having tile work done in the house near the laundry room. A quick check showed the mold had spread from the walls to the rest of house through the floor work, he said. An insurance adjuster came out after hearing their concerns over the mold and did some tests. The results came back less than two weeks before Christmas. “Dec. 13, they told us the air test showed we had stachybotrys mold spores throughout the house and we had to get out,” he said. The discovery, however, did clear up the mystery of why both he and his wife had been so ill, Dosier said. On New Year’s Eve 2001, the couple’s physician “prescribed us $280 worth of antibiotics,” Dosier said.
The clean-up process Finding out what is causing those mysterious rashes, chronic coughs and burning eyes is perhaps the easiest part of the problem. Fixing it is another. Bell and her family are preparing to move back into their house after living for more than four months in a trailer home. She said she believes a bad experience was made worse by the mold remediator she hired to fix the problem. Her family’s problems began with a common plumbing breakdown. “My washing machine’s disposal line had broken and overflowed,” she said. “My insurance company has been great.” It was the man who was supposed to cleanse the home of the black mold that was the problem. “We actually didn’t know anything about black mold. He actually convinced us we had 20 minutes to live if we didn’t get out of the house. He charged my insurance company right at $13,000.and he did nothing, absolutely nothing,” Bell said. The remediator, Mike Price, also promised to have her clothes cleaned at his shop in another town. But the family’s clothing got mixed-up with someone else’s and she doubts the clothes were cleaned in anything but regular soap and water, Bell said, including clothing that are supposed to be dry-cleaned. And all the work had to be re-done anyway, she said. “We passed his final air test, but they found mold in three other places,” Bell said. “He’s got a real racket going.”
Disputes complaints To Price, however, Bell is the one who isn’t telling the truth. He is certified by the East Texas Medical Center in Tyler to do mold remediation, and has done work removing asbestos and other hazardous materials for years, Price said. “I have a lot of other customers who are very happy with my work and I’m part of the Better Business Bureau,” Price said. “I’m very honest and I don’t rip people off. If I had no training, I wouldn’t be on the insurance companies’ remediation list.” If he was such a rip-off artist, then why does he offer free home inspections, Price asks. “I do the inspections – honestly to find work – but nine times in 10 there’s nothing there and I tell the homeowners that.” The air test Bell referred to was done by a third company, not anyone working for him or the insurance company, Price said, and it showed her house was as clean as it could be. He used a chemical called Microban to clean the family’s clothing, something set out in mold remediation protocols from New York and Illinois – the only two states in the country that currently have standards for mold clean-up, Price said. “She’s done nothing but slander me and my company,” Price said. Harden said he had a similar experience. After the insurance company’s remediator had finished the work, he went back to his remodeling work – and found more mold. “The levels in my house were just horrible – it was like it never got cleaned. I called my insurance company and they said we’re not paying for it, it’s already been cleaned,” Harden said.
Insurance problems It has become such a hassle for Mary Kemp and her family she has filed a complaint with the Texas Insurance Commission. According to insurance commission records, 43 people filed complaints in 2001 that their insurance companies failed to adequate compensate them for water-related problems in their homes. Meanwhile, she keeps trying to get her insurance agent, Kevin McFarland, to return her phone calls, Kemp said. But a company adjuster who came to her home on May 10 told her he didn’t know anything about a mold problem and cut her a check for $2,000 to get the roof fixed. The insurance company claims the problem was linked to flooding in the garage and thus not covered by her homeowner’s policy, she said. “They treat me like I’m a nuisance to them, but this is a serious problem,” Kemp said. “Mr. McFarland told my husband we’re being ridiculous.” It’s the company that’s being ridiculous in its attempt to save a few dollars, she said. “Under Texas law, I have a right to have my home put back in the condition it was before the (roof damage),” she said.
Health problems Kemp is also having to deal with health problems at the same time she is dealing with the insurance company, and that makes it even harder, she said. Both she and Jesse have seen a toxicologist in Dallas, who told them they have damage to their lungs, perhaps permanent damage, she said. Contacted at his office, McFarland said he would not respond to any of Kemp’s complaints at the present time. “We’re not finished with that case and I really can’t make any comments about it,” McFarland said. Being a minister, Harden isn’t one to speak ill of others, including insurance companies. But he admits his company let him down, which provided the impetus for him to get into the mold remediation business himself. “There are some very good insurance companies out there and some very good adjusters, but there are some very bad insurance companies out there and very bad adjusters. What is happening is the bad is so bad, it’s harming the good ones,” he said. “I tell people I’m here because I don’t want people to go through what I did.”
Hype or horror? Charlie Woodruff admits he has a stake in the black mold problem. His company, MC Services, does mold remediation and testing, and he’s been in the business for several years. And he says that in general, stachybotrys atra and the other types of so-called “toxic mold” is not as much of a problem as people are led to believe. “The truth about the mold problem is it’s not new. It’s been blown way out of proportion by media hype,” he said. It’s also a lucrative business if you’re in the right area, he said. Once the black mold problem began making headlines, remediation companies rushed in – to places like Austin, Dallas, Houston and San Antonio, where the problem certainly exists but the home values are much, much higher than around smaller cities like Wichita Falls and the rural areas of West Texas. But he also doesn’t agree with the assertions of insurance companies that it’s all in people’s minds. “I’m pretty certain that history will show in about five years the mold problems in a lot of these houses weren’t treated correctly and it will only become worse, not better,” he said. The biggest problem facing insurance companies is the cost, Woodruff said. Insurance companies don’t make money paying out claims, so naturally they try to limit their payouts, he said. But too often, even the best of insurers try to do the work on the cheap. That’s why many mold claims are handled by untrained carpet cleaners, Woodruff said.
Remove the mold “Does it cost more than having a carpet company come in and do what an insurance company tells them to do? You bet,” he said. “Adjusters are trained not to look into certain places unless the homeowner points it out.” And a few insurance companies look for remediation companies that don’t mind trading in their reputation for lots of steady work, Woodruff said. “I’m in this because I’m a remediator and I don’t do what the insurance companies want me to do. It’s better to pay and do it right the first time,” he said. “My motto is to do the work until all visible mold is removed. That’s the hard truth about it-most houses that have mold will have it come back.” Harden, who not only works with Woodruff but is his pastor, said there’s no question mold has been a problem since Biblical times. He knows this, Harden said, because it’s mentioned in the Bible: Leviticus 14:34-37. “I didn’t even know it until one of my parishioners pointed it out to me,” he said. “It’s talking about a house. I think the Bible calls it leprosy, but they’re talking about mold.”