Portland, OR – There’s a developing controversy within the scientific and legal community regarding the dangers of toxic mold. For 9 years Katie Kononen has lived in a mold-infested Salem subsidized apartment. She has been fighting the mold all the while.
Mold on her walls. Mold in her vents. Mold that spread to her daughter’s shoes. Mold that bleach can’t wipe out.
One bedroom tested positive for stachybotrys, a toxic mold that’s a known carcinogen. Recently workers cut a hole in her bedroom wall to take test samples that might yield the key to killing it.
“We kept getting sick and it never went away,” said Kononen, “and you start wondering why aren’t you getting better if you’re taking the medicine and it’s still there.”
Cathy Lloyd of Jantzen Beach has already gone through the process Kononen is just beginning. “When they first manufactured this home, they did not seal this drain in the bathtub, all that water was pooling under my house for 2 years,” Lloyd told KATU News.
Though her manufactured home was just a year old, there was mold growing 6 feet high behind the drywall. Exactly one year ago Lloyd, who owns her own home health care nursing service, found herself in the hospital.
“I knew I was dying, I knew it, I could feel it,” Lloyd recalled while fighting back tears. “I was vomiting everyday…I started vomiting blood.”
Loyd suffered respiratory failure and fell into a week-long coma. One of her hospitals bills totalled $29,000; the total cost of her medical bills came to $36,000.
Lloyd blames toxic mold.
Michael Heumann is a mold expert at the Oregon Health Division and knows what’s Lloyd’s talking about. “They send out toxins. The mold and the spores and the toxins get into your mucus membranes and into your lungs, and that can cause symptomatic breathing problems or it can cause problems in your whole system,” said Heumann.
The Center for Disease Control downplays the connection. “These case reports are rare, and a causal link between the presence of the toxic mold and these conditions has not been proven,” reads a statement on the CDC Web site.
quot;The CDC acknowledges there are varying opinions on mold in the scientific and public health communities,” said CDC spokeswoman Bernadette Burden. For this reason, she said, the CDC is working with the Institute of Medicine to review mold literature to date. A report is expected by mid-2003.
Harriet Amman, senior toxicologist for the Washington State Department of Health, sits on the new CDC mold panel, and admits that answers about mold’s effects are slow in coming. Research on indoor mold is fairly new, she said, and quite complex.
Mold has the capability of producing toxins, but only under certain conditions, she said. In some cases, mold might be growing, but producing no toxins. And while toxins might be present, that does not necessarily predict exposure or illness.
“We don’t have a really good idea how prevalent the problems are,” Amman said.
Further, researchers do not yet have good analytical tools for measuring mold-produced toxins, according to W. Elliott Horner, laboratory director for Air Quality Services in Atlanta, Georgia.
Hoping to plug one of the knowledge gaps, Horner is conducting a study of 50 homes for the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development to find the baseline for mold. “In a nutshell we are asking ‘what is normal?'” he said.
Few Answers, More Doctor Visits, Lawsuits
While researchers continue their work, doctors are seeing more patients complaining of mold-related ailments.
Jerry Leiken, director of medical toxicology at Evanston Northwestern Healthcare and Illinois’ only full-time toxicologist, roughly estimates that of the few patients who see him each week for mold-related complaints, about 10 percent actually are suffering from mold damage. He has little guidance from federal health officials, though, to help him evaluate patients.
“We always look to the CDC to help us correlate but they haven’t correlated anything,” he said. “If you go to the CDC Web site, it says go see your doctor. So, I evaluate every person individually and try to look for symptoms that clinically could relate.”
quot;The issue is it can,” says Heumann, “it has no business being in a living environment with you or me or with that family it needs to be gotten out of there.”
That’s what happened to the University of Oregon’s basketball coach.
Ernie Kent and his wife gutted their home and filed a $5 million lawsuit against their builder, the plumber and the plasterer.
Even Ed McMahon filed a $20 million dollar lawsuit last month claiming toxic mold killed his dog.
Mold also effects schools. Two years ago Toutle Lake Elementary was shut down. This year, Scappoose Middle School is dealing with sick students.
While some compare mold to saccharine or asbestos, saying the government will eventually acknowledge the dangers, others, despite the risk of offending “victims,” say mold will eventually be acquitted of the charges against it.
Trying to calm hysteria about toxic mold, public health officials will tell you that molds are everywhere and exist in more than 100,000 species. Although mold has thrived for centuries, even in homes, the growing perceived threat of toxic mold is a relatively recent phenomenon.
New construction techniques and cellulose-based materials used in modern homes, particularly since the 1970’s, seem to encourage mold-growth.
Mold merely needs moisture to begin growing, and can sprout up on a number of different building materials such as wood, ceiling tiles, paints, carpet, sheet rock or insulation. When moisture builds up from leaky pipes or roofs, high humidity, or flooding, conditions are ideal for mold growth.
At Kononen’s apartment, a faulty dryer vent is being blamed for sending moisture into the walls. Now the walls will likely have to be ripped open and Kononen will have to move.
“I don’t want to stay living like this, this ain’t right,” she said.
It’s been a year since Lloyd returned from the hospital, and she wishes she could celebrate the anniversary. “We thought we got rid of it, “said Lloyd, “I can’t believe it’s back.”
The mold has returned. It’s in almost every window, and that’s just the mold that can be seen. Lloyd is now locked in a battle with the home manufacturer to make things right again before she gets sick again.
“It’s like a nightmare that never goes away,” said Lloyd.
Tips From Oregon Health Division
The state health division recommends you don’t spend money testing the mold in your home. Instead use the money to hire someone to get rid of it, because a harmless mold today could be replaced by a toxic mold tomorrow. Unfortunately if you own your own home, state agencies are not obligated to help.
Federal Bill In the Works
U.S. Rep. John Conyers, a veteran Democratic congressman from Detroit will introduce federal legislation in the next few weeks to protect consumers from the physical and financial effects of toxic mold damage. Michigan state lawmakers have proposed similar legislation, and California and New York are among the few states that already have toxic mold laws on the books.
Currently, there are no state or federal standards for mold risks, and no regulation of mold clean-up firms as the government tries to avoid all liability from every aspect. Meanwhile, homeowners can find themselves without insurance to pay for mold damage since most standard policies cover only sudden damage, not maintenance problems such as slow water leaks.