By Jules Crittenden : The Herald
Sunday, December 14, 2003
It sounds like a horror movie: Black mold that grows out of control on the walls, out of the light switches, sickening everyone in the house and even killing.
For several Massachusetts families and possibly hundreds across the country, the nightmare is a reality that drove them out of their houses. But medical and technical experts say it has not been determined whether mold – which exists virtually everywhere in some form – is responsible for all the ailments that are blamed on it.
“It’s a nightmare. It really is,” said Nancy Davis of Pepperell, whose family moved out of their mold-infested house two weeks ago – leaving all their property behind and undergoing chemical decontamination on the way out. Now, the Davises are paying nearly $1,000 a month in rent on top of a $1,900 mortgage for a house they can’t live in. A mild seasonal allergy sufferer, she had nose bleeds, asthma and incessant coughs for the year she, her husband and their son lived there. “We have no idea what to do with that house,” Davis said. “You talk to 10 different mediators, you’ll get 10 different answers.”
In Abington, Dean Moore said, “We tore our house down.”
He suspects the bacterial meningitis death of his infant son Ryan in 1996 was related to mold from a failed septic system; his daughters’ asthma, rashes and one girl’s heart trouble; and his wife’s frequent bouts of pneumonia. Instead of cleaning, excavating and replacing walls at a cost of tens of thousands of dollars – with no guarantee of results, Dean and Patrice Moore rebuilt from the ground up. It cost them $220,000 in a second mortgage, along with the generous aid of local tradesmen.
“If you look at our medical history, when we moved into the house, we were healthy, and then we all developed something,” Moore said. “When we were out, we got better again.”
A bill now in Congress would provide financial relief and calls on the government to establish mold standards. In the Massachusetts Legislature, Sen. Robert O’Leary (D-Barnstable) is calling for a task force to study the issue. The federal Centers for Disease Control has commissioned a study to search the literature for mold-related health effects and to advise the agency on what action it should take.
“There is not a great deal of agreement in the medical community,” said Suzanne Condon of the state Department of Public Health. While it is established that mold can exacerbate allergies and asthma and is harmful to people with compromised immune systems, she and others said, there is no solid evidence linking mold exposure to problems in otherwise healthy people. Among about 100 homes and buildings inspected for air quality complaints, the number where heavy mold is found increased steadily from 10 in 1999 to 41 this year. But Condon notes this year and last year both had damp autumns.
While some experts cite the use of materials such as wallboard that can harbor mold, and increasingly airtight houses that don’t let moisture escape, some also attribute the increase in complaints to publicity about the problem, beginning with a lawsuit in Texas that won $32 million in damages in 2001 and spawned a series of similar suits. In Massachusetts last month, a Gloucester woman was awarded $549,000 after she sued her condominium association in 1995 for failing to keep moisture and mold out of her unit. In Massachusetts, there are no regulations or standards governing what is a harmful level of mold, who is qualified to make that determination or how to clean it.