by Beverly J. Lydick, Tribune Staff
When Nikki Swanson moved into the yellow house on Nickerson Road, she planned to stay forever. After all, the two-story frame house, built in the 1860s, had been in her mother’s family for three generations and Swanson looked forward to raising her own family in the very same rooms. But that was 1994, before Swanson, her husband, Steve, and their children became ill with respiratory problems no one could easily explain. In 2000, 7-year-old daughter Sydney, who had begun propping herself up in bed to breathe more easily, started having nosebleeds. Swanson developed what doctors described as allergy-induced asthma in 2001, and her husband suffered from sinus and skin irritations. The youngest members of the family, sons Elijah and Benjamin, now 6 and 4, respectively, also had upper respiratory problems and headaches. There were many trips to the doctor. No one suspected the source of the family’s troubles came from within the walls of their home. It took a look into the cellar to finally bring the answer to light.
A heavy rainstorm in June 2001 caused water to run down the interior walls of the house. The Swansons, who had weatherized, reshingled and vented their home five years before, believed the force of the storm caused the deluge. But their homeowner’s policy did not cover the damage. The insurance company claimed, because the shingles were in good condition, no interior damage could have been caused by the storm. When the couple sought an attorney’s advice, he agreed with the insurance company. The Swansons were left to contend with the mess. They also continued to seek reasons for their poor health, eliminating one theory after another.
Meanwhile, the children developed dark circles beneath their eyes and failed to gain weight as they normally would. Still, the couple worked toward making the old farmhouse into a family home. Throughout the years, they had planted tiny oaks and sunburst locust trees near the house and landscaped the sloping lawn with flowerbeds and a rustic wooden fence. Now, there were swings, a tiny playhouse and even a swimming pool for the children — a livestock tank, complete with a wooden deck. Deciding in the summer of 2001 to jack up the house and build a better foundation, they sought contractors to bid the job. When one arrived to inspect the site in October, Nikki Swanson opened the cellar door to show him the way below.
"I hadn’t been down there for about six weeks," she said, "and when I opened the door, the inside (of the door) was dripping wet."
What Swanson described as "lint floaties" emerged from the hole beneath the house. She and the contractor went down the steps into the cellar, where the floor was bone-dry. Then she noticed the handle of a shovel standing in the corner. It was covered with a brownish substance, nearly a half-inch thick. Nikki Swanson had inadvertently found the answer to her family’s health problems. It was growing in the cellar, covering floor joists, water pipes, and everything stored there.
What appeared to be soot or dust, in shades of green, brown, black or white, was aspergillus, a mold known to cause pulmonary hemorrhaging. The Swansons took their children and left that day. In hindsight, they theorize, the mold began growing in their home for several reasons. The original 1860s house was built of cottonwood, more porous than the pine used to build an addition in 1908. A subsequent inspection revealed the pine lumber to be unaffected by the mold, while the cottonwood had become a primary food source. Also, when the couple weatherized their home so efficiently in 1996, patching every crack and crevice, they virtually sealed in moisture that normally would have escaped. Although the home was adequately vented, excess moisture still built up in the walls.
The last straw came with the heavy rain in June, which forced water through the roof valleys and into the walls of the old house, where it remained. Moving in October to the home of Swanson’s parents, Duane and Fran Liston, the couple began researching the condition which had taken over their house. Dr. Kenneth Nickerson, a professor on the East Campus at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, provided some valuable information about mold, and the Swansons decided to have the house tested to determine the level of the problem. Petri dishes were placed throughout the home in November, and Midwest Labs of Omaha made the final analysis. The mold would have to be eliminated before the family could safely live in the house. But when the Swansons searched for a contractor, not one wanted to be held to a bid because the damage appeared too extensive. After much thought and prayer, the couple decided to give up on the old place. They offered the acreage to any family member who wanted to buy, and someone made them a deal.
While the land will remain in the family, the house will be burned down. Many articles in the home will be left behind — upholstered furniture and other items in which mold can thrive. The Swansons have attempted to salvage as much as they can — washing or wiping down articles with a solution of bleach and water and setting them in the sun to dry. Those entering the house to work wear protective masks. It is a slow, eerie process. Still, things are looking up.
The Swansons recently purchased a home in Uehling. Their children, once again healthy, have grown much closer to their grandparents, the Listons and Gordon and Linda Swanson, who all provided shelter and support through the entire ordeal. And Nikki and Steve Swanson have learned several lessons. One is carefully read and understand insurance policies. They also found out Dodge County does not have a public health department.
Ironically, because there is no such office, the Swansons were unable to have the old house condemned, and had to pay taxes on it even though it was uninhabitable. Despite everything, Nikki Swanson is grateful to have discovered the source of her family’s dilemma before it was too late. "I’m so incredibly thankful we found out what was wrong," she said, recommending concerns about mold be addressed to the county extension agent.