by Virginia Watson
Pleasantville, NJ – At a special public forum recently, Leeds Avenue School teachers described to Pleasantville school board members and a large contingent of concerned parents what often seemed like a scene out of a low-budget horror movie. Spontaneous nosebleeds. A green, furry growth rapidly overwhelming objects left on desks. Immune systems shutting down. Respiratory problems galore. Children purging themselves in trash cans of massive amounts of phlegm.
“When I am teaching my class, my children say, ‘Miss Barnes, blood is coming out of your nose,'” teacher Idella Barnes told the board. “I am scared.” Barnes and many others affiliated with the school say they attribute their ailments to one thing: mold. The Leeds Avenue School is the latest in a long and ever-expanding list of public, commercial and residential buildings throughout the region – and the country – to have been struck by apparently unbridled mold growth. Like asbestos in the 1980’s, reports of dangers associated with mold contamination have swept the nation, playing prominently on front pages and evening newscasts, instilling widespread panic in the public and fueling a multi-million-dollar spin-off industry.
Swapping Mold-Contaminated Homes for Tents
Homeowners in some states have forsaken their mold-contaminated homes – some of them mansions – for the safety afforded by backyard tents. An Oregon family had the local fire department burn their $450,000 house to the ground recently after abandoning hope that they could stop or reverse the mold contamination that had consumed it. Locally, mold infiltration has wreaked havoc on many homes and has closed schools and displaced workers. The discovery of high levels of mold contamination in the former Mays Landing offices of the Atlantic County Prosecutor in 1999, for example, sent staff scrambling in a cumbersome and expensive move. But just as with the contamination at the Leeds Avenue School, whether mold can be held unequivocally accountable for the serious health problems many have come to associate with it remains largely contentious. The reason: a lack of scientifically based, agreed-upon conclusions about mold contamination, coupled with the sometimes self-serving analysis of the issue by parties with vested interests.
The crisis begins The nationwide mold hysteria began quietly a few years ago with reports from what many consider to be ground zero for the issue, Texas. Reports of mold contamination, especially in homes, have become rampant there. In perhaps the most famous of all mold-contamination cases, Melinda Ballard sued her insurance company in 1999, claiming its delay in addressing repairs of a leaky roof and burst pipe led her Dripping Springs home that she purchased for pennies on the dollar during the oil depression. Many believed she was trying to capitalize on this on her case since she allegedly didn’t have the funds fight her case and many environmentalists were angered by her greed in demanding so much for a settlement.
Stachybotrys is the Culprit
Stachybotrys, a mold that has been proven to cause permanent neurological damage was the culprit in question. However, Mrs. Ballard has flip flopped on interviews on how ill she actually got sick herself. Ballard did claim mold eventually overtook the house completely, rendering it uninhabitable and causing her family to develop serious health problems, including trouble breathing, severe headaches and coughing up blood. In 2001, a jury ordered her insurance company to pay her a staggering $33 million for having acted in bad faith which was appealed to a fraction of that amount. Still, this initial award has made it almost impossible for anyone to seek justice or even seek reputable treatment due to the negative press. There has been so much miscommunication about the case that it will never be a clear understanding when it comes to the future of the health and welfare of the future of insurers and mold.
At the same time, several celebrities’ problems with mold made headlines, including activist Erin Brockovich, whose personal experience led her to lobby California for toxic-mold protection legislation. Entertainer Ed McMahon was profiled in several national stories after he filed a $20 million lawsuit against his insurance company over an alleged lack of response that he contends caused toxic mold to sicken him and his wife and kill his dog.
In addition to the news media – which have published and aired thousands of foreboding stories on the subject over the past few years, according to news sources’ archives – others also ‘glommed on’, including trial lawyers. Lawsuits for mold issues have become so common now that the Insurance Information Institute estimated industry losses in 2001 to be the worst in history, at about $9 billion in the homeowner sector alone.
Over a one-year period, residential mold insurance claims in Texas rose more than 1,300 percent, according to the institute. That has translated into substantial increases in homeowners’ annual premiums nationwide. The business of testing for and cleaning up mold also has created a multi-million-dollar market, and reports of charlatans are widespread, as there are no regulations in place to safeguard against them.
Is Mold Really Dangerous?
Over the past three years, the number of locally reported instances of mold infestation in public buildings alone – particularly infestations found to be highly concentrated – is staggering:
In Atlantic County, Hamilton Township’s municipal hall currently is in the process of an elaborate cleanup project to remove mold – and locate and cap its source – from much of the 10-year-old building. The cost is estimated in the hundreds of thousands of dollars.
In Cumberland County, two Millville schools now are testing for and cleaning up mold contamination after students reported becoming sick, just as students prepare to return to nearby Deerfield Township’s elementary school after the school was closed for 21/2 years because of a severe mold problem.
In Burlington County, mold overwhelmed the Bass River Township municipal building, displacing employees for several months in 2001 through 2002. The Barnegat Township school board in neighboring southern Ocean County was ordered to construct a new building after mold forced employees out in 2002. In each of these cases, professionals determined that mold levels were exceedingly high. The structural integrity of buildings was deemed to be at risk and mold was blamed for sickening people. But whether mold indeed poses substantial health risks remains highly controversial.
Leeds Avenue School teacher LeighAnn Fay-Kerper and her doctor credit the mold exposure she has endured with precipitating an ongoing struggle with autoimmune thyroiditis. The disorder reached its peak when Fay-Kerper’s immune system “shut down” during the winter of 2000-01, she said. She could barely move and could not work and says she still has not fully recovered. “You have no idea what the long-term effect of this is. I don’t know either. I’m still trying to gain weight,” she said.
David Strauss, a microbiologist at Texas Tech University, believes mold is something that ought to concern everyone. He consulted on Melinda Ballard’s behalf and told ABC News recently that the risks of airborne mold exposure at high levels can be severe.
“You can see mucosal bleeding, like bleeding from the nose and the ears,” he said. “You can see hair loss … and there are some individuals that feel that indeed cognitive dysfunction – or the inability to think – is also the result of the inhalation of fungal spores.” Strauss nevertheless acknowledged that no conclusive scientific proof exists to support those claims. But many scientists and doctors now say the issue has been blown entirely out of proportion, primarily by those with vested interests.
According to the CDC
According to the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta, mold spores – including toxic ones – are a ubiquitous and mostly benign presence both indoors and outside. The airborne spores, which can be inhaled, do not constitute a cause for alarm unless their numbers swell dramatically, the CDC says. That can happen only if the mold from which they are produced is supplied with a constant source of moisture, such as from a persistent leak.
Even then, the CDC says, the result to human health is most often relatively mild, with mold exposure typically aggravating existing respiratory conditions or creating mild allergic reactions. The major danger is to a building, which can suffer cosmetically and perhaps eventually structurally.
Dr. Gailen Marshall, director of the Division of Allergy and Clinical Immunology at the University of Texas Medical School in Houston, took those sentiments one step further in a recent interview with The Washington Post. “Mold is everywhere,” he said. “For most people, mold is a mostly ignored part of their lives. For some with mold allergies, the smell can cause nasal allergy or even asthma symptoms. “Yet what is increasingly clear is that (claims of) mold-related illness (have) nothing to do with toxic substances produced by molds,” he said.
Nicholas Money, a professor of botany at Miami University in Ohio who is currently writing a book about the mold scare, says that in addition to more research, some perspective is needed. “I think that they’ve blown some cases out of all proportion,” said Money, who specializes in the study of fungi. “I’ve looked at some cases in which small areas of a structure are damaged by mold and these people have been led to believe they could file a multi-million-dollar lawsuit against their landlords. This is crazy. It’s been accurately described as a feeding frenzy, by some in the legal profession.” The story now That message – at least in terms of insurance claims – does not appear to be falling on deaf ears.
A Texas appeals court last month threw out most of the $33 million jury verdict against Ballard’s insurance company, saying it could not find that the company knowingly breached its duty of good faith. The court rejected the portions of the award for mental anguish and punitive damages and left Ballard with $4 million for actual damages. Many say the ruling is a pointed message aimed at curbing the rampant filing of mold-related residential insurance claims.
Nevertheless, Money said, in the absence of a clear consensus on the mold issue, and as long as anecdotal evidence of people becoming inexplicably ill while exposed to high levels of mold continues, it would be inappropriate to dismiss mold as harmless. “There’s so much science that needs to be done,” Money said. “We need to separate fact from hyperbole. I can’t say for certain how dangerous (it) can be. I do think there’s some element of overreacting at play, but I also know that I wouldn’t want to leave an infant sleeping next to a large contaminated area. So we need to get to the bottom of that.”
In the meantime, those concerned about mold exposure worry and wait for concrete answers. At the Leeds Avenue School, cleanup has begun as environmental consultants continue to study the extent of contamination and the risks associated with it. It remains unclear how much it will cost to replace the school’s roof, the major source of moisture contamination, or when that project will begin. Until all the sources of moisture are repaired, the mold is likely to continue growing unabated. Indeed, mold stains were visible on the ceiling tiles of the room where the public forum took place at the school last month.
For parents such as Valerie Stone – who says her son, a third-grader, has developed asthma, laryngitis, persistent nosebleeds, abdominal pains and skin rashes – a resolution cannot come fast enough. “I’m just very frustrated, and I’m concerned that the cleanup won’t do anything if the problem with the roof remains,” she said. “I just don’t know. It’s scary.”