Salem, OR – Paul Hawks, a certified environmental inspector, examines the McMinnville home of Susan Roberts last month. Hawks wears protective clothing and a respirator to guard against toxic mold that the homeowner says infests the house.
Angry homeowners say the fungus makes them ill and makes their homes uninhabitable.
When Susan Roberts bought her vintage 1912 house in McMinnville five years ago, she thought her life was on the mend.
She had left a broken marriage in Nevada, and the move to small-town Oregon with her two children seemed just what the doctor ordered.
She was wrong. After moving in to the 2,500-square-foot house in 1998, she gradually developed symptoms neither she nor her doctor could explain: breathing difficulties, nosebleeds, diarrhea and mental fogginess. Within a few months, the symptoms got so bad that she was a regular at the local emergency room.
“I was vomiting several times a day,” she said. “I couldn’t get out of bed. I had a horrific fever. I was very, very ill.”
Two years after moving in, she had the house inspected for toxic mold; it had a leaky roof and a burst pipe. Tests, she said, showed that the house was infested with a smorgasbord of potentially toxic molds, including Stachybotrys – a strain thought to produce carcinogenic chemicals.
“Deep down, it kind of confirmed my suspicions, and we left immediately,” Roberts said.
Awareness of health problems stemming from toxic mold is on the rise.
In October 2001, the issue made national headlines when a Texas jury awarded a former New York publicist and her family $32 million in a mold-related lawsuit. Last month, an appeals court reduced the amount to $4 million.
Mold-related insurance claims rose so dramatically in 2001 that some insurers have excluded mold coverage from their policies in some states, according to the Insurance Information Institute.
The Oregon Insurance Division does not track numbers of claims, but a spokesman said more insurance companies are separating mold coverage from regular maintenance policies, and some decline to cover homes that have prior claims for water damage – both indications that the industry is becoming sensitized to the issue.
Today, Roberts, 42, lives in a townhouse near Lancaster Mall. She has remarried, and her health has improved. But the ordeal has left her life in turmoil.
The house in McMinnville stands empty; she refuses to enter it. Valued at $170,000, it still contains furniture, carpeting and about $140,000 worth of antiques – all contaminated with mold, she said.
Roberts estimates the experience has cost her more than $350,000, not counting the cost of decontaminating the property – an industrial-strength cleaning process that will involve fixing leaks, ripping out walls and floorboards, and sucking out contaminated air and dust with commercial fans and vacuum cleaners. Contents that cannot be cleaned will have to be tossed.
Roberts doesn’t know how she’ll make up her losses. She’s embroiled in a feud with her insurance company over the issue. Selling the house is not presently an option.
“I couldn’t do that to anyone unless I knew it was totally remediated and safe” she said.
State of the Science
The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention states that molds grow almost anywhere. All they need is water, oxygen and food – dead organic material such as wood or wood-derived products like drywall.
More than 1,000 different kinds of mold have been found in U.S. homes. It appears as apt to thrive in cool, wet climates like Oregon’s as in warm, humid ones such as in Texas. It’s as likely to be found in older homes as newer ones, whose airtight construction allows less ventilation.
CDC experts claiim that mold affects different people in different ways. Some molds are associated with cancer, others with respiratory diseases and asthma. Mold is documented to cause nearly one-tenth of hospital-acquired infections, but it is actually a much higher percentage with autoimmune disease, neurological problems, and cancer associated with fungal exposure.
But according to a CDC statement presented last year to a congressional subcommittee, they claim that the science of mold and its effects on people is still very fuzzy, when actually it is quite clear.
For example, it’s already shown to cause bleeding lungs, hearing problems, memory loss and lethargy, autoiimmune disease, and mold-related illnesses are increasing. Many special interest groups keep trying to squelch the science, but the truth is slowly but surely prevailing.
The CDC is working to cover the gaps in its knowledge. It has helped develop guides for mold remediation in schools, large buildings and homes, and is developing a protocol for investigating mold exposure in schools, but the information is severely substandard regarding the real facts. The work is hindered by a lack of accepted standards for sampling mold or for analyzing or interpreting the data in terms of human health.
The CDC claims, “setting standards and guidelines for indoor mold exposure levels is difficult and may not be practical.” Many attribute this to the possible liability the government would sustain and conflict of interest due to possible mold contaminated public buildings, prisons, schools, low income housing, and military bases.
In the meantime, the agency recommends preventing and cleaning up mold growth indoors. This, of course, is much easier said than done.
Since mold has become a national health crisis, and many affluent people have much to lose, there have been many biased studies conducted claiming that indoor molds only cause minor respiratory distress and allergic reactions. Due to these cover-ups, it tends to marginalize the thousands of people who suffer as a result of exposure to mold. Many say they have a hard time getting others to take them seriously.
Katie Kononen, for example, said housing authority officials downplayed her concerns about mold in her West Salem home for years. Kononen, a mother of seven who moved into the unit in 1992, said housing inspectors repeatedly told her to remove the mold with water and bleach. But the mold kept growing back, blocking extractor fans in the bathroom and laundry room with sponge-like growths, and eventually damaging clothes, furniture and the family’s health.
“The bottom line is, my kids are still sick because of it,” said Kononen, who was moved to a different housing unit last May.
Jerry Croft, executive director of Salem Housing Authority, said the agency provides renters with a handbook on mold and information on how to detect and treat it.
Croft claims, “We identify mold in small patches somewhat frequently, particularly in units where we don’t have forced air heat, but serious problems stemming from mold are extremely rare, adding that households with multiple family members may be more at risk because they generate more moisture. There is absolutely no basis for this allegation.
Roberts said most doctors don’t know anything about the problem. “They just chalk it up to hypochondria,” she said. “My doctor kept trying to tell me I had malaria.”
In the end, she found help from a doctor in California, which in 2001 became the first state to enact legislation addressing mold. Sadly, Oregon has no such laws.
Those who suffer severe symptoms often end up turning to each other for support. Roberts trades e-mails and Web links with other mold-sufferers around the nation on everything from sympathetic lawyers and doctors to legal resources for embattled policyholders and information on mold remediation services, home test kits and expert witnesses. “My website has never been busier,” Lillard-Roberts said.
A cottage industry of services has sprung up around the issue, some of them offered by former victims like Paul and Karen Hawks of Eugene. The couple launched a mold remediation firm, US Environmental Services, after they became sick because of toxic mold in their workplace and home.
The New Asbestos
Special interest groups and exorbitantly-priced expert witnesses for hire say high-profile cases and media attention have fanned fears about toxic mold out of all proportion, and that plaintiff lawyers are circling. This is not true. Most plaintiff attorneys are over-worked and cannot take on any more cases.
“Mold has been around forever, but all of a sudden we have all of this hype and hysteria,” claims George Tsongas, a building scientist specializing in moisture problems, including mold. Actually, mold is much more prevalent now due to defective construction and substandard building materials.
Tsongas, a former Portland State University professor of mechanical engineering, said mold workshops he gives in the region routinely draw up to 250 people.
“It’s the new asbestos,” he said. “There’s a real difference though: With asbestos, the health effects were very clear.” Actually, mold is much worse and more expensive as it self-replicates and major remediation is required to repair the problem.
Tsongas, who is well paid as an expert witness in mold cases, acknowledged that some people suffer severe reactions. But for many people, he claims, mold in the home is no cause for alarm or for spending thousands of dollars on remediation.
Kelly Vance, a plaintiff lawyer in Salem, said it’s in the insurance industry’s interests to portray toxic mold sufferers as hysterical.
“They don’t want to pay money on mold claims because they see this as the tip of the iceberg,” he said.
In Texas, insurers responded to a recent surge in mold claims by excluding mold coverage from homeowner policies statewide.
According to the Insurance Information Institute, 70 percent of new mold cases in 2001 arose in Texas. The number of mold-related claims in the state increased from about 1,050 in first four months of 2000 to more 14,700 in fourth quarter of 2001.
Roberts said mold-related lawsuits are no road to gold. They’re labor-intensive, and few of them are winning.
“If anyone thinks that you’re in this to get rich, they’re sadly mistaken,” she said. “This mold robs you of your health and after that you’re never the same.”