Fresno, CA – The day Michelle Seniff found out that a black mold inside her Visalia rental home might have killed her 16-month-old son was the day she left. When Rob Seniff got home from his job at a cheese processing plant that February day two years ago, the Seniffs fled the house, leaving everything — furniture, linens, pots and pans and two dogs in the back yard. A neighbor agreed to feed and water the pets until the Seniffs found another home.
They wouldn’t go back to retrieve a few belongings until last month, after a wrongful death and personal injury lawsuit had been settled for $2.35 million. The Seniffs claimed water leaks in the home allowed mold to grow, exposing their son, Brice, to toxins that caused bleeding in his lungs that led to his death.
Molds make noses run. They can trigger hay fever and asthma attacks. For years, doctors have known that farmers working around moldy hay or grain have developed inflammation of their lungs. But killer mold?
Whether the kind of mold that spread through the Seniffs’ home is capable of making people gravely ill and whether it caused the bleeding in Brice’s lungs that killed him remains a question for scientists to answer.
Number of Lawsuits Escalates
But while health threats from mold remain cloudy, its impacts on insurance companies, builders and consumers are clear.
Entire law firms specialize in mold litigation. Insurance companies are altering policies to exclude mold damage claims because they are paying out so much; an industry of people who inspect and clean moldy homes is flourishing. There have been an estimated 10,000 mold-related lawsuits filed in the past decade.
Media reports of people living in moldy homes who claim mold caused brain damage, bleeding lungs and cancer only serve to frighten the public, the National Association of Home Builders says.
But lawyers and advocates for homeowners and tenants say people are filing more lawsuits because they’re more educated about the potential health risks from mold exposure.
New home construction also gets some of the blame.
Double-pane windows and layers of insulation that reduce energy costs also hold in heat and moisture and create a cozy environment for mold growth.
Newer building materials — cellulose insulation and plaster board — suck up water and take time to dry. And homes are built quickly today, which can lead to roofs that leak, windows that don’t fit properly and plumbing that falls apart.
David Jaffe, staff vice president for construction liability for the National Association of Home Builders, said there is no evidence the way homes are being built today and the materials being used contribute to mold claims.
And lawyers for builders, subcontractors and landlords say modern construction isn’t at fault. They refer to a “mold is gold” phenomenon, claiming publicity about multimillion-dollar settlements is an incentive for people to sue.
Ed McMahon Won his Case
Three mold cases cited most often (as of 1/2/04):
- A $7.2 million settlement of a mold lawsuit filed by entertainer Ed McMahon.
- A settlement with the builder in a lawsuit brought by paralegal and environmental activist Erin Brockovich.
- A $32 million settlement, later reduced to $4 million and now on appeal, in a lawsuit filed by a Texas homeowner.
The Seniffs joined the flood of mold litigants in 2002, about a year after Brice’s death.
They sued the owner of the Visalia home they were renting, the rental management company and two roofers who had worked on the leaky roof.
In October, a $2.35 million settlement was reached.
Insurers say mold damage claims have poured into their offices in the past three years.
Last year alone, insurers paid $3 billion nationwide in mold claims — more than double the total paid the previous year, according to the Insurance Information Institute, a New York-based trade association.
California is second in the nation behind Texas in mold lawsuits and payouts, said Pete Moraga, a spokesman for the Insurance Information Network.
Most insurance policies now exclude mold damage or put monetary caps on the amounts they will cover. For instance, since December 2002, State Farm Insurance has limited mold damage to $5,000 for a home and $10,000 for commercial property. Mold claims are paid only if they were caused by a “covered loss,” such as a burst water pipe.
Mold Needs Water and Food
Mold lawsuits are a byproduct of modern times, but mold is not a new problem.
People have been co-existing with mold since they lived in caves and slept on straw mats on damp ground.
There are 50,000 to 250,000 species of mold that flourish anywhere they can find water and a food source. Inside a house, they feed on wood, paper and drywall. Even dust can be a meal for molds. They spread rapidly by reproducing microscopic spores that float in the air, land on a moist spot and multiply.
Not all molds are harmful. Penicillin, derived from a mold, has saved hundreds of thousands of lives since its discovery in 1928. Only a fraction of the more than 1,000 types of molds found in homes release mycotoxins, or poisons, that are known to cause allergic reactions.
But it’s whether these toxic molds cause adverse health effects, such as bleeding in the lungs, memory loss and fatigue, that scientists are trying to determine.
“There’s a lot we need to know,” said Dr. Stephen Redd, chief of the air pollution and respiratory health branch at the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
No one knows how much exposure to toxic molds is too much. Unlike other toxins, such as radon, there are no federal safety standards for acceptable concentrations of indoor molds.
California passed the Toxic Mold Protection Act of 2001 to define safe mold limits and the health threat posed by indoor molds.
Two years later, the law remains stalled, waiting for the state to allocate the $518,000 that is needed to begin the research.
But homeowners want someone they can call when they notice a black, slippery smudge on a bathroom baseboard or window sill. And they’re willing to pay to find out if the mold is dangerous.
Mold inspectors who will test a home for toxic spores can be found in almost any community.
“There’s a whole cottage industry set up around this mold issue — people calling themselves ‘mold inspectors,'” said Christopher Tennant, a certified industrial hygienist and professor of industrial hygiene and environmental health at California State University, Fresno.
Testing a home for mold isn’t cheap. Mold sampling can run $125 an hour.
Getting rid of mold is similar to asbestos removal, said Larry Parfitt, owner of APC Contractors Inc. of Fresno. His workers wear protective clothing and respirators while they tear out walls and floors that are covered with fuzzy, black mold. Filtration machines scrub the air to keep spores from escaping throughout a house.
The workers follow a clean-up plan prepared by a certified industrial hygienist.
The cost depends, Parfitt said, but a homeowner can expect to pay at least a couple of thousand dollars and up to $5,000 or $6,000.
’93 Cases Gained Attention
The toxic mold that raises the most health concerns, brings the most lawsuits and gets the most attention is Stachybotrys chartarum, a greenish-black slime that thrives in wet conditions inside homes.
Stachybotrys is the mold the Seniffs believe killed Brice.
Stachybotrys gained notoriety in 1993, when babies in Cleveland were discovered to be suffering from severe bleeding in the lungs. It was reported the babies all lived in homes found to be contaminated with the mold.
But since then, the scientific community has been split on a cause-and-effect relationship between mold and infant pulmonary hemorrhage.
The CDC initially agreed with independent investigators in Cleveland that exposure to mold in the homes might have caused bleeding in babies’ lungs. But the CDC in a 2000 report says there were shortcomings in the initial study and the investigations didn’t prove an association.
In the Seniffs’ case, they weren’t aware the musty odor of their carpet was from mold or that brown stains on the ceiling in the den, where Brice napped during the day, and a similar stain in the nursery where he slept at night, harbored colonies of Stachybotrys.
Two other toxic molds — aspergillus and penicillium — also were found in the home, said Jeff Taber, a Kings County environmental health officer the Seniffs hired to inspect the house for mold.
When Brice died, Michelle didn’t believe the cause of death listed on the death certificate by the Tulare County coroner’s office: respiratory arrest, due to pulmonary dysplasia, a condition caused by prematurity of the lungs.
Brice was full-term, she said. But he was tiny at birth, weighing 4 pounds, 8 ounces. His twin sister, Courtney, weighed 6 pounds, 4 ounces.
Brice stayed in the hospital for two weeks in an incubator with a feeding tube in his stomach. But Michelle Seniff said he was healthy when he came home, and he quickly outgrew his sister.
Courtney had respiratory problems and constant colds. When her brother died, her parents worried the twins might have a congenital problem.
They took Courtney to Visalia pediatrician Kathryn Hall in November 2001. Hall sent for Brice’s autopsy report. She asked a pediatric pathologist for his opinion. His report sug-gested bleeding in the lungs.
Hall said in a written statement that she looked up possible causes for the bleeding. One of the suspected causes was mold. She advised the family to leave the home “pending testing of the home for mold.”
Mick Marderosian, a Fresno lawyer hired by the Seniffs, said evidence existed to link Brice’s death to mold.
Marderosian said a new testing technique, using DNA probes, found mold in Brice’s lung tissue and toxins produced by the mold. The mold in the tissue sample matched Stachybotrys chartarum. Proof enough, Marderosian said, to make a case that exposure to mold could have caused bleeding in Brice’s lungs and his death.
Other attorneys, however, question the scientific methods used to identify mold in Brice’s lung tissue. No such test has been scientifically validated or approved by the federal government, they say.
Mad at the House
The Seniffs have moved to Northern California. The air is healthier there for stepson Joey Stokes, 10, and for Courtney, who continues to have respiratory problems. Another stepson, Jimmy Stokes, 12, lives in Clovis with his father.
Michelle Seniff said Courtney’s lungs became less congested after the family moved out of the rental house in Visalia.
When she and Rob returned to the Visalia rental last month, she didn’t bring Courtney, Jimmy or Joey. She wore a protective suit, mask and gloves while inside the house.
She saved the dress Courtney wore to Brice’s funeral, family photos, Brice’s baby blanket and the tiny hats she dressed him in, all put away until they could be professionally rid of mold spores. Beds, chairs, dishes, books, computers and toys went into a Dumpster in the driveway, to be hauled to a county dump.
Before she closed the door and turned her back to the house, Michelle Seniff sat in the babies’ nursery by herself. She cried and she screamed. “I was so mad at the house,” she said. “It took Brice’s life.”