Dot Williams’ life began to fall apart shortly after her living room floor collapsed.
It was April 17, 2001, she recalled, when a worker from her son-in-law’s construction company crawled under her 30-year-old home and discovered its beams were infested with mold that had feasted on her home. “We thought we had termites,” Williams said. “I didn’t realize what it was.”
It would be the first episode in a two-year struggle that she says has left her sick, scared and angry. Williams’ case synthesizes the health and financial questions surrounding an increasingly high-profile yet microscopic subject. Analyses by other investigators revealed patches of the naturally occurring microscopic organisms thriving on Williams’ porch, ceiling and roof where water had leaked in years before and the mold began to grow. Gray-green mold clings to the Ponderosa pine walls of her bedroom. “It looks like a gray ghost has taken over the room,” she said.
Williams’ two-story home sits near the intersection of Mississippi 589 and old U.S. 49. Trucks thunder past her mailbox. A cat peeks through the monkey grass around her high fence before scurrying away. A secluded home like hers might seem pleasant. But Williams, 59, believes exposure to the mold and fungi in her home has contributed to her and her husband, Mathyn’s, health problems, which include respiratory infections, headaches and skin irritations.
Nearly two years later, she’s seen 10 of her 12 cats die from what she believes are mold-related illnesses. She even bleaches the apples in her home to kill mold growing on them. Williams holds open her mouth to show a visitor the white spots on the insides of her jaws that she says cause her throat infections. She fidgets with her rings and necklace in the living room where water-filled lights bubble on her Christmas tree. “I feel just like crying and screaming, and I feel like going and getting into a room and curling up and going to sleep in a ball,” Williams said. “I feel suicidal. It’s not calm. But what can you do?”
While Williams ponders abandoning her home, Mississippi health, insurance and real estate officials are grappling with how to calm increasing public concern about mold infestation, which some believe has been blown out of proportion by the media and high-profile legal cases. Molds are nothing new – they were even cited in the Book of Leviticus. They are naturally occurring organisms that feed on dead material and propagate in moist environments. Thousands can be found on everything from clothes to food to skin. Most molds are simply harmless fungi, including most black molds, which are often mistakenly thought to be toxic.
But one black mold called Stachybotrys chartarum and its toxic by-product known as mycotoxin have been the focus of most of the panic. It’s believed Stachybotrys can worsen health problems in people who already have shaky health and can negatively affect normally healthy people. But pinning down how many people in the state might have mold infections remains elusive because the Mississippi State Department of Health does not track mold-related illnesses.
However, two Hattiesburg-area home and environmental experts said the area’s inherent moisture and humidity make South Mississippi a haven for mold. Mold also flourishes in wet, cold climates such as Wisconsin where a $500,000 home was razed in early December because of severe mold infestation. “The majority of the people who have crawl spaces in Forrest and Lamar counties have a mold problem,” said Sonny Jarrell, a Hattiesburg home inspector and certified mold specialist.
Like Jarrell, Bonner Analytical Testing Co. owner Mike Bonner recounts tales of mold-encrusted air conditioners and attics where the organisms thrive because of the high moisture content. “We’ve seen lots of black mold in Hattiesburg, but very little of it is Stachybotrys,” Bonner said. His assessment of the mold problem? “Eighty percent of the homes really have issues with the air conditioning system being highly contaminated with bacteria and fungi.”
Since 2000, the University of Southern Mississippi has been fighting mold at the Honor House, a two-story house built around 1912 and used as the offices for the USM Foundation, said David Anderson, associate vice president of facilities. Mold was removed twice from the old house at a cost of about $40,000, first in 2000 and again in 2002, and water damage repaired. Numerous complaints from office workers prompted the clean-up, which revealed no Stachybotrys, Anderson said. “I could go into the building and it didn’t bother me personally, and there were some people who worked in the building that were very allergic to it,” he said.
Ultraviolet lights were installed in the supply ducts of the air-conditioning system to kill mold particles. As recently as Monday, tests showed that the maintenance has done “a very effective job” and complaints have greatly decreased, Anderson said. However, he still wants to replace carpeting with hardwood floors.
Curt Redden, former vice president for university advancement, said some of the foundation’s staff complained of respiratory illnesses, but the university’s work seemed to have solved the trouble. Before he retired last June, Redden said he moved back to the Honor House from the administration building after the mold clean-up. “If our staff members were having trouble, I wanted to be in there with them,” said Redden.
Ten to 15 Mississippi residents call state health department officials weekly about mold, compared to one call per week 15 years ago, said Bruce Brackin, deputy epidemiologist. The increase comes because of more attention to mold illnesses by residents, a more health-conscious society in general and published and televised reports on mold cases, according to Brackin. “When we see something in the media we can expect to see an increase of phone calls for a while,” he said.
Brackin is concerned that too many people believe all mold causes health problems in everyone, which is not the case. But the mold issue isn’t solely a health-related issue as attorneys and plaintiffs sue insurance companies to pay for covering health care costs, among other things. “Right now it could be a legal problem,” Brackin said. “There well could be something to the toxic mold claims.” The tiny toxic mold has meant gold for some people in the recent past – a California homeowner won an $18.5 million case against his insurance company after mold occurred after water damage and a Texas family won $32.1 million from its insurance company over a mold and water damage claim. Already reeling from climbing insurance rates and companies that have stopped writing policies, the Mississippi Department of Insurance negotiated a compromise, said John Wells, deputy rating director for the department. “Companies were getting their brains beat out over in Texas right and left, and we already had a problem over here with availability and we didn’t want to create any more,” Wells said. Wells said the agency and insurance companies had to “sit down and hammer out a position for the state to take on mold” and raised the mold damage coverage on policies to $10,000. “It’s a compromise and an alternate position, too,” Wells said.
Calls about the issue were not returned by Jackson attorney David Baria, president of the Mississippi Trial Lawyers Association, or by Texas law firm Reich & Binstock, A task force of the Mississippi Association of Realtors will consider making mold disclosure a mandatory part of the state’s standard real estate agreement when it meets in February, said Rebekah Johnson, spokeswoman for the association. Currently there is no mold disclosure clause on a standard Mississippi real estate contract. “Since it’s an issue and since standard forms would be updated, our group would be looking at it for that reason and at least considering and opening that dialogue,” said Johnson.
All of these issues converge in Dot Williams’ case. Williams said she has spent two years wrangling with her insurance company about payment to repair mold damage. But her insurance policy does not cover mold damage specifically, according to David Hammarstrom, a spokesman for Metropolitan Property and Casualty Insurance Co. The company agreed to move Williams out of her house temporarily and pay for her expenses while microbiologists examined the home. But Williams doesn’t want the company’s money because she said she doesn’t trust the company.
Williams said she is taking antibiotics to stave off infections and has been minimizing her time at the home where she’s lived much of her life.