The hype and horrors of toxic mold

Over the past few years, a new disease has swept the nation. It isn’t viral, it isn’t even biological. It’s chronic mold anxiety, and it’s making thousands of cold or allergy sufferers wonder if their houses are sickening them, causing insurance companies to rewrite policies on the fly, and turning the hairs of many a builder, plumber, and HVAC contractor white.
Ever since June 2001, when a Texas couple won a $32 million judgment for a bungled insurance claim on their leaky mansion, mold has become perennial fodder for newspapers and magazines. Tales of respiratory problems, sinus infections, memory loss, brain damage, and even death from so-called “toxic mold” have circulated nonstop. Images of evil looking, green-black mold sprouting on drywall and taking over homes are cropping up in the press and on hundreds of Web sites that promise diagnosis and litigation help for affected owners.
For some lawyers, of course, mold is just black-green gold. It’s estimated some 20,000 mold-related lawsuits have been filed in the last two years, against insurance carriers as well as contractors, subcontractors, owners, developers, landlords, architects, engineers, suppliers, and manufacturers.
As lawyers go to work and insurance companies adjust their rates and coverage, legislators have swung into action as well. Bills have been introduced in some 18 states to address mold issues ranging from real estate disclosure to mandatory insurance coverage. Thankfully, most also call for more research.
Call it what you want — the next asbestos, a mass hysteria, a real public health crisis, or a cynical, lawyer-driven scam — one thing is sure: mold is now a fact of life for virtually all builders.
Mold in buildings is nothing new, of course. Even the Old Testament speaks of cleansing or even destroying homes affected by it (proper remediation involved cedar, a scarlet cloth, a hyssop branch, and the sacrifice of two birds). The problem has been gathering steam for several decades. “Sick building syndrome,” often attributed in part to mold problems, simmered in people’s awareness all through the 1980s, although without grabbing headlines. Mold was suspected in the deaths of nine infants in Cleveland in the mid-1990s. A few cases drew attention in the late 1990s before television reports in 1999 on the Texas couple’s case blew the lid off the story.
Mold claims have been around for a long time, too — probably for as long as there’s been homeowner’s insurance. Most have been on the grounds of nuisance smells or unsightly blotches, and these usually in the wake of floods or plumbing problems. But the sudden volume of claims, accompanied by allegations of serious health problems, is relatively new. Obvious leaks are still the biggest culprit, but mold is sometimes identified in buildings with no obvious water intrusion problems.
Blame has been cast on everything from global warming to the over-prescription of antibiotics. Others cite the building booms in humidity-prone Texas and Florida — although suits in arid California are just as prevalent, and cases have cropped up in all climates. Most experts agree that mold lawsuits require the presence of four factors: spores, moisture, trial lawyers, and a sensationalist press.
Although it has been disputed, many builders believe that tighter building methods adopted since the 1970s have made for wall cavities that simply can’t dry out as quickly, whether from leaks or condensation problems (see following story).
The explosion of litigation has occurred in the absence of good evidence for the toxicity of mold. Like the phrase “killer bees,” “toxic mold” has a ring to it that has catapulted some pretty ordinary stuff — shower scum — into the public imagination.
There are in fact about 100,000 different species of mold, and more than 1,000 of them show up in American homes and buildings. (Mold differs from decay fungi, which eat wood and cause rot, as well as surface stain mold, which discolors lumber with a distinctive blue stain.)
The mold that first garnered the “toxic” label — bestowed by the press, not scientists — is Stachybotrys chartarum, also known as black mold. Some in the mold business identify Aspergillus, Cladosporium, Penicillium, as well as Stachybotrys as toxic molds, or at least more dangerous species.
A report issued last fall by the Texas Medical Association looked at all clinical evidence published in peer-reviewed journals of reported Stachybotrys-related health problems and concluded that, beyond those with allergies and compromised immune systems, there was no evidence that mold is a pathogen. “There is no reason to panic,” says Wes Stafford, an allergist and immunologist who researched for the report. “At this point, it’s more a legal issue than a medical issue.”
The insurance companies are delighted with the absence of medical evidence. “Although there could be individuals who might have allergic reactions to the presence of mold, or have preexisting conditions aggravated by inhaling mold, the ‘toxic’ label is clearly unproven,” insurance executive Dave Golden told a December 2002 meeting of the American Society of Heating, Refrigerating and Air Conditioning Engineers. “It’s been around forever, it’s easily remediated, and its health threat has been greatly exaggerated and virtually unproven by scientific fact.”
The absence of evidence, however, doesn’t necessarily mean it’s all a scam, or a mass panic: there are a lot of ailments doctors can’t get a handle on, particularly immune disorders. There’s ample evidence that mold can cause severe health problems in those sensitive to it. A 1999 Mayo Clinic study attributed most chronic sinus infections to mold. The Internet is full of compelling horror stories of mold victims with memory loss and internal bleeding, and it’s difficult to pass it all off as invention. “It is clear that some people are unaffected by mold of any kind, while others are acutely sensitive,” notes the Texas report. Stachybotrys, it concedes, causes allergic reactions in 8 to 10 percent of the population.
The question of toxicity has tended to overwhelm the long-accepted notion that mold in walls is a disgusting, smelly nuisance. It’s both a symptom and cause of problems that should be addressed, whether by builders or owners. Looking at photos of contaminated homes, one can hardly blame those who live with mold from feeling sickened by it.
Mold growth requires four ingredients: relatively temperate air, mold spores, nutrients such as cellulose, and moisture. Temperate air prevails in buildings, and mold spores are virtually everywhere. Nutrients in buildings can be minimized, but eliminating them is virtually impossible. Only moisture lends itself to control.
The mold problem has most prominently affected homebuilders. Surveys have shown that 30-50 percent of all homes have high enough moisture to support mold growth. “We’ve found that 28 percent of the builders reported that they had mold in at least one house under construction in the past year,” says Tom Kenney of the NAHB Research Center. “Eighteen percent have reported at least one occupied house with a mold problem.”
Many other types of buildings have been shut down for remediation as well. Apartment buildings, with tenants who neglect problems and landlords who often forgo maintenance, are prime grounds for problems; the larger partition walls, oftentimes incorrectly fitted with vapor barriers on both sides, are particularly prone to contamination. Schools, with susceptible children and a need to err on the side of safety, have also become danger zones for builders.
Virtually any occupied structure is a candidate for mold, says Florida remediator Paul Furr. He recently visited a construction site to treat framing that had been soaked in a flood. When he found the secretary coughing badly in a musty jobsite trailer, he offered to treat the carpeting for free. When he returned a week later the woman’s cough was gone, and he had a contract and another believer.
As for the “next asbestos,” it’s clear that mold is both worse and not nearly as bad. With mold, there are no manufacturers involved who knowingly marketed a dangerous product, as in the case of asbestos, so liabilities are limited to individual outbreaks.
On the other hand, we can’t just remediate mold into oblivion and be done with it. Whether or not its toxicity is ever proved, mold will remain a nuisance and, frequently, a flag for botched construction or poor maintenance. It’s one problem that will likely never go away.

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