Congress Takes on 'Killer Mold'

ByABC News
May 8, 2002, 12:40 PM

May 9 -- Pam Walker and her family lived in their Southfield, Mich., home for only 24 days before the mold drove them out.

Walker's then-7-year-old daughter Melina, who Walker calls her "human radar detector," started suffering multiple, uncontrollable attacks that Walker says eventually led the girl to lose 70 percent of her lung capacity. The entire family itched with hives and their noses bled.

The newly bought three-bedroom house, which Walker said reeked unforgettably like dirt and sulphur, soon became suspect. Searching for what made the family sick, teams of investigators, sewer and gas workers and cleaners marched through the property.

Frantic, Walker called every health official she could reach, from the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention down to the local health department. Her inquiries yielded little.

A team of environmental specialists finally found the alleged culprit: A green-black, slick mold called Stachybotrys chartarum, one of several species often referred to as "toxic mold," growths that produce poisons that can seep into the body through the nose, mouth and skin.

The sickening slime, reputed to cause maladies from headaches to coughs to memory loss, has been found in schools, police stations, workplaces, public housing projects and residences across the country and is getting more attention as plaintiffs and defendants, toxicologists and doctors spar over its risks. Even entertainer Ed McMahon filed a $20 million lawsuit last month claiming that toxic mold killed his dog.

Once her sick house was diagnosed in April 2001, Walker figured the "system" would kick in and solve the problem.

"At first, I thought that someone would step in and save us," she said.

Instead, Walker describes frustrating negotiations with insurance agents, real estate companies, public health officials, physicians and government agencies. Even at the highest levels of government and science, Walker found more questions than answers about the health effects of mold, despite a pileup of scary anecdotes, hefty insurance claims and big-money jury verdicts.

Federal Bill In the Works

Less than a month after closing on her new home, Walker and her two daughters were told to flee, and leave their contaminated possessions behind.

Walker's family has lived out of boxes ever since, unable to afford another home or apartment, because neither Walker's homeowner's insurance policy nor her warranty covered her losses. Her family camps out at a friend's home, while their moldy house is being foreclosed this month, and the case is in litigation.

"Has it devastated me? Absolutely it has," she said. "My story is no different than anybody else's. If you're rich, you're poor when you get through with this."