Congress Takes on 'Killer Mold'

ByGeraldine Sealey

May 9, 2002 -- 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."

But Walker's story is different from anybody else's. She happens to be the office manager and district scheduler for U.S. Rep. John Conyers, a veteran Democratic congressman from Detroit, who will introduce federal legislation in the next few weeks named "Melina's Bill" for Walker's daughter. The bill aims to protect consumers from the physical and financial effects of toxic mold damage.

Michigan state lawmakers have proposed similar legislation, and California and New York are among the few states that already have toxic mold laws on the books.

Currently, there are no state or federal standards for mold risks, and no regulation of mold clean-up firms. Meanwhile, homeowners can find themselves without insurance to pay for mold damage since most standard policies cover only sudden damage, not maintenance problems such as slow water leaks.

Conyers' bill would require states to license and monitor mold inspectors and mold "remediators," or removers, call on the CDC to authorize a long-term study, allow states to tap federal dollars to clean mold disasters, provide mold insurance and require homeowners and real estate developers to disclose mold problems with house sales.

Mold: The Next Asbestos?

The drive to address the problems of toxic mold, however, is stymied by one, glaring factor: Scientists are divided over the poison potential of mold. Some researchers are convinced that toxic molds are killers. Federal health officials, on the other hand, do not even recognize the blanket phrase "toxic mold," only admitting that some molds can be toxic to some people.

In part, Conyers' legislation was inspired by the CDC's reluctance to indict mold for its potential danger. "Based on what we're hearing from Detroiters and people all over the country, it's much more of a hazard than the CDC thought it was," said Joel Segal, Conyers' legal assistant on health policy.

While some compare mold to saccharine or asbestos, saying the government will eventually acknowledge the dangers, others, despite the risk of offending "victims," say mold will eventually be acquitted of the charges against it.

Trying to calm hysteria about toxic mold, public health officials will tell you that molds are everywhere and exist in more than 100,000 species. Although mold has thrived for centuries, even in homes, the growing perceived threat of toxic mold is a relatively recent phenomenon.

New construction techniques and cellulose-based materials used in modern homes, particularly since the 1970s, seem to encourage mold-growth.

Mold just needs moisture to begin growing, and can sprout up on a number of different building materials — wood, ceiling tiles, paints, carpet, sheet rock or insulation. When moisture builds up from leaky pipes or roofs, high humidity, or flooding, conditions are ideal for mold growth.

When molds are disturbed, their spores can become airborne, getting into noses, mouths and lungs. While common molds do not usually cause health problems for most healthy people, experts say, some allergy or asthma sufferers can be sensitive to molds, and contract skin rashes, runny noses, eye irritation, and coughs.

New Govt. Panel Seeks Answers

Then there are the so-called toxic molds, such as Strachybotrys chartarum, Aspergillus, and Penicillium, that produce toxins called "mycotoxins," which are known to cause adverse health effects such as fatigue, nausea, headaches, and respiratory and eye irritation.

Some researchers say mold is not just dangerous but deadly. Dr. Dorr Dearborn of Rainbow Children's Hospital in Cleveland, a leading mold expert who has studied pulmonary hemorrhaging in infants, has connected infant deaths to Stachybotrys mold.

But the Centers for Disease Control downplays the connection. "These case reports are rare, and a causal link between the presence of the toxic mold and these conditions has not been proven," reads a statement on the CDC Web site.

"The CDC acknowledges there are varying opinions on mold in the scientific and public health communities," said CDC spokeswoman Bernadette Burden. For this reason, she said, the CDC is working with the Institute of Medicine to review mold literature to date. A report is expected by mid-2003.

Harriet Amman, senior toxicologist for the Washington State Department of Health, sits on the new CDC mold panel, and admits that answers about mold's effects are slow in coming. Research on indoor mold is fairly new, she said, and quite complex.

Mold has the capability of producing toxins, but only under certain conditions, she said. In some cases, mold might be growing, but producing no toxins. And while toxins might be present, that does not necessarily predict exposure or illness.

"We don't have a really good idea how prevalent the problems are," Amman said.

Further, researchers do not yet have good analytical tools for measuring mold-produced toxins, says W. Elliott Horner, laboratory director for Air Quality Services in Atlanta, Ga.

Hoping to plug one of the knowledge gaps, Horner is conducting a study of 50 homes for the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development to find the baseline for mold. "In a nutshell we are asking 'what is normal?'" he said.

Few Answers, More Doctor Visits, Lawsuits

While researchers continue their work, doctors are seeing more patients complaining of mold-related ailments.

Jerry Leiken, director of medical toxicology at Evanston Northwestern Healthcare and Illinois' only full-time toxicologist, roughly estimates that of the few patients who see him each week for mold-related complaints, about 10 percent actually are suffering from mold damage. He has little guidance from federal health officials, though, to help him evaluate patients.

"We always look to the CDC to help us correlate but they haven't correlated anything," he said. "If you go to the CDC Web site, it says go see your doctor. So, I evaluate every person individually and try to look for symptoms that clinically could relate."

In hashing out the financial responsibilities for mold damage, homeowners, insurers and lawyers also say they can use some additional guidance from scientists.

Toxic mold cleanups can be costly, reaching into the millions in some cases, and are seldom completely covered by homeowners' insurance.

Nonetheless, a Texas insurance agents group put state homeowner insurer losses from mold damage at $138 million for December 2001 alone. Nationwide, some estimate that toxic-mold liabilities could rival the $60 billion paid out for asbestos claims.

Confusion over what kind of mold damage should be covered by insurance has led to a proliferation of expensive lawsuits.

Last year, a jury awarded $32 million to a Texas couple who sued Farmers Insurance Group, claiming the company failed to adequately and swiftly cover repairs for a water leak that led to mold damage and harmed their family's health.

Big-money jury verdicts awarded to alleged mold victims only exacerbate the insurance problem, insurance industry officials say. As a result, some insurance companies are removing or restricting mold and mildew coverage from homeowners' insurance policies or raising rates.

"Mold litigation is the Wild West, there are no ground rules," said Eric M. Goldberg, assistant general counsel for the American Insurance Association. "If you are a plaintiff's lawyer you will be able to find an expert to testify that mold caused this adverse effect in this person. We need to address that by getting some real science on this stuff," Goldberg said.

Although some may say the "epidemic" of toxic mold is just a lot of hype until scientists understand it better, Pam Walker says she has all the evidence she needs to prove that mold can be poisonous. For those who still have questions, she offers up her mold-infested home for anyone brave enough to enter.

"I have a house they can stay in for two days if they want and see what happens," Walker said. "I'll pass the key to anybody."

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