Melinda Ballard parks her cream-colored Jaguar next to her deserted dream house in Dripping Springs, Tex. — a house she fled more than two years ago, leaving dirty dishes in the sink and unopened mail on the counter. Popping open the Jag’s trunk, she pulls out two portable respirator masks. ”These won’t screen out all the mycotoxins,” she warns as she tosses one to me. ”That’s the dangerous stuff, so we’ll only stay a few minutes.”
I follow as she wades through the strawlike remains of what was once a manicured garden, past the abandoned pool, the empty hot tub and the exquisite leaded glass that frames the front door. A sign on that door warns that we should really be wearing full Tyvek biohazard ”moon suits” too, but this is a Texas summer, and we would probably die of heatstroke before the mycotoxins could get us. So we each fit a heavy black contraption over our noses and mouths, pull the elastic tight to form a seal and snap on our rubber gloves.
Warning: Reading this story might make you sick. Not as sick as Melinda Ballard and her family, who began coughing up blood and suffering memory loss while living in this 22-room, 11,000-square-foot mansion. But it could make your skin itch and your throat hurt, and you could start to cough. Then you will wonder whether there is toxic mold growing in your house, too.
That is the thing about toxic mold. Many of its symptoms are documented and real, but it can also be spread by suggestion and word of mouth. And lately, the slimy black growth, with names like Stachybotrys chartarum, Aspergillus and Penicillium seems to be everywhere — in stately homes and housing projects, courthouses and libraries, factories and schools. One California lawyer alone is handling mold complaints for 1,000 clients. A physician in Reno, Nev., has evaluated or treated more than a thousand patients suffering from toxic-mold exposure. And in Texas, where the warm, wet climate is a perfect breeding ground, mold claims appear to have more than doubled since last year — just the beginning of what is shaping up to be a very expensive epidemic.
Melinda Ballard’s house has become an emblem of the mold invasion. There is as much mold here as anyone has ever seen. The place is Exhibit A for lawyers, a how-not-to guide for homeowners, a business handbook for contractors and an ongoing nightmare for insurers. As we walk in through an unlocked side door (”Who would be stupid enough to come in and steal anything?” Ballard says) this dream home certainly looks like a nightmare: the House That Mold Ate.
Armies of inspectors have been through this house in the more than two years since Ballard, her husband, Ron Allison, and their son, Reese, now 5, left. The investigators cut square holes in nearly every wall, then removed the Sheetrock to reveal a coating of mold hiding on the other side. It is thick and black and gangrenous, with a dull, powdery sheen that makes it seem waiting and alive. Just looking at it makes you want to throw up. Each colonized square of Sheetrock has been sealed in plastic and tacked on the wall whence it came, for future reference. As a result, the house feels like a mad scientist’s lab, with plastic bags of mold wherever you turn — near the sweeping Tara staircase in the front hall, interrupting the hand-painted murals on the walls, next to a portrait of Ballard in regal jewels and finery, behind the Erector set in Reese’s bedroom.
We stay for less than 10 minutes, but it is long enough. As we pull back down the endless driveway, my mouth feels dry, my throat aches and I am dizzy. Or maybe it’s all in my head.
Moldy homes have been around since biblical times. Mold may even explain many of the plagues, if you accept that the crops had to be brought in early to escape the hail and locusts, meaning wet grain was stored in stacks when the darkness came, creating perfect breeding grounds for mold. The pampered firstborn sons may have eaten the top layer, and the toxins in the moldy grain could have killed them. In Leviticus 14:33-45, the Lord tells Moses and Aaron how to rid a house of mold. First ask a priest to inspect it. Then scrape the inside walls and throw all contaminated materials in an unclean part of town. If that doesn’t work, the house ”must be torn down — its stones, timbers and all the plaster.”
“That’s exactly what we do today, except we skip the priest part,” says David C. Straus, who, as a professor of microbiology and immunology at Texas Tech University Health Sciences Center, is a 21st-century version of a mold priest. The molds that Straus and others try to exorcise are everywhere. There are thousands of varieties, found in every region of the country, including the wildly different climates of Alaska and Hawaii. Virtually every breath you take contains mold spores, and although some people are more allergic than others, for most of us this is not a problem.
Indoors, the drama begins when the spores encounter steady and significant amounts of water, commonly in the form of a roof leak or an unnoticed burst in a pipe. Add a cellulose-based material — the wallboards that modern homes are made of and older homes are renovated with turn out to be the perfect snack for multiplying mold — and things get worse. “These organisms go, ‘Aha, I’m going to grow from a few spores on the surface to a colony that can be seen by the naked eye, containing hundreds of thousands or even millions of spores,'” says Linda D. Stetzenbach, director of the microbiology division of the Harry Reid Center for Environmental Studies at the University of Nevada in Las Vegas.
This in and of itself is not necessarily a problem, either. Most molds, even multiplying ones, are relatively harmless, and most people won’t have a strong reaction to them (unless they’re allergic). But there is mold, and there is mold. Exposure to certain types of fungi, known as toxic mold, can cause a serious reaction. If you’re unlucky, this is the kind of mold you have. If you’re really unlucky, your toxic mold will gird for battle and go to war, secreting chemicals called mycotoxins, which can find their way into your body, entering through your nose, mouth and skin, lodging perhaps in your digestive tract, your lungs or your brain. Among these toxins are trichothecenes, which were rumored to have been used as a biological weapon during the wars in Afghanistan and Vietnam. They turned out not to be very useful as weapons, however, because they poison slowly and erratically. That was small comfort to Ballard, however, when the stuff was found throughout her house.
Nor is she comforted by the fact that these molds are not really attacking humans. We simply get in their way. Their real targets are plants and other fungi that compete with them for water and food. ”They’re just doing what nature programmed them to do,” says Stetzenbach, sympathizing with the mold she studies. ”If they can keep other organisms from inhabiting their space, then they get all the nutrients.”
One of the first human soldiers in the mold wars was Bill Holder, who was trained as a mechanical, electrical and plumbing contractor and whose first encounters with mold were inside air-conditioning systems. Back in 1987 Holder received a frantic call from a former customer who owned a $55 million hotel that was rife with mold. As a favor, and because no one else seemed to know what to do, Holder gave it a try.
Within a few years mold was his specialty. He was certain that these micro-organisms were responsible for serious health problems because ”every time we were called to a building it was because people were getting sick.” But then, as now, he could find no irrefutable medical data to confirm his belief. In 1995 he sold his contracting business and eventually formed Assured Indoor Air Quality, a company created to tackle mold problems. One founding partner was a former school administrator, so the group began working on mold-infested schools, and has evaluated or cleaned out (the term of art is ”remediated”) more than 1,000 in the past six years.
Along the way Assured Indoor Air Quality awarded research grants to scientists, and one went to Straus at the Texas Tech University Health Sciences Center in Lubbock. On April 1, 1999, Holder was flying to a meeting there. The front rows of seats faced each other on Southwest Airlines, and a thin, no-nonsense businesswoman sat across from him, on her way to Arkansas for a meeting of her own. They got to talking during the flight, and the woman complained about the parade of contractors and inspectors marching in and out of her house. As she talked, she coughed, and her Kleenex showed chunks of blood.
“Excuse my asking,” Holder said, ”but have you by any chance had a leak in your house?”
The woman was Melinda Ballard, and yes, she had most certainly had a leak. “You’re talking to Noah about the flood,” she told Holder, because that’s the way she talks. She also swears as easily as she speaks, has no patience for anyone who doesn’t work as hard as she does, will insult you to your face if she thinks you’re trying to ”bamboozle” her and was warned by one lawyer before her mold lawsuit went before the jury that she had to practice being a ”dutiful Southern belle” because men on the jury ”would be thinking, God, I would hate to be married to her.” (She fired that lawyer.)
Raised in wealth, Ballard made her own fortune in advertising and public relations in New York and moved to Dripping Springs in 1990. Fancying herself a cowgirl, she bought two cows named Jethro and Ellie Mae and lived with them and a herd of deer on 73 acres. In 1994 she married Ron Allison, an Austin investment adviser, who was as ambitious and hard-driving as she was. Their son, Reese, was born in 1996.
When Reese was 2, the house had a leak, which Ballard and Allison paid a plumber to repair. It seemed so inconsequential at the time that they did not even report it to their insurance company. A few months later the hardwood floors around the house began to warp and buckle. Ballard then filed a claim with Farmers Insurance Group. She and the company exchanged a number of letters on the subject of the floor, and one of those, to Theresa McConnell, a claims representative, read: ”Molds and mildew are trapped underneath the floor and will escape into the house once the foundation is exposed. I would like for every effort to be made to ensure that the molds/mildew do not ruin furniture, carpets, etc.”
This was the first mention of the word ”mold.” After much arguing over the cost of the repairs, Farmers paid Ballard well over $100,000 to fix a variety of things related to leaks. As Farmers wrote check after check, it also pursued ways to stop writing them. Asserting that Ballard was ”underinsured,” the company held some money back as a result. Ballard then accused Farmers of stalling because it did not want to reimburse the whole of such an expensive claim, an allegation the company denies.
Meanwhile, Reese Allison developed asthma. Melinda began having dizzy spells. The family visited a variety of doctors a total of about 50 times over a three-month period. Ron Allison had the strangest symptoms. He would forget simple things like where he’d left his credit card or where he’d parked his car, or even what kind of car he owned. His co-workers would find him at his desk looking as if he were in a trance.
But mold was not mentioned again until March 1999, when a Farmers investigator, who was in the house to inspect the source of damage to the kitchen floor, pulled back the refrigerator and revealed a wall that was shockingly slimy black. A month later, Ballard met Holder on the plane. ”I think I might know what’s causing your problems,” she remembers him saying, then he offered to provide her with a list of home contractors who might help.
Ballard did not want anyone else’s name. Holder was the first person she had met who seemed to know what was happening to her house and to her family, and she wanted him to help. He explained that his company worked only on schools and on commercial buildings. She went home and did some research. ”You’re remediating the governor’s mansion; that’s a house,” she told Holder by phone a few days later. The fact that Laura Bush was showing symptoms of mold sensitivity (Holder located the source in the air-conditioning system) was supposed to be a secret, but Ballard had connections and was not used to taking no for an answer.
Four days after their serendipitous plane ride, Holder visited Ballard in Dripping Springs. ”I looked in a few places I’ve learned to look,” he says — under an undisturbed board in the dining room, inside a crawl space beneath the stairs — and found more pockets of mold. Two days later, tests showed that mold to include Stachybotrys and Penicillium, and Holder advised further tests. In the meantime, Ballard and her family moved to a nanny’s apartment next to the garage.
The insurance company sent an investigator to collect its own air samples, and Ballard hired Holder, who brought along two other experts, including David Straus, to help conduct additional tests. Straus barely lasted 30 minutes. ”Walking into that house was one of the biggest mistakes I ever made,” he says. ”None of us were wearing any protection. I was standing on that Tara staircase, and all of a sudden I didn’t feel very good.” Straus spent the next four hours lying in Holder’s truck, crawling out only to vomit. He also lost 25 percent of the hearing in one ear, and the damage seems to be permanent.
“I don’t go into Stachy houses anymore,” he says, theorizing that his repeated exposure over the years has left him highly sensitive to toxic mold. “I let the young people do that.”
On April 23 Holder called Ballard to report that there was airborne Stachybotrys, among other molds, in her house. Taking Holder’s advice to, she says, ”get the hell out of there,” the family abandoned their home and its contents within the hour. They left all their possessions — the couple’s wedding photos, Reese’s baby pictures, frayed stuffed animals and imported stuffed couches. Stopping at a nearby Wal-Mart, they bought new clothes and toiletries, then settled in for several months at the Four Seasons Hotel. (Farmers picked up the tab.)
The only thing they took from the house — a house she had expected to be ”my sanctuary” when she helped design it 15 years earlier — was a bottle of Scotch. ”I credit Cutty Sark with my escaping personal injury,” says Ballard, who refuses to wear a seat belt and hooks it over her shoulder when she drives in order to fool the cops.
Ballard jokes that ”her drinking kept her from getting as sick as the rest of the family.” Holder says that with the current lack of scientific evidence, this is as good a theory as any, adding, ”I believe she’s just too damn mean for those toxins to affect her.”
Standing outside unit 130 in the Spectrum condominium complex in Santa Ana, Calif., Alexander Robertson IV, the state’s busiest mold lawyer, hands me a disposable respirator mask. I’ve had practice at this by now, and I slip it on and pull the elastic tight. Robertson is quite a sight in his own mask — a towering man, with a shaved head and walrus mustache. The western boots peering out from under his well-cut suits are a hint that he would rather be roping and riding. Waiting for us in the tiny two-bedroom apartment are his client Noe Montoya, Montoya’s wife and newborn baby and his two elementary-school-age daughters. All but the infant have been sick for months, with nosebleeds and coughs, and there is black mold growing up the girls’ bedroom wall.
There are 1,500 residents of this complex, nearly all Hispanic, and all thought they had bought into the American homeowner’s dream. Montoya, who works as a waiter at a nearby chain restaurant, struggled to pay $75,000 for his condo two years ago. Then, about a year ago, mold began sprouting everywhere. Montoya cleans the mold from his daughters’ hot-pink wall every morning, but it is back within a day, growing through the Sheetrock from the other side. Unlike Melinda Ballard, who had the resources to eventually escape to a five-star hotel, Montoya is trapped. Everything he owns is invested in this apartment. He can’t afford to rent another place, and he cannot sell. Who would buy a condo full of mold?
Robertson is keenly aware of how he looks, standing there wearing a mask, while the family stands barefaced and unprotected. ”It’s a real dilemma,” he says. ”But I go into these buildings for a living, and I decided that I need to protect my own health.”
We walk from one apartment to the next, and Robertson points out mold wherever we go. Pulling aside bathroom tiles and peering behind stationary concrete planters, he says things like ”There’s water leaking through the joists in the drywall” and ”We have a series of pinhole leaks in the potable water lines,” which make him sound like the building contractor he was before he went to law school.
When he graduated he started a construction law firm, expecting to handle mostly faulty construction and product-liability cases. Then, in 1994, he was contacted by a couple in Malibu who had a leak. Water had become trapped beneath the layers of their improperly tiled roof and had drawn mold into the house. The couple suffered from mysterious rashes, and the wife was taken to the emergency room more than once, gasping for breath.
Robertson, who knew a lot about joists and drywall but nothing about rashes, went on the Internet, where he learned that science did not know much, either. Then, as now, there was no definitive epidemiological study proving that mold makes people sick. And then, as now, there was no simple blood test or the equivalent to measure mold exposure. But there were enough scientists who suspected a link and enough doctors who were certain they’d seen illness caused by toxic mold that Robertson sensed he had a dynamite case.
This most recent history of mold began in the early 1990’s, in a museum down in SoHo. Employees began falling ill at work with symptoms ranging from rashes to extreme fatigue to memory loss, and they came to see Dr. Eckardt Johanning, an occupational and environmental doctor at Mount Sinai Medical Center. At that time, ”occ-docs” like Johanning specialized in other dangers of the workplace, like carpal tunnel syndrome and asbestos poisoning. Stumped, Johanning inspected the museum offices and found mold that, when cultured, was determined to be ”something called Stachybotrys,” says Johanning, who at the time had never heard of the mold. (Since then he has compiled a 675-page tome called ”Bioaerosols, Fungi and Mycotoxins: Health Effects, Assessment, Prevention and Control.”)
Johanning searched the medical literature and found spotty research. There were allegations that toxic mold has been used in warfare and descriptions of animal poisonings, where mycotoxins in feed went on to kill large numbers of cattle in Russia and Finland. ”We know from laboratory animals,” explains Stetzenbach, ”when there’s forced inhalation of Stachy into mice, and then the mice are sacrificed and we look at the lung tissue, we see damage. But we can’t force humans to inhale toxins.”
In fact, one of the few controlled human studies inspired more debate than answers. In the fall of 1994, Dr. Dorr Dearborn, a pediatric pulmonologist at Cleveland’s Rainbow Babies and Children’s Hospital, began seeing too many cases of babies with bleeding in their lungs. As the total reached 8 and eventually 10, Dearborn called the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which sent an investigation team. The team’s leader, Dr. Ruth Etzel, designed a study matching each sick infant with three control infants who were the same age and lived in the same neighborhood. It turned out that most of the affected babies lived in homes with water damage and mold where tobacco smoke was often present. Among the molds found was Stachy, and the C.D.C. declared a possible link between mold, tobacco smoke and ”acute ideopathic pulmonary hemorrhage” (A.I.P.H.). The study was published in a respected, peer-reviewed journal.
These conclusions caused some government agencies to take action. The health and housing departments of Cleveland and Cayahoga County offers free home inspections to new mothers living in the part of town where the initial cases were clustered. The United States Department of Housing and Urban Development has put resources into mold research, too, spending $3.17 million on an effort to remove mold from the homes of infants at risk for A.I.P.H. and of asthmatic children. In addition, the American Academy of Pediatrics has warned that ”until more is known about the etiology of idiopathic pulmonary hemorrhage, prudence dictates that pediatricians try to ensure that infants under 1 year of age are not exposed to chronically moldy, water-damaged environments.”
Since the Cleveland study was first released, other doctors have become convinced that there are mold risks to adults as well. ”We do know for a fact that mold is associated with cognitive impairment in some people,” says Dr. Wayne Gordon, a neuropsychologist and professor of rehabilitation medicine at the Mount Sinai School of Medicine in Manhattan, and one of a small but growing group of scientists who have come to specialize in the health effects of mycotoxins. These doctors cannot yet say definitively how these toxins work and why they affect some people more than others. But they do know that victims of the toxins visit their offices every day, more this year than last year and that their problems range from minor memory loss to devastating cognitive failure. ”This is real,” he says, ”and it isn’t going away.”
In March of last year, however, the C.D.C. backed away from its initial study. In a 97-page examination of the case, two panels of reviewers gathered by the agency criticized everything from the way the babies’ illness was diagnosed to the way the mold was measured. ”The available evidence,” the reviewers concluded, ”does not substantiate the reported epidemiologic associations — between household water damage and A.I.P.H. or between household fungi and A.I.P.H. — or any inferences regarding causality.”
In other words, one report by the C.D.C. recants another report by the C.D.C. The agency now describes mold as an ”allergen” on its Web site, but makes little mention of the serious problems that researchers like Dearborn, Etzel and Gordon say are associated with mold. Nor does it mention that their findings have been replicated by other scientists. And while the agency advises that mold be cleaned up, it does not recommend testing to discover what type of mold is growing. ”We are not saying there are no health consequences to mold,” says Dr. Stephen Redd, chief of the air-pollution-and-respiratory-health branch at the C.D.C. ”There’s a diversity of opinion. Our opinion is that not enough is known about it.” The agency does not doubt that people are suffering, he says, but the C.D.C. is lacking scientific proof of the extent to which mold is the cause. To declare causation without that proof, he says, would be as irresponsible as waiting too long.
Dearborn and Etzel disagree and stand by their study. The C.D.C. rebuttal ”put the message out there that there was nothing to worry about,” Dearborn says. ”They didn’t take the prudent health position that until there is definitive evidence, we will take precautions. A legal standard of proof is 51 percent. A scientific standard of proof is greater than 95 percent. But where does public health prudence fall between the two?”
While scientists argue over mold, lawyers have been having a field day. Like the fungus itself, mold litigation has completely taken over Robertson’s practice in the years since the Malibu claim. ”The case settled very shortly, once we demonstrated what this stuff was,” Robertson says. The whole of the house was shrink-wrapped in plastic, torn down, then carted away and buried.
Today, callers to his voice mail are instructed that all new toxic-mold cases are being screened by the firm’s new director of microbiological investigations, a paralegal with a master’s degree in microbiology. At last count, she had a list of 325 potential new clients on deck, and Robertson has stopped representing individual homeowners in favor of cases that ”really prove a point.” On his plate at the moment are five courthouses where everyone from the judges to the bailiffs complain that they have become sick, and housing projects like the Spectrum, which, he says ”should have been the American dream, but has become a nightmare.”
(Robertson, too, makes some exceptions to his ”no private homes” rule. His star client right now is Erin Brockovich, whose two-story, 4,000-square-foot house outside Los Angeles — bought with the money from the movie about her environmental crusades — is contaminated with mold. There is a huge poster in Robertson’s office of Julia Roberts as Erin Brockovich, signed by the real Erin. ”To Alex, What a ‘bulldog’ you are,” it says, then asks, ”Gee, could a ‘mold’ movie be next?”)
Robertson says he believes he is in on the start of an entirely new area of law. ”It’s a hybrid,” he says, ”that’s why people have a hard time getting their arms around it. It’s part construction defect, because that’s what allows the water to get into the building. And it’s part personal injury, and very few lawyers do both.” Robertson himself had not handled a personal injury case until 1994, ”when I realized, Hey, we can’t just treat the building, we’ve got to treat some people in the building as well.”
Industry watchers agree. Mealey’s Publications, which puts out monthly legal reports, just added Mealey’s Litigation Report: Mold to its title list. ”Mold litigation isn’t going to go away any time soon,” says Colleen McLaughlin, the report’s editor. ”The attorneys involved are cutting edge, the type who are always looking for the next big thing.”
What looks like Genesis to lawyers looks like Armageddon to insurance companies. ”This mold problem seemed to come out of nowhere,” says Janet Bachman, vice-president of claims administration for the American Insurance Association. The Ballard case became front-page news in Texas and spurred many other mold claims. In the state, Bachman says, there has been a 137 percent increase so far this year in the amount paid out by insurance companies for water damage. (Insurance policies do not cover mold, per se; they cover damage that results from an otherwise covered event, like a leak or burst pipe.)
If that trend continues through the end of 2001, Texas insurers will be spending roughly $670 million on water claims. (That does not count damage from the Houston floods last June; while they will cause mold damage, the floods themselves are not covered events, meaning the resulting damage is not reimbursed by insurance.) Some in the insurance industry say that premiums will have to increase by 40 percent in order to offset mold claims.
Insurers are hoping, Bachman says, that this will turn out to be a short-term scare, a crisis of the moment, and that soon a fickle public will start worrying about something else. ”For a while the hysteria was over radon,” she says. ”And now it’s so obvious that nobody gives a damn. Remember the Alar scare? Now that’s a big shrug, too. Maybe this is just 15 minutes of fame for the latest boo-boo.”
Just in case it doesn’t disappear, however, some insurers are taking concrete steps. Farmers Insurance, for instance, has said that it will stop selling new homeowner’s policies that include water-damage coverage. In addition, it has asked the Texas Department of Insurance to allow the company to exclude mold damage from its policies entirely, even mold that results from a covered event.
State governments, in an effort to protect homeowners, are beginning to act, too. California’s Senate recently approved the Toxic Mold Protection Act, which orders the State Department of Health Services to establish licensing standards for professionals who go into the business of measuring and cleaning out toxic mold. ”Right now anyone can advertise in the Yellow Pages and call themselves a mold expert,” says Robertson, who helped draft the legislation, and who refers to opportunists as ”mold diggers.”
Whenever Robertson gives a lecture before an industry group, he says, ”I ask for a hand count at the beginning to find out who’s in the audience, and 90 percent are contractors who were all doing lead and asbestos abatement until the last year, and now they’re trying to jump on the mold bandwagon. It frightens me because you’ve got people that are taking a two-day course, and then they’re turning around as quote-unquote experts.”
The California bill also urges the health department to establish permissible exposure limits: how much mold is too much? Exactly what level of spores per cubic meter of air is enough to make us sick? It may be an impossible task, because the same level of mold seems to affect every individual differently. That would explain, among other things, why Ballard’s husband is still so sick but Ballard herself is not.
”We don’t always see the same health reaction every time,” Johanning says. ”I’ve seen marriages go down because people are not equally affected by it and one spouse thinks the other is imagining things.”
Ron Allison sits in the overdecorated living room of the rented house that his family has been living in, staring straight ahead. The furnishings around him are a swirl of burgundy and green, yellow and red, but he is a study in white and beige. His expression is as bland and subdued as his clothing, as he tries, quietly and haltingly, to explain who he used to be and who he is today.
Back when he was an investment adviser, he says: ”I did three to four deals at a time, I kept all these balls in the air. If I dialed your phone number once, I would have remembered it.” But in the months before the mold was finally discovered in his Dripping Springs home, his memory began to go. ”My problem is with input,” he says, trying to explain what his doctors have since explained to him. ”I can concentrate on one thing for a while, but if you add a second thing, then the input makes me short-circuit.” By way of example, his wife says, ”He can talk on the phone, but if you hand him a piece of paper while he’s talking, his brain just fries.”
Allison was asked to quit his job nearly two years ago, according to Ballard, and has been going to cognitive therapy sessions four times a week. ”He’s not worse, but he’s not better,” she says of her husband’s progress. ”I guess we have to give it time.” When not at therapy, he works at keeping his life simple. ”You can arrange your day to avoid feeling like an idiot,” he says. ”Sitting here and watching ‘Oprah,’ you’re not going to feel like an idiot, but I aimed a little higher than that in my life. I’m going to remember only a small percentage of this conversation, but I still remember my old life, and I want it back.”
He worries about what his son, Reese, will think of him. ”He knows that I used to go to work in the morning and now I don’t,” he says. ”He understands that the house made my brain sick. You want to be the absolute best role model for your kids. I’m not the best. I’m far less. I’m the best I can be now, but less than I was.”
Ballard worries about other things. ”Do you leave him?” she asks me later, explaining that Allison is now more like her child than her husband. ”How can I leave him? He can’t take care of himself. The worst day of our lives is still to come,” she continues. ”The worst day will be if we finally get that money, and he’ll want to manage it.”
That money is the $32 million she was awarded by a Texas jury in June, the result of her lawsuit against Farmers Insurance. It is by far the largest judgment against an insurance company in a mold case. Before the trial even began, Farmers had sent Ballard checks for nearly $1.4 million, first to repair and then to remediate the house. But Ballard charged that this did not account for the reality of toxic mold — mold that was given free rein, she says, while the company tried to find a way not to pay the whole of the hefty claim. All her possessions needed to be replaced, her lawsuit said, and according to experts like Holder and Straus, the house could not just be cleaned, it had to be destroyed and rebuilt.
Although Flynn, the Farmers spokesperson, says the company ”handled this claim promptly and vigorously and would do it the same way again,” the jury agreed with Ballard, and granted her approximately $6 million for the house and its contents, $12 million in punitive damages against Farmers, $5 million for emotional distress and nearly $9 million in attorneys’ fees. Flynn, of Farmers, says the verdict (which the judge has sent to mediation) threatens not only the company but also the entire industry.
”As a practical matter she has almost single-handedly caused, well, not an hysteria, but a heightened interest in mold,” Flynn says, choosing her words carefully. ”In the year or more since the start of this case, we are seeing claims for mold in and of itself. People are filing claims from a fire that happened a year ago saying that mold arose from the fire-suppression activity. They are about to go to mediation on a claim for a cracked foundation, and we get a letter a week before saying, ‘by the way there’s mold in the house and we have to tear it down.’ ”
Until this case, she says: ”we didn’t have any designation or coding for a mold claim. That was an animal that just didn’t exist. Mold was a byproduct. It was never viewed as a separate loss.”
As alarmed as the company is by the judgment, Farmers is relieved that the jury was only allowed to hear evidence about material damage to the house. Ballard’s suit also claimed health damage to her husband, but the judge disallowed all medical evidence, saying that there was not sufficient epidemiological research directly linking health problems to mold.
”Suppressing the medical testimony was extremely important to us,” Flynn says. ”This is a property insurance policy,” she explains. ”This is a policy that takes care of physical damage to the house. This is not a medical policy. It is not a type of policy ever intended to pay for a person’s physical injuries while living in their homes. If they develop a health problem, it should be covered by medical insurance.
”On a second level,” she continues, ”there was the inference that somehow we did something that made the family sick. That we should have said: ‘Oh, you had a water leak a year ago and that leak might result in mold. It could be toxic mold, and that could be injurious to your health so you’d better leave your house now.’ We didn’t have that kind of knowledge.”
Ballard responded to the verdict by spending some of her expected payment to gather the sort of scientific evidence the judge and Farmers say does not yet exist. Over this summer she plans to assemble some of the leading experts in the field, who, between them, have seen hundreds of patients suffering ”mold poisoning.” She says she will ”lock them all in a conference room somewhere and ask them to compile a complete database, a profile of what we know.” She has plans to invite representatives from the C.D.C., because, she says: ”You have to keep your enemies close. If those S.O.B.’s are in from the beginning, they can’t complain about our accuracy at the end.”
Out in California, where evidence rules are less stringent than in Texas, Alexander Robertson, too, is looking for future epidemiological data. His ”laboratory” is the Spectrum condominium complex, and he has contracted with an ”occ-doc” from the Harvard Medical School to do a biostatistical study of every occupant. All 1,500 residents will be asked about their symptoms, and their apartments will be tested to establish the presence and quantity of mold. The residents of a control apartment complex will be similarly studied. ”If we show that the Spectrum building has a higher percentage of people reporting the same or similar symptoms, we go a long way to silencing those who argue mold can’t be the cause,” he says.
On my way back from Melinda Ballard’s contaminated house, I stop at a highway gas station and change my clothes in the restroom. I kick myself for not wearing long sleeves, long pants and combat boots when I went into the house, and wrap what I did wear — shorts, T-shirt and flip flops — in a double plastic bag and throw it in a nearby Dumpster so that the mold spores that might have settled on my clothing won’t contaminate everything else I own. I debate whether to go straight back to my hotel to take a shower but decide that I don’t want to add water to the spores that might be in my hair. I’d rather kill them first by spending time outside in the ultraviolet light.
David Straus says this is not overreacting. Bill Holder says it probably is. Melinda Ballard, who suggested these precautions in the first place, has become fed up with doing this herself and now saves one ratty outfit for visiting her old home. Such is the murky level of knowledge at the moment about the dos and don’ts of toxic mold.
Dressed in fresh, uncontaminated clothes, with hair of questionable cleanliness, I go on to spend the evening at the home of an Austin friend. We sit in her living room and talk with her new neighbors, Bridget and Ted Karam, who are renting a house for several months while their 4,700-square-foot dream home across the highway is inhabited by men in moon suits. The house has leaked in the rain since it was built in 1993, the Karams say, but it wasn’t until they read about the Ballard case that they thought to look for mold. ”We realized my daughter was waking up with sore throats every time she slept in her room,” Bridget Karam says.
The couple paid $2,800 to learn that there was Stachybotrys and penicillium in their home. It will take nearly six months and cost $140,000 to clear it out. Listening to their story, my throat starts to hurt. So does my friend’s. ”My kids wake up with sore throats all the time,” she says, looking around her pristine living room, which suddenly smells a little musty. ”Maybe I should call someone to test us?”
Medical students develop symptoms of one disease after another as they go through their textbooks. Called somatization, it is a testament to ”the power of suggestion,” says Bachman of the American Insurance Association, which clearly has a stake in believing this is all in our heads. ”When I was in college, I took a psych course, and within nanoseconds after reading a list of symptoms I diagnosed myself as being crazy as a bedbug. I’m thinking that people are going through the same thing with mold. Mold has always been around, it will always be around. Why is everyone going so crazy about it right now?”
Nowhere are people going crazier than in Austin, where the Austin Independent School District closed the Hill Elementary School for the past 18 months and closed off sections of another school because of mold. Now there is a wait of months for most contractors who screen for mold, and homeowners are hiring testers from Dallas and Houston, paying their travel expenses.
All this raises some obvious questions: Is there more toxic mold than ever before? Is all the new construction, using cheaper, mold-friendly material causing a true invasion or are we just paying more attention? Is this a new asbestos — a new and measurable danger? Or a new Legionnaire’s disease — a threat that has existed and been unrecognized for generations? Or, perhaps a new chronic fatigue syndrome — a disease that definitely affects some people while playing mind games with many more? Do we really need to clean it up, or is it just that ”mold is gold,” as contractors say, and there is money to be made from homeowners’ fears.
These are questions that Ted Karam does not feel he has the luxury of pondering. ”I don’t know how much is hysteria,” he says. ”But I can’t take any chances. If you find it, you have to do something.”
The something varies, however, because no one seems to agree on the right thing to do. The Karams, for instance, lived in their home for more than six months after the mold was found. ”But we kept running into other people with mold, and they had been told to move out,” Bridget Karam says, so eventually they did, too. And although they have read that Ballard left all her belongings in her house, they could not bring themselves to do the same. They let their daughters sneak back in to rescue a few favorite outfits along with their yearbooks and some angel figurines. Bridget, who is a professional photographer, took all her negatives. ”I can’t bear to lose any of my memories,” she says.
Tracy and Steve Wehmeyer, in contrast, who live across town from the Karams, began making plans to leave their home and most of their belongings within days of getting their results. No one in the family had been terribly sick before Stachybotrys was discovered in their walls, but they aren’t feeling too well right now. ”Every time I can’t remember something, I wonder, Is it mold or is it wine or is it age?” Tracy Wehmeyer says, half-joking. Then she turns pensive. ”You think of your house as the safest place you can be. Then to learn it is hurting you and your family. . . . ” She doesn’t finish the sentence.
So far only one family in the Austin area has burned down their home. Ballard says she has considered it, but was warned that the wind and smoke would simply spread the mold. Her neighbor is already suing her for $1 million, saying that the very existence of the Ballard house has lowered area property values. The Karams fear a financial toll, too. Before the mold was found, their house was appraised at $2.3 million. Because of the history of mold, however, their bank’s appraiser warns that it will be worth 30 percent less.
Ballard says she will wait until the case is completely closed before she touches her Dripping Springs home. Then, when the house is no longer evidence, she will have it cut apart — walls, beams, furniture, appliances, hardwood floors and all — and shrouded piece by piece in double-wrapped plastic before being buried in a landfill.
She has other plans too. She has announced her candidacy as a representative from the 46th District, and her hope is to sit on the insurance committee. ”Nearly everyone hates their insurance company,” she says. ”What a platform.”
Photos: The diseased walls of a condominium in Santa Ana, Calif. Mold has infested all of the units, but most residents can’t afford to move.; Ballard, her family and the dream they had to evict themselves from.; Sections of walls from Ballard’s house reveal the enemy within. (Dan Winters for The New York Times)
Freezing rain and flooding forecast through Sunday
By Gene Warner | News Staff Reporter
on December 21, 2013 – 9:11 AM
Warnings and watches dominate the local weather forecast, as Western New York braces for a one-two punch of freezing rain and flooded creeks over the next 24 hours or so.
The big culprit is expected to be freezing rain, which could to coat the northern half of the region with a layer of ice that could down tree limbs and trigger power outages in that area.
Temperatures are expected to drop this afternoon and evening, before remaining near the freezing mark into Sunday morning.
“Freezing rain is actually a super-cooled rain droplet,” National Weather Service meteorologist Dan Kelly said this morning. “As the rain falls toward the ground, it hits an object below freezing – a tree branch, a windshield, a road or sidewalk – and freezes on contact.”
The weather service has issued an ice-storm warning, effective from 4 p.m. today to noon Sunday, in northern Erie, Niagara, Orleans and Genesee counties.
The bulk of the freezing rain is expected to hit between 10 p.m. tonight and 3 a.m. Sunday, according to the weather service.
“It’s not going to be a good time to travel, overnight and into tomorrow,” Kelly said. “If you don’t have to go anywhere, stay home.”
And with all the rain that’s been pelting the region, Kelly noted, it’s washing all the salt off the roads.
Freezing rain, of course, also leads to icing on trees, downed tree limbs and resulting power outages.
The National Weather Service also has issued a flood warning, for Cattaraugus, Cazenovia, Buffalo and Cayuga creeks, from this evening through Monday morning. And a flood watch is in effect throughout Western New York from 4 p.m. today through 10 p.m. Sunday.
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Black mold removal? Dont be fooled not all black mold is toxic! Too many companies now days are using the new four letter word MOLD as a scare tactic. Stachybotrys is a black mold that is toxic but beware not all black “mold / mildew” in appearance is considered to be black toxic mold you could be dealing with a simple harmless mildew. Black mold tends to grow in very wet areas and only on hygroscopic “ability to absorb” organic material. Color alone is not always a reliable indicator of the species of mold. Proper identification should be done by a microbiologist. Mold growth found on cellulose-based substrates or materials where moisture levels are high (90 percent or greater) is often Stachybotrys chartarum and is linked with sick building syndrome. “Black Mold,” also known as “Toxic Black Mold,” properly refers to S. chartarum. This species commonly is found indoors on wet materials containing cellulose, such as wallboard (drywall), jute, wicker, straw baskets, and other paper materials. S. chartarum does NOT grow on plastic, vinyl, concrete, glass, ceramic tile, or metals. A variety of other mold species, such as Penicillium or Aspergillus, do. In places with stagnant air, such as basements, molds can produce a strong musty odor.
Black Toxic Mold “Stachybotrys” although it is very dangerous can be removed quite simply by trained professionals to avoid cross contamination into unaffected areas of the property. So keep in mind if it is black it is not always TOXIC. Ahold of Mold Environmental has been practicing and performing mold remediation and assessments for 20 years. We continue to exceed in the industry by keeping our family owned company knowledgeable through continuing education and years of experience. You our customer is our number one reason for our continued success on our 20 year anniversary.
Britt Andrew Bridges
Senior Advisor of Environmental Hygiene
Ahold Of Mold Environmental
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Water Damage / Flood Damage in WNY occurs to homes and businesses because of many reasons. Your loss might of happened due to a ruptured or leaking supply line under your sink, refrigerator, toilet or dishwasher. Other water damage related causes are leaky roofs, flood, broken water beds and ruptured fish tanks. What ever caused your home to be damaged, Ahold of Mold Environmental can help get you back on track quickly and effectively. Water damage in homes and businesses must be fixed quickly and professionally, since mold growth can occur in as little as 24 hours. A “musty” foul odor is one of the first indications that mold is starting to grow. See tips for water damage. Guaranteed Emergency Response within 1-2 hours, Any time of Day or Night Specializing in advanced drying and dehumidification techniques, AOM Environmental rapidly removes water and moisture from carpets, floors, and walls-minimizing secondary mold damage, so you can get back to your everyday normal living environment.
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Ahold of Mold Environmental is the only company in the US that specializes in mold damaged cargo freight. Since 1994 we have been performing mold remediation “mold removal” and helping implement mold resistant shipping and packaging methods for the shipping industry. Ahold of Mold Environmental has what it takes to remediate most all mold damaged cargo content, although not all mold damaged content is always salvageable the majority of content we assess is. Ahold of Mold Environmental is ready and able to pick up your shipment any where in the United States and have it delivered to our warehouse in NY State where the damaged cargo is offloaded to a containment chamber where it is then cleaned of all mold and staged in a clean room, temperature controlled environment where it is then repackaged in mold resistant containers and ready for delivery or pickup in a timely manner. Ahold of Mold Environmental has worked with numerous company’s from moldy home decor to mold damaged pharmaceutical and other mold damaged freight content. Ahold of Mold Environmental will bill the insurance company direct “if covered” and help assist in the cause of origin contributing to the mold. Ahold of Mold Environmental’s Fast Response Team is standing by to help assist you with most all mold damaged content.
Cat Andersen/Eyewitness News
Beech Grove – Inspectors cited Beech Grove’s city hall with a number of health violations. Leaks and poor drainage has led to serious mold problems, yet some city employees are still working there.
Inside the Beech Grove City Hall, you’ll find puddles on tables, rotting ceiling tiles, warped walls and carpets and mold on every level from the vents to the water-logged basement.
The city council meetings have been moved from that building to the community center, and so have the courts.
“The conditions just aren’t acceptable for people to be there and that’s why they moved the meetings, so I don’t know why it’s okay for people to continue to work in that building,” said Stephanie Hubbard, Beech Grove resident.
Even the mayor has moved his office and assistants to a different building, but some city employees are still required to work there.
“We have a gal that is pregnant,” said Ed Bell, city council member.
Mold has been shown to weaken the immune system, trigger asthma attacks, cause infections and migraines and over time, can attack the brain and even cause death.
“It’s not only a health issue and a city hall landmark but you have government not being done right for the people,” said Bud Templin, city council member.
City council members say they were told the meetings were being moved because the heat and air conditioning system wasn’t working.
“There was no mention about any mold issue,” said Bell.
They say they were floored when they found a Marion County Health Department inspection report listing violations due to mold as far back as March 2008.
“It was clearly obvious that was the reason we were moving out,” said Bell. “It’s a slap in the face.”
City council members say they’ve gone to the mayor to ask about this inspection report and also what he plans on doing to solve this problem. They say they cannot get him on record to discuss any sort of solution.
“We’ve asked him to come before the council and answer questions but he refuses to do that. He wants to do it in private but we’ve had enough of the private,” said Bell.
The mayor would not speak to Eyewitness News personally but his public relations staff said they had ultra violet air purifiers installed in the air conditioning system.
“They’re trying to put a Band-Aid on the situation when it’s a serious problem,” said Bell.
The clerk treasurer says she feels safe working in her wing.
“I personally trust the board of health inspector,” said Sarah Kincaid.
The Marion County Health inspector says while the non-operational parts of the building do need work, they found no reason to vacate the working offices because they found no visible signs of mold in the work space.
Eyewitness News spotted mold growing from the ceiling and the walls in the employee’s bathroom and from behind the refrigerator in the break room, however.
Beech Grove City Council meetings are open to the public. They take place the first Monday of each month at 7:00 pm. The next meeting is September 7th at the Hornet Park Community Center.
The first step in addressing any mold growth problem in a building is identifying and correcting moisture source(s) (see Where Does Mold Grow?). If moisture problems are not corrected, then any mold cleanup or removal that takes place will most likely be only a short-term solution; at some point the mold growth will recur. It is critical to control moisture at the beginning, during, and at the end of a mold growth removal project.
One of the most common misconceptions about mold is that it can be removed by spraying the surfaces with products such as disinfectants, biocides or cleaners. That will not take care of the problem because the allergenic and toxic properties of mold are not removed by using such products. Whether viable (living) or nonviable (dead), mold spores and other parts of the mold, when they get into the air, still present a health risk to exposed individuals.
While disinfectants and biocides may kill mold spores and take away their ability to reproduce, these products should not be used alone in addressing a mold growth problem. Either the mold must be completely removed from the affected material, or the mold-contaminated material must be completely removed from the building.
In determining which materials can be cleaned and what should be removed, the two important factors are how porous (absorbent) the material is and how extensive the mold growth is. Generally, non-porous materials (such as metals, glass and hard plastics) and semi-porous materials (wood, plaster and concrete) that are visibly moldy but structurally sound can usually be cleaned and reused. Moldy porous materials (carpeting, wallboard, ceiling tile, wallpaper, fabric, upholstered furniture, mattresses) should usually be discarded, since they absorb and hold moisture, may be internally moldy, and cannot be completely cleaned and thoroughly dried.
Cleanup and mold removal activities can expose people to mold particles and other hazards, so it is important to wear protective equipment and follow procedures safely.
Mold in excess of 10 square feet should be remediated by a professional licensed mold remediation contractor to avoid cross contamination and or health risk exposure
United States Air and Radiation (6609J) Research and Development
Environmental Protection (MD-56)
Agency February 1991
Indoor Air Facts No. 4 (revised)
Sick Building Syndrome
The term “sick building syndrome” (SBS) is used to
describe situations in which building occupants
experience acute health and comfort effects that
appear to be linked to time spent in a building, but
no specific illness or cause can be identified. The
complaints may be localized in a particular room or
zone, or may be widespread throughout the
building. In contrast, the term “building related
illness” (BRI) is used when symptoms of
diagnosable illness are identified and can be
attributed directly to airborne building contaminants.
A 1984 World Health Organization Committee
report suggested that up to 30 percent of new and
remodeled buildings worldwide may be the subject
of excessive complaints related to indoor air quality
(IAQ). Often this condition is temporary, but some
buildings have long-term problems. Frequently,
problems result when a building is operated or
maintained in a manner that is inconsistent with its
original design or prescribed operating procedures.
Sometimes indoor air problems are a result of poor
building design or occupant activities.
Indicators of SBS include:
• Building occupants complain of symptoms
associated with acute discomfort, e.g.,
headache; eye, nose, or throat irritation; dry
cough; dry or itchy skin; dizziness and nausea;
difficulty in concentrating; fatigue; and
sensitivity to odors.
• The cause of the symptoms is not known.
• Most of the complainants report relief soon after
leaving the building.
Indicators of BRI include:
• Building occupants complain of symptoms such
as cough; chest tightness; fever, chills; and
• The symptoms can be clinically defined and
have clearly identifiable causes.
• Complainants may require prolonged recovery
times after leaving the building.
It is important to note that complaints may result
from other causes. These may include an illness
contracted outside the building, acute sensitivity
(e.g., allergies), job related stress or dissatisfaction,
and other psychosocial factors. Nevertheless,
studies show that symptoms may be caused or
exacerbated by indoor air quality problems.
Causes of Sick Building Syndrome
The following have been cited causes of or
contributing factors to sick building syndrome:
Inadequate ventilation: In the early and mid
1900’s, building ventilation standards called for
approximately 15 cubic feet per minute (cfm) of
outside air for each building occupant, primarily to
dilute and remove body odors. As a result of the
1973 oil embargo, however, national energy
conservation measures called for a reduction in the
amount of outdoor air provided for ventilation to 5
cfm per occupant. In many cases these reduced
outdoor air ventilation rates were found to be
inadequate to maintain the health and comfort of
building occupants. Inadequate ventilation, which
may also occur if heating, ventilating, and air
conditioning (HVAC) systems do not effectively
distribute air to people in the building, is thought to
be an important factor in SBS. In an effort to
achieve acceptable IAQ while minimizing energy consumption, the American Society of Heating,
Refrigerating and Air-Conditioning Engineers
(ASHRAE) recently revised its ventilation standard
to provide a minimum of 15 cfm of outdoor air per
person (20 cfm/person in office spaces). Up to 60
cfm/person may be required in some spaces (such
as smoking lounges) depending on the activities
that normally occur in that space (see ASHRAE
Chemical contaminants from indoor sources:
Most indoor air pollution comes from sources inside
the building. For example, adhesives, carpeting,
upholstery, manufactured wood products, copy
machines, pesticides, and cleaning agents may
emit volatile organic compounds (VOCs), including
formaldehyde. Environmental tobacco smoke
contributes high levels of VOCs, other toxic
compounds, and respirable particulate matter.
Research shows that some VOCs can cause
chronic and acute health effects at high
concentrations, and some are known carcinogens.
Low to moderate levels of multiple VOCs may also
produce acute reactions. Combustion products
such as carbon monoxide, nitrogen dioxide, as well
as respirable particles, can come from unvented
kerosene and gas space heaters, woodstoves,
fireplaces and gas stoves.
Chemical contaminants from outdoor sources:
The outdoor air that enters a building can be a
source of indoor air pollution. For example,
pollutants from motor vehicle exhausts; plumbing
vents, and building exhausts (e.g., bathrooms and
kitchens) can enter the building through poorly
located air intake vents, windows, and other
openings. In addition, combustion products can
enter a building from a nearby garage.
Biological contaminants: Bacteria, molds, pollen,
and viruses are types of biological contaminants.
These contaminants may breed in stagnant water
that has accumulated in ducts, humidifiers and
drain pans, or where water has collected on ceiling
tiles, carpeting, or insulation. Sometimes insects or
bird droppings can be a source of biological
contaminants. Physical symptoms related to
biological contamination include cough, chest
tightness, fever, chills, muscle aches, and allergic
responses such as mucous membrane irritation
and upper respiratory congestion. One indoor
bacterium, Legionella, has caused both
Legionnaire’s Disease and Pontiac Fever.
These elements may act in combination, and may
supplement other complaints such as inadequate
temperature, humidity, or lighting. Even after a
building investigation, however, the specific causes
of the complaints may remain unknown.
A Word About Radon and Asbestos…
SBS and BRI are associated with acute or
immediate health problems; radon and asbestos
cause long-term diseases which occur years after
exposure, and are therefore not considered to be
among the causes of sick buildings. This is not to
say that the latter are not serious health risks; both
should be included in any comprehensive
evaluation of a building’s IAQ.
Building Investigation Procedures
The goal of a building investigation is to identify and
solve indoor air quality complaints in a way that
prevents them from recurring and which avoids the
creation of other problems. To achieve this goal, it
is necessary for the investigator(s) to discover
whether a complaint is actually related to indoor air
quality, identify the cause of the complaint, and
determine the most appropriate corrective actions.
An indoor air quality investigation procedure is
best characterized as a cycle of information
gathering, hypothesis formation, and hypothesis
testing. It generally begins with a walkthrough
inspection of the problem area to provide
information about the four basic factors that
influence indoor air quality:
• the occupants
• the HVAC system
• possible pollutant pathways
• possible contaminant sources.
Preparation for a walkthrough should include
documenting easily obtainable information about
the history of the building and of the complaints;
identifying known HVAC zones and complaint
areas; notifying occupants of the upcoming
investigation; and, identifying key individuals
needed for information and access. The
walkthrough itself entails visual inspection of critical
building areas and consultation with occupants and
staff. The initial walkthrough should allow the
investigator to develop some possible explanations
for the complaint. At this point, the investigator may
have sufficient information to formulate a
hypothesis, test the hypothesis, and see if the
problem is solved. If it is, steps should be taken to
ensure that it does not recur. However, if
insufficient information is obtained from the walk
through to construct a hypothesis, or if initial tests
fail to reveal the problem, the investigator should
move on to collect additional information to allow
formulation of additional hypotheses. The process
of formulating hypotheses, testing them, and
evaluating them continues until the problem is
Although air sampling for contaminants might
seem to be the logical response to occupant
complaints, it seldom provides information about
possible causes. While certain basic
measurements, e.g., temperature, relative humidity,
CO2, and air movement, can provide a useful
“snapshot” of current building conditions, sampling
for specific pollutant concentrations is often not
required to solve the problem and can even be
misleading. Contaminant concentration levels rarely
exceed existing standards and guidelines even
when occupants continue to report health
complaints. Air sampling should not be undertaken
until considerable information on the factors listed
above has been collected, and any sampling
strategy should be based on a comprehensive
understanding of how the building operates and the
nature of the complaints.
Solutions to Sick Building Syndrome
Solutions to sick building syndrome usually include
combinations of the following:
Pollutant source removal or modification is an
effective approach to resolving an IAQ problem
when sources are known and control is feasible.
Examples include routine maintenance of HVAC
systems, e.g., periodic cleaning or replacement of
filters; replacement of water-stained ceiling tile and
carpeting; institution of smoking restrictions; venting
contaminant source emissions to the outdoors;
storage and use of paints, adhesives, solvents, and
pesticides in well ventilated areas, and use of these
pollutant sources during periods of non-occupancy;
and allowing time for building materials in new or
remodeled areas to off-gas pollutants before
occupancy. Several of these options may be
exercised at one time.
Increasing ventilation rates and air distribution
often can be a cost effective means of reducing
indoor pollutant levels. HVAC systems should be
designed, at a minimum, to meet ventilation
standards in local building codes; however, many
systems are not operated or maintained to ensure
that these design ventilation rates are provided. In
many buildings, IAQ can be improved by operating
the HVAC system to at least its design standard,
and to ASHRAE Standard 62-1989 if possible.
When there are strong pollutant sources, local
exhaust ventilation may be appropriate to exhaust
contaminated air directly from the building. Local
exhaust ventilation is particularly recommended to
remove pollutants that accumulate in specific areas
such as rest rooms, copy rooms, and printing
facilities. (For a more detailed discussion of
ventilation, read Indoor Air Facts No. 3R,
Ventilation and Air Quality in Office Buildings.)
Air cleaning can be a useful adjunct to source
control and ventilation but has certain limitations.
Particle control devices such as the typical furnace
filter are inexpensive but do not effectively capture
small particles; high performance air filters capture
the smaller, respirable particles but are relatively
expensive to install and operate. Mechanical filters
do not remove gaseous pollutants. Some specific
gaseous pollutants may be removed by adsorbent
beds, but these devices can be expensive and
require frequent replacement of the adsorbent
material. In sum, air cleaners can be useful, but
have limited application.
Education and communication are important
elements in both remedial and preventive indoor air
quality management programs. When building
occupants, management, and maintenance
personnel fully communicate and understand the
causes and consequences of IAQ problems, they
can work more effectively together to prevent
problems from occurring, or to solve them if they
Johnny Carson’s sidekick has found little to laugh at lately. His dog died, his family has been sick and he’s blaming the insurance company.
Ed McMahon, 79, claims the insurance company botched a simple repair on a broken pipe. As a result, he says, a black toxic mold spread through his 8,000-square-foot, six-bedroom Beverly Hills mansion.
In a lawsuit filed this week, the entertainer is seeking $20 million from American Equity Insurance Co., two insurance adjusters and several environmental cleanup contractors.
“It started with a broken water pipe, which is not a big deal,” said McMahon’s lawyer, Allan Browne. “It turned into a horrific nightmare that only Stephen King could write about.”
A spokeswoman for the insurance company declined to comment.
Den Flooded in July
McMahon says the pipe exploded last July in his home, flooding his den. The company arranged to clean up the mess, but McMahon’s lawsuit says the contractors simply painted over the mold — known in the germ community as stachybotrus chartarum — and didn’t give McMahon any reports about the infestation.
Soon after the incident, McMahon says he and his wife became seriously ill, and their sheepdog, Muffin, developed respiratory problems and died.
“This is a death mold,” Brown said. “It can cause respiratory illness — or even death.”
The McMahons moved out in September under doctor’s orders after experts found a high concentration of the mold in the master bedroom.
Making matters even worse, McMahon says he is still waiting for personal memorabilia that he stored to be returned to him from another insurance company.
The McMahons have moved into temporary digs, at $23,000 a month. They’re suing for physical injuries, emotional distress, and expenses they’ve incurred.
Their home will need considerable work before it’s habitable again, their lawyer says.
“It looks like a mob descended upon the house, tore it apart and left,” Brown said.
ABCNEWS Radio’s David Alpert reporting from Los Angeles and Buck Wolf in New York contributed to this report.
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