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Mold may menace health

Long after a flood, survivors may find an insidious force lurking in their homes -- mold.

BY TRAVIS DUNN | COLUMBIA, Md. | December 13, 2002

"They didn't know what they were going to stir up in the building when they tore the walls out. They discovered a much bigger problem than they originally bargained for."

—Rev. Erik Alsgaard

Long after mud and debris are cleared away after a hurricane or flood, survivors may find an insidious, almost invisible force lurking in their homes -- mold.

Soaked sheetrock and soggy insulation can quickly become mold incubators, and the spread of this mold can present a real cleanup problem, especially for the disabled and the elderly.

Anna Belle Verrett of Broussard, La., for example, saw the roof of her house torn off during Hurricane Lili Oct. 3, and watched as a deluge of rain soaked the interior of her home.

Verrett, a disabled 71-year-old, mopped up the mess herself. But without the help of local United Methodist volunteers, there is no way Verrett would have been able to exterminate the mold sprouting all over her house.

Mold can emerge without the help of rain or floodwater, and it can sometimes prove not only smelly and annoying but dangerous as well.

Two people in Columbia, Md., however, recently reported neurological problems they believe were caused by mold.

The pair are employees of the Baltimore-Washington United Methodist Conference Center, and as of Dec. 16 all staff in the center moved to a temporary location for an undetermined amount of time. An environmental specialist recommended all staff move out of the conference center for health and safety reasons. Staff have been encouraged to see a medical specialist at the conference's expense.

Now the conference is looking for other space. The building was infested with aspergillus mold, said the Rev. Erik Alsgaard, spokesperson for the conference. Alsgaard blames the emergence of the mold on a bad construction job-the building, he said, was built on top of a spring, which over the course of a decade eroded through the masonry and into the building.

Some of the conference center's 55 employees had been feeling somewhat ill for the past year, he said.

But it took a heavy November rain to really bring out the mold, he said. When a maintenance worker went to investigate "a strange smell" in an office, he inadvertently released a cloud of mold spores. That's when people really started to get sick, Alsgaard said.

"They didn't know what they were going to stir up in the building when they tore the walls out," Alsgaard said. "They discovered a much bigger problem than they originally bargained for."

About 25 employees in the building reported some sort of health problem.

Martha Knight said her health problems were definitely "a mold-related reaction" that eventually caused short-term memory loss.

Knight said the baseline symptoms ("burning eyes, burning throat, postnasal drip") grew to chest congestion, then to the neurological effects, which also included severe headaches and "tingling in the hands and the feet and numbness."

"At first it didn't seem like a mold situation," she said. "Early on it just kind of seemed like an odd smell."

But when the wall was torn down Nov. 8, Knight said her headaches got so intense that she no longer had any doubt about what was causing them.

Knight is feeling better now, but she's also working from home.

Ed MacMahon blames mold for the untimely death of his dog, Muffin. Johnny Carson's erstwhile sidekick sued his insurance company for $20 million, claiming that a botched plumbing job caused a mold infestation in his mansion, which, in turn, led to the death of his dog.

"Different species of fungi have probably been present in human suffering since the dawn of time," according to Toxic Mold and Tort News Online. "However, it wasn't until relatively recently that the scientific community has identified mold and other fungi as a possible cause of human's adverse health effects. Today, certain fungi and mold are known to the scientific and medical world to be responsible for allergies, hypersensitivity pneumonitis, humidifier fever, infections, mushroom poisoning, mycotoxicoses, mucous membrane irritation, and many other ailments."

Several mold species-penicillium, aspergillus, stachybotrys, paecilomyces and fusarium-are known for producing harmful mycotoxins, or poisons.

The extent of the adverse health affects, however, is still a matter of considerable scientific and legal debate.

A huge controversy is erupting over the question of toxic mold. Some call toxic mold the next asbestos, while others claim "toxic mold" is a phantasm conjured by trial lawyers out to extract big money from insurance companies.

Much of this debate centers on massive lawsuits stemming from mold infestation.

A similar case occurred in Texas-mold spread through a mansion, and the homeowners blamed their insurance company for failing to fix a water leak fast enough, thus providing a perfect mold breeding ground. A jury awarded the couple $32 million in damages.

Thanks to incidents like these, mold is causing hysteria-and leading to congressional legislation and major changes in the insurance business.

After 7-year-old Melina Walker of Southfield, Mich., allegedly lost 70 percent of her lungs to Stachybotrys chartarum, a mold species that can produce powerful mycotoxins, Rep. John Conyers, Jr., introduced "the Melina Bill" in Congress.

"Home ownership is part of the American Dream, but for many, toxic mold has transformed that dream into a nightmare," according to Conyers' Web site. "It's time to stop toxic mold from robbing Americans of their health and their homes."

But scientific studies to date have come to contradictory conclusions on whether mold is "robbing Americans of their health."

Perhaps the most sensational mold case occurred in Cleveland.

"Over the past seven years in the Cleveland, Ohio area there have been 45 cases of pulmonary hemorrhage (PH) in young infants. Sixteen of the infants have died," according to the Case Western Reserve University Web site. "Thirty-two of the infants have been African American. Most of these cases have occurred within ten contiguous zip codes in the eastern portion of the metropolitan area. In November/December, 1994, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) led a case-control investigation on the first ten cases. This study found an epidemiological association of PH in these infants with water-damaged homes containing the toxic fungi, predominantly Stachybotrys."

The CDC, however, after a reevaluation of this data, said that the study's conclusion was wrong.

The CDC now says that any causal link between severe health problem and mold remains unproven.

"There is always a little mold everywhere -- in the air and on many surfaces. There are very few case reports that toxic molds (those containing certain mycotoxins) inside homes can cause unique or rare health conditions such as pulmonary hemorrhage or memory loss," according to the CDC Web site. "The case reports are rare, and a causal link between the presence of the toxic mold and these conditions has not been proven."

A study published in the January 1999 edition of Pediatrics, however, concluded that there was a causal link between mold and pulmonary hemorrhaging in the Cleveland infants.

Even more controversial is the notion that mold can cause neurological problems.

Some scientists, like Dr. Gailen D. Marshall, an epidemiologist at the Texas Medical Center in Houston, say that science does not support these claims.

"There is no credible scientific evidence linking the presence of mold ("toxic" species or nontoxic) and neurological disorders when the individuals are breathing in airspace with mold contamination," Gailen wrote in an e-mail.

Dr. Gailen is skeptical of claims from people who think mold is responsible for their maladies.

This confusion is certainly not reassuring to insurance companies, who are seeing an explosion in claims and lawsuits dealing with mold.

Gordon Stewart, president of the Insurance Information Institute, testified before a congressional subcommittee July 18, and he advocated some sort of federal intervention to prevent the explosions of damage claims and lawsuits coming from people claiming to have suffered at the invisible hands of "toxic mold."

"The year 2001 was the worst in the history of the property/casualty industry...We estimate that in the homeowner sector, the loss is about $9 billion, $8.9 billion. Mold is a major factor in these increased costs," Stewart testified. "Conditions have reached crisis proportions in Texas, and mold has become a serious problem in several other states, including California, Florida, Arizona, and Nevada."

Stewart noted that Texas in particular has seen an explosion of these claims, but there is no scientific evidence to indicate there is "a new plague abroad in the land."

"We have more court cases and accusations of severe and permanent health damage, and there's no peer-reviewed, scientific research to back this up. Health claims are coming under property policies that were never intended to cover health claims. And now, fearing bad faith law suits, which is an area where you can really build up the legal costs, insurers are tending to throw money at mold claims because they don't want to be accused of not doing everything they could and having a very expensive law suit," he testified. "The net of it is we've got these exploding costs, and the only thing to do is cut back on coverage and pass on costs to policyholders. These measures are going on in state after state, and so we have a kind of insurance crisis as a result of the shock of this relatively recent occurrence."

Interestingly, the scourge of mold dates back to biblical times, according to Leviticus, 14:39-17: "On the seventh day the priest shall return to inspect the house. If the mildew has spread on the walls, he is to order that the contaminated stones be torn out and thrown into an unclean place outside the town. If the mildew reappears in the house after the stones have been torn out and the house is scraped and plastered, it is a destructive mildew and the house is unclean. It must be torn down -- its stones, timbers and all the plaster -- and taken out of town."

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