The Atlanta Journal-Constitution: 7/21/03 ]
BUILDINGS: A SPECIAL REPORT
rages as health, homes lost
By ANDY MILLER
The Atlanta Journal-Constitution
Dottie Touchstone feels a little
like the biblical character Job.
That comparison occurred to her
recently, as she was unable to work, pay her mortgage
or buy health insurance.
Her troubles are linked to a
plague that afflicts the 110-year-old Adairsville farmhouse
she bought in 2001. It's mold.
The mold, she said, made her
sick. She had a rash, sinus problems, a flulike condition,
chronic respiratory infections. When she moved out last
June, she had what she described as "a brain fog, like
the first stages of Alzheimer's."
She discovered her homeowner's policy didn't cover
mold. She can't fix the house, and can't live in it.
In warm months, Touchstone lived in a tent in her yard.
She showered with a hose, cooked with a microwave in
her garage. When the weather turned cold, she moved
into a small trailer, but the heater wouldn't work.
Then she moved into a friend's house. She enters the
farmhouse only rarely and wearing a respirator.
* * * *
More Americans are learning the distress that this
enduring organism can cause. Mold has ruined families'
finances, divided scientists, changed insurance coverage,
captivated media and created a cottage industry
of repair firms. And the uproar shows no signs of abating.
Mold is everywhere -- outside and inside every type
of building. There are more than 100,000 species. Some
are beneficial, used for making penicillin, for example,
or blue cheese. Mold appears in the Old Testament's
Book of Leviticus, which mentions scouring a moldy home.
Mold reproduces by generating spores that can float
in the air and land on damp spots. The spores feast
on wood, paper, drywall, carpet, wallpaper and ceiling
tiles. They can grow on virtually any organic substance
as long as moisture is present.
Although some people aren't bothered by mold, all varieties
have the potential to cause illness. Mold triggers allergic
reactions and asthma attacks, fungal infections in the
lungs of people with chronic medical conditions, and
hypersensitivity pneumonitis, an inflammation in the
lungs. Some molds, such as Stachybotrys chartarum, are
known to produce toxins that can be inhaled.
Mayo Clinic doctors concluded in 1999 that mold may
be responsible for a majority of sinus infections in
the United States.
* * * *
The walls in Tonoa Ward's basement are covered with
streaks and splotches of black mold -- remnants of flooding
that contaminated about 400 west Atlanta houses.
The worst flood struck in September, when heavy rain
caused a sewage overflow. Contaminated water rose up
to 8 feet in areas of Vine City and Washington Park.
In Ward's basement, the water climbed higher than 5
feet. Two months later it flooded again.
Ward's daughter Cierra, 5, was hospitalized in December
with pneumonia and bronchitis. Cierra has been diagnosed
with asthma since the flooding began. Son Terry, 13,
has new sinus and breathing problems.
The air vents in the house are sealed so the heating
and air-conditioning unit in the basement doesn't spread
more mold spores upstairs. The Atlanta Housing Authority
said last week it will help Ward, who receives federal
Section 8 assistance for low-income renters, find new
"Ms. Ward and her children need to get out of there
right now," said Almedia Cruz of ACC Environmental Consultants,
hired by the Fulton County Health Department to assess
the health fallout. "They need a safer place."
Fulton County declared the flooding aftermath a public
health emergency in February. Residents continue to
report new cases of asthma and respiratory illnesses,
skin rashes and headaches since the flooding began.
The city of Atlanta plans to buy 70 properties to fix
sewer problems and is renovating 80 houses.
Buildings shut; millions spent
Mold outbreaks across the country have closed schools,
courthouses, office buildings, apartment complexes and
hotels, costing millions of dollars in repairs or losses.
Public health departments have seen a surge in mold-related
inquiries. Minnesota's Department of Health, for example,
had fewer than 100 mold-related inquiries in 1989; it
had 150 per month in 2001. Georgia doesn't keep such
Mold has crept into politics.
This year, 17 states introduced legislation related
to mold, including bills to study health effects, license
remediation firms and create new insurance regulations.
Eight states enacted mold laws or resolutions, reports
Aerias.org, an online resource on indoor air quality.
In Georgia, resolutions to study mold-related problems
failed in the 2003 Legislature.
A bill is pending in Congress to study health problems
caused by mold; develop standards for inspections, remediation
and testing; give home buyers and renters some protections;
and create a mold hazard insurance program.
The Atlanta-based Centers for Disease Control and Prevention
has asked the Institute of Medicine, a national advisory
group, to study the medical damage from mold. A report
is expected soon.
The panel has plunged into a continuing debate on the
type and severity of mold's afflictions: Is it simply
a trigger for allergic reactions and asthma attacks
and the source of some infections, or can it produce
fatigue, memory loss and concentration problems as well
as pulmonary hemorrhage in infants?
Mold research appeared to take an alarming turn in
1994, when physician Dorr Dearborn noticed a pattern
of pulmonary hemorrhage in Cleveland infants. He and
a CDC epidemiologist, Dr. Ruth Etzel, reported
that infants with pulmonary hemorrhage were more
likely than a control group to live in homes with a
lot of stachybotrys and other molds.
But in 2000, the CDC found flaws in the study methodology
and, reversing its original conclusions, said the association
between mold and hemorrhage was not proved.
Dearborn and Etzel stand by their original conclusions.
Last year, doctors in Savannah said two cases of pulmonary
hemorrhage in babies fit the profile of the Cleveland
cases, including exposure to stachybotrys, but
that a definitive link could not be proved.
Linking mold and illness such as memory loss, fatigue
and Touchstone's "brain fog" is controversial.
Harriet Burge, a researcher at the Harvard School of
Public Health, said almost all evidence of such damage
from mold is anecdotal.
"I haven't seen any good evidence to document the effect
on the brain," Burge said. "There are endless reasons
for short-term memory loss. Some of the people claiming
mold damage have psychological problems that need to
Still, in 1998, Dr. Eckardt Johanning, a physician
at the Mount Sinai School of Medicine, studied 151 patients
exposed to mold and found about half had central nervous
system complaints such as concentration problems, dizziness
Overall, most mold patients don't have cognitive problems,
he said. But many doctors and scientists who debunk
such problems "don't talk to patients," said Johanning,
who has seen hundreds of such patients. "These patients
'Mold loves paper'
The spike in mold complaints invites the question:
Are our homes moldier than they used to be?
Some experts think the answer is "yes."
Joe Lstiburek, a Massachusetts-based building design
expert, said more moisture-sensitive building materials
invite mold growth. "We used to have plaster," he said.
"It's drywall now. It's paper. Mold loves paper. And
we're putting it on the outside now.
"We've gone from rocks and sticks to paper. Even the
dumbest of the Three Little Pigs didn't build a house
out of paper." While they're using building materials
more susceptible to mold, many builders eliminate or
don't properly install flashings and other means of
preventing moisture intrusion, Lstiburek said.
The Georgia Board of Realtors in January 2002 recognized
the growing problem when it added a question about mold
to the long list of items sellers are asked to disclose
when they put new or existing houses on the market.
* * * *
On the surface, the Alpharetta house that Jeff and
Gail Terrell bought two years ago is an impeccably decorated
$350,000 suburban dream.
But mold in the basement and walls made life there
"total living hell," Jeff said.
The whole family has been ill. Gail has hypothyroidism,
and she and Jeff suffer from chronic fatigue. "My kids
have been sick, with runny noses, coughing," Jeff added.
They discovered a leak almost immediately after moving
in. An inspection showed the builder didn't put flashing
under a window in the stucco exterior, Jeff said. "Water
has been leaking for five years. We went back to the
builder, who told us to jump in the lake."
The Terrells say they can't afford to move while paying
their current mortgage. They have sued the builder,
claiming negligence, and the previous owner of the house,
alleging he concealed the damage. Both deny the allegations.
Caps put on claims
The sudden increase in mold claims took the insurance
industry by surprise.
Property and casualty insurers paid out $2.5 billion
in mold-related claims in 2002, nearly twice as much
as in 2001. The industry estimates there are 10,000
active mold-related lawsuits.
Mold mushroomed in the public consciousness after an
Austin, Texas, jury awarded $32 million in 2001 to Melinda
Ballard and her family. Her lawsuit charged her insurance
company delayed mold claims for her 22-room house
in Dripping Springs. A state appeals court reduced the
award to $4 million.
In their moldy house, Ballard said, her husband, Ron,
and son, Reese, had cognitive problems and Reese had
respiratory illnesses. Ballard herself coughed up blood.
Homeowners' policies in Texas offered more liberal
coverage than in other states and, after the Ballard
case, claims from Texans poured into insurance companies.
Mold-related claims costs there rose 560 percent in
2001 from the year before, said the New York-based Insurance
Information Institute, an industry trade group.
At the urging of the industry to stem skyrocketing
costs, the Texas insurance commissioner limited coverage
for mold testing and cleanup, but declined to
cap mold payouts.
Texas' situation was extreme, but other states are
dealing with the mold issue. More than 30 states have
$5,000 to $10,000 caps on payouts per claim in homeowner
policies, reports the insurance institute.
"Capping a policy, or excluding the coverage entirely,
leaves the public vulnerable," said Robert Hunter of
the Consumer Federation of America.
The insurance institute's P.J. Crowley defends caps,
noting the typical mold insurance claim has risen "from
a few hundred dollars to tens of thousands of dollars."
Georgia Insurance Commissioner John Oxendine issued
new mold guidelines last month for homeowners' insurance.
Policies will no longer be allowed to exclude mold coverage.
Mold-related environmental testing may be subject to
a $5,000 cap, but there will be no such limits on property
repairs, Oxendine said.
* * * *
Touchstone trains and boards horses and teaches riding,
so the 23-acre property she bought for $283,000 was
almost too good to be true. But after her symptoms appeared,
her insurance company had the house tested and found
elevated levels of mold.
Her policy had an exclusion for mold coverage. "The
insurance company dropped me," Touchstone said. So she
had to buy a high-risk policy.
"I can't sell [the house], can't afford to fix it,"
she said. "I've depleted my savings."
Touchstone rents a room and teaches riding at a YMCA
camp. The mortgage payment on the farmhouse hasn't been
made in months. Her symptoms have improved, but her
finances haven't. She filed for personal bankruptcy
One warm night a year ago, she watched lightning strike
near the horse pen. "I just wished it would have hit
the house," Touchstone said. If it burns to the ground,
insurance will cover it, she said.