Planet Mold

The latest environmental hazard in Dallas and the country is displacing homeowners, covering walls and pets, and making lawyers even richer. Welcome to the weird world of "black mold."

Restaurateur-turned-journalist Joanna Windham, a stringer for National Enquirer and its sister tabloids, makes a living by unearthing sensational stories. But Windham fears that this mess, the one spreading in her Dallas apartment, is turning into the kind of story that alien-touting competitor the Weekly World News could publish.

"Killer Molds Invade Scribe's Home!" the headline might read. "Pampered Dog Riddled with Deadly Tumors! Men in Space Suits Invade Building!"

These things could happen. All of them. Whether they do depends largely on what Windham's houseguest has to say about it. He is Larry Robertson, a microbiologist who calls himself "Mr. Mildew," and he has arrived at Windham's Turtle Creek condo this Tuesday afternoon in search of mold. Mold is Mr. Mildew's specialty.

Joanna Windham suspects that the toxic mold growing in her Turtle Creek condo is making her and her dogs, Mickey and Dallas, sick.
Joanna Windham suspects that the toxic mold growing in her Turtle Creek condo is making her and her dogs, Mickey and Dallas, sick.
Joanna Windham suspects that the toxic mold growing in her Turtle Creek condo is making her and her dogs, Mickey and Dallas, sick.
Photos by Mark Graham
Joanna Windham suspects that the toxic mold growing in her Turtle Creek condo is making her and her dogs, Mickey and Dallas, sick.

Armed with a flashlight, Robertson drops to his knees and thrusts his head into an intake vent through which he can eyeball the air conditioner unit. If it were turned on, the unit would be sucking in air and drawing it over a series of coils before spewing it back out via a network of ducts that extend through Windham's walls like the tentacles of a metal octopus.

The tentacles come to an end at the metal vents screwed into the walls of each room. Fine layers of greenish-black soot cover the ceiling areas closest to each of these vents. For years, Windham has painted over these patches, but they always return. The patches are one reason Windham suspects she has a mold problem, but other clues abound. There is the fine layer of brown soot that blankets the place. Windham walks into her office and runs a finger over the top of her desk. Her pink finger turns brown.

"See how fine that is?" she says, holding the finger out for inspection.

The substance, which Windham is constantly wiping away, is everywhere. On shelves. On clothes. It's even on the dogs, Dallas and Mickey, who scratch themselves constantly. The situation prompted three trips to the veterinarian, who discovered that Dallas was afflicted with tumors. At first the tumors turned out to be harmless, but later tests showed them to be malignant.

"When I put the dogs in the tub for their skin irritations and run water over them, the water turns black," she says.

Windham believes the soot is part of a colony of mold headquartered in the coils of her air conditioner. She believes the mold is giving Dallas tumors, and lately, she's begun to suspect it's making her sick too. Windham has sinus troubles. Her eyes continually gloss over and turn red.

"I'm just a good, strong country girl, and things roll off my back," Windham says, "but the things I get out of my nose, you wouldn't believe. This stuff is attacking me. I feel like I have a hood on my head."

Windham is not alone. In fact, there are thousands of mold-plagued people like her, living in cities across the country. In Dallas, it's not hard to find them.

In North Dallas, Jay and Marcia Tharp kill time inside their temporary home. It's a hotel room, and they moved into it in January after their insurance company detected high levels of toxic molds in their Richardson house and advised them to leave. In Oak Cliff, a team of workers resembling a NASA crew remove mold-infested materials from David Weinberg's place. In the Swiss Avenue Historic District, Chip and Traci Orr settle back into their home. They lived in an apartment for four months last year while the space suits eradicated their mold.

These people, like most people, never really thought much about mold. Oh, sure, some of them had read the horror stories, such as the one about how a type of mold caused a bunch of babies in Cleveland to die after the capillaries in their lungs burst and they choked to death on their own blood. More recently were the stories about mold driving workers out of government offices in Denton and children from schools in Garland. In December, several DART employees sued the transportation agency, claiming its new underground subway at Cityplace is filled with toxic molds that have sickened them.

Stories such as that have become constant fodder for the media, but they're always about other people. These people never imagined that mold could make them sick and bring their lives to a stressful, throat-scratching halt. Until it happened to them. And now they know. They know that toxic mold is a problem that can happen to anyone, rich or poor, in any city, and it doesn't matter whether you are a neat freak or a complete slob. Mold doesn't care. All it needs is food--building materials that are used in most every house are their favorite--and water to grow into a toxin-spewing hazard.

Once a person uncovers a mold problem, as these people have, he or she is thrust into a murky new world where normal curiosity can lead to a bad case of fungal paranoia. Using government brochures and Web site postings as road maps, these travelers quickly learn that mold is a serious health threat. A growing number of them realize they should abandon their homes and hire professional "mold remediators" to solve their problem. But when they try to gather specific information about out how sick mold can make them and whether remediation is really necessary, they discover that few people can help them.

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