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."

Instead, they find out there is a surprising lack of scientific knowledge about the dangers mold presents, and the little that is known is the subject of great controversy. As a result, no doctor or health official can say what levels of mold are safe or unsafe in a home, school, or office building.

The uncertainty is spawning a new breed of disputes that are just beginning to make their way into the nation's courtrooms. There, homeowners, renters, and office workers are squaring off against builders, contractors, and insurance companies in an attempt to assign blame to a problem that can cost tens, if not hundreds, of thousands of dollars per building to repair. In some cases, the costs can reach into the millions, and they often exceed the value of the buildings themselves.

The litigation is still in its infancy, but some attorneys are predicting that the number of mold-related lawsuits will surpass those generated by asbestos. The predictions may be wishful thinking on the part of a handful of opportunistic lawyers, but a new crop of multimillion-dollar judgments and eye-popping billion-dollar claims are evidence that they could be right.

David Weinberg organized a series of educational mold seminars and learned that his own Oak Cliff house was infested with the stuff.
©2000 by the Regents of the University of Minnesot
David Weinberg organized a series of educational mold seminars and learned that his own Oak Cliff house was infested with the stuff.
Popularly called the "killer black mold," Stachybotrys' role in the deaths of a cluster of Cleveland-area babies is now subject of dispute among health officials and doctors.
Popularly called the "killer black mold," Stachybotrys' role in the deaths of a cluster of Cleveland-area babies is now subject of dispute among health officials and doctors.

Back at her Turtle Creek condo, Windham waits quietly as Mr. Mildew finishes examining the air conditioner. Robertson backs his head out of the vent and returns to his feet. "It's in your system," Robertson says. "It's got all kinds of mold growing in it."

Welcome to Planet Mold.

On Bryan Parkway, inside the Swiss Avenue Historic District, Chip and Traci Orr sit at the kitchen table inside their new home--a lemon, they suspect. A brown "New Native" sling is wrapped around Traci's shoulder, and in it is Audrey, the couple's 3-month-old baby who was born slightly premature. The couple's two Great Danes bound about the kitchen, slurping up water from their bowls and howling at passers-by. They stay downstairs, leaving two cats free to roam the upstairs.

When the Orrs moved into their house in March 2000, they had no idea that a national health dispute unfolding at the Centers for Disease Control would soon affect them. Earlier, when they examined the house prior to closing, everything seemed in order and the house passed inspection. The couple realized they had a problem on the day they moved in.

"As soon as I opened the door I said, 'This place smells like mold,'" Traci says.

Traci's instincts were right, but the couple didn't dwell on the smell. They also ignored the warning signs a houseguest displayed a couple of weeks later, when he and his parents came for a weekend visit. The boy, who had slept in the downstairs guest room, suffers from asthma, but his symptoms were especially bad during the visit. He couldn't breathe without the help of his inhaler.

Soon, Traci and Chip began to feel ill. "You know how you feel when you're getting sick? I realized I was feeling that way every day for two weeks," Traci says. Chip, who suffers from allergies, was getting sinus headaches. That has happened before, but his nosebleeds were new. Eventually, the Orrs wandered into the closet in the guest bedroom. They were shocked to find a black substance had spread across the closet ceiling and was marching down the wall. "It was nasty," Chip says.

The couple called in a plumber, and he discovered a leak in the bathroom pipes above the closet. Every time the toilet flushed, wastewater leaked through the floor and into the walls. The cellulose in the wallboards, plus the constant flow of water, had become a mold paradise. At the suggestion of their insurance company, the Orrs took a sample of the mold-infested wall to a lab for testing. At first, the situation seemed kind of funny.

"We joked about it," Chip, a lawyer, says. "We said, 'What if it is that stuff we've been hearing about?'"

The laughter subsided when the lab called back with the results. The mold they had was "that stuff"--Stachybotrys--and the Orrs were advised to leave the house. For the next four months, they rented an apartment, while men in airtight suits, gloves, and respirators gutted the closet and upstairs bathroom. If that wasn't stressful enough, Traci discovered she was pregnant.

At the time, the Orrs were vaguely aware that Stachybotrys was associated with a bizarre cluster of newborn babies in Cleveland who had perished in 1993 because of a bleeding lung disorder called pulmonary hemorrhage or hemosiderosis. The cases returned to the national spotlight in 1997, when the doctors who investigated them publicized the results of their study. The doctors focused on two details the babies had in common: They lived in homes that had water damage and an increased presence of fungi, including Stachybotrys. The media seized on the announcement, which carried the weight of the Centers for Disease Control, and literally overnight, the tongue-twisting organism (pronounced "Stack-ee-BOT-ris) became synonymous with "killer black mold."

The Orrs' symptoms had subsided after they left the house, but still they worried. Did their limited exposure to the mold affect them permanently? Was the baby safe? What is Stachybotrys, anyway? The Orrs logged onto the Internet in search of answers.

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