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."

The same month the Orrs discovered their mold, the CDC made a major announcement: Due to "scientific" criticism of the study, the agency was effectively reversing its position that Stachybotrys was directly to blame for the babies' deaths in Cleveland. The mold, like all molds, is a potential health threat, the agency now maintains, but a direct "causal" link to pulmonary hemorrhage in infants is "not proven."

That sounded good, but the Orrs kept searching. They learned that the doctors who researched the Cleveland cluster still insist that their initial conclusion was right, and despite the CDC's announcement, they have the backing of other health organizations, including the American Academy of Pediatrics. The health issue, the Orrs realized, had turned political.

In an attempt to respond to a worried public, the CDC, like many state health agencies, now publishes "fact sheets" and "questions and answers" about Stachybotrys and other molds, but the brochures only reveal how little scientists know. The dilemma is all-too familiar to Dr. Quade Stahl, the director of the indoor air quality division of the Texas Department of Health.

Mold forced Chip and Traci Orr, seen here with their prematurely born daughter, Audrey, out of their Old East Dallas home. Like a growing number of Americans, the situation prompted the Orrs to sue.
Mold forced Chip and Traci Orr, seen here with their prematurely born daughter, Audrey, out of their Old East Dallas home. Like a growing number of Americans, the situation prompted the Orrs to sue.

"We're still in the very beginning stages of learning the health effects of mold and what causes these health effects," Stahl says.

Molds, of course, have been around a long time; their existence predates that of human beings who, over the years, have developed natural mechanisms for battling mold. Molds are a problem today because people no longer live in a natural environment. In response to the energy crisis of the 1970s, people began building airtight buildings and equipping them with central air systems. In the process, they sealed mold up along with them--a problem because most Americans now spend more than 90 percent of their time indoors, breathing recycled air.

Unlike asbestos, a potentially lethal inorganic substance, molds are difficult to understand because they are living organisms that are constantly adapting to their environments. Some molds, such as the green stuff that appears on bread, are basically harmless. But other molds, such as Stachybotrys, are not. As they adapt, these molds produce "mycotoxins," which they use to digest food and defend themselves against their environment. When their environments change, Stahl explains, so do the toxins they produce.

"If you grow mold in the lab, very few mycotoxins are produced because they don't have to defend themselves," Stahl says. "In the home, it depends on what they have to defend themselves and what they have to eat."

There are "probably well over a thousand" different mycotoxins that various molds produce, Stahl says, but researchers have studied only a couple of hundred of them. Those toxins are known to cause a wide array of health problems in people, ranging from allergy and flu-like symptoms to more severe, though rare, cases of brain and nervous system disorders. Still, scientists can't say whether a person who is exposed to the toxins will get sick or, if they do, how sick they'll get. That depends on another, mind-boggling set of variables that scientists can't begin to get their arms around. For example, two people working in the same mold-infested office could have drastically different reactions on any given day.

"So how do you determine the health effects on people?" Stahl asks. "It makes it impossible to set standards."

Which is why, of course, there are no state or federal health standards that apply to mold. In lieu of enforcement, health officials can only advise people to consult their doctor if they suspect mold is making them sick. Traci Orr did just that, only to encounter a new dilemma that mold presents: Her doctor, like most doctors, didn't know the first thing about molds. During the visit, Traci says her doctor promised to do a little research and get back to her. Eventually, he did.

"Here's what he said," Traci recalls. "He said, 'You have an interesting problem.'"

Unheard of a decade ago, toxic mold infestations that send people fleeing for air are today a constant source of news. January was a typical month: The problem was detected in one Toronto school, while it forced a hospital lounge in Visalia, California, to close. Days earlier in Texas, toxic mold forced firefighters in Hurst out of their station house, while school officials in Austin announced it would cost $3 million to repair one mold-infested school building. The industry publication PR Newswire summed up the situation with a story: "Toxic Mold to be Big Stories in 2001."

But if doctors don't know how sick people can get from mold, how can they determine when exactly people should abandon a mold-infested building? They can't. In fact, those decisions aren't being made by doctors but by unlicensed mold remediators and, increasingly, insurance adjusters. Oftentimes, the people who are forced to move are left in the dark as to the reasons why.

Take Jay and Marcia Tharp, for example. Since January 7, they've been living inside Room 216 at the Hawthorn Suites hotel in Richardson. Their journey to Planet Mold began by accident in October. That's when the Tharps discovered that the subfloor beneath their bathroom had rotted and fallen away, thanks to a leaky pipe. Or so they thought.

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