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."

"We was literally standing on floor tile," Jay says.

Jay called up his insurance agent, thinking he'd send a regular old adjuster out to size up the repair. The man who showed up put on white overalls and a gas mask before he crawled under the home's pier and beam foundation. Jay says the man "looked like a space cadet."

The man left, and the days passed. Then, more guys resembling space cadets came. They were industrial hygienists, and this time, they took samples of everything. They sampled the air in the house. They sampled the air outside the house. They took samples off the furniture, from the bathroom, and elsewhere. Two weeks passed before the phone rang. It was the insurance company, saying that the Tharps needed to get out of the house. Immediately. They had found numerous types of problematic molds, which had eaten away the subfloor and turned the house into a health hazard.

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.

Later, the Tharps watched in awe as a team of remediators descended on their home, space suits and all. Portions of the house were sealed off in plastic, while four gigantic fans, their blades spinning 24 hours a day, moved polluted air out of the house. Everything else that came out of the house--tile, wallboards, even the sink--was wrapped in plastic before being dumped.

"When those guys in space suits came, the cats were gone," Jay says, referring to the couple's six pets. He adds, "I had no idea what was happening."

A former cigarette smoker, Jay has long suffered from respiratory problems. He tried to find out if there was anything in his house that could have caused or worsened the problem, to no avail. After nearly a month in a hotel, Jay hasn't noticed any difference in his breathing. Maybe the mold didn't affect him, but then again, they don't know when their leak began or when the mold appeared. For all they know, he could have been breathing the stuff for years.

"They come in, and they take all these tests, and they say you've gotta move, but why?" Jay says. "Why is it dangerous? I really couldn't get an answer from them."

Instead, the couple was given a neatly bound report, which contains the results of the air samples taken in and around the house. To the Tharps, the report couldn't be less helpful if it were written in Chinese.

On the one hand, the report contains some apparently scary information. For example, three of the molds found in the house--Cladosporium, Penicillium, and Aspergillus--are thought to cause extrinsic asthma, which can ultimately lead to pulmonary emphysema, according to a University of Minnesota Web site that is popular among mold researchers.

On the other hand, the Tharps can't figure out if there was enough of the stuff in the house to harm them. That's not because the report isn't specific. In the dining room, for example, "6,272 Spores" of Cladosporium at a concentration of "M cubed" were found. Several feet away, in the hallway, "4,629 Spores" of the stuff were found. Marcia waves the book in the air out of frustration.

"It's got a nice little booklet," she says, "but it doesn't tell you diddlysquat in plain English."

Like the Orrs, the Tharps are beginning to buckle under the stress. There in the hotel room, they can't get on with their normal lives. Instead, they can only while away the hours, and at times, the wait is too much. They grow restless and bored. Sometimes they snap at each other.

"Everything's been topsy-turvy since the day this thing started," Jay says. "You don't know how many nights I've lied awake wondering what's going to happen the next day."

Jay and Marcia Tharp are fortunate in one respect: Their insurance company, which they declined to identify, has been extremely proactive in moving them out of harm's way--whatever that is. Besides paying for the tests and the cleanup, the company is also paying for their hotel room and that of their daughter, who was also living in the house. It even offered to kennel the Tharps' cats, but Marcia declined the offer, thinking the animals would be happier in the yard.

The Tharps declined to say how much the testing and remediation cost, though Marcia says "an average person couldn't afford it." But to give an idea, Jay pulls out his latest hotel receipt. Together, the two rooms cost about $200 a day. By the time the Tharps move back home, which they are scheduled to do two weeks from this day, their bill will total nearly $8,000.

The Orrs weren't as fortunate. Although their insurance company paid for their remediation, they had to pay temporary rent and make their mortgage payments at the same time. In January, the couple sued the man who sold them the house, along with the woman who inspected it, accusing them in part of deceptive trade practices and common fraud.

The case is not unusual, as mold, particularly Stachybotrys, is becoming a common point of contention in a growing number of lawsuits being filed in Dallas and elsewhere.

The area of litigation is growing so rapidly that Mealey's Emerging Toxic Torts, a well-respected industry newsletter, has begun tracking mold cases for its lawyer subscribers. Those lawsuits include a $2 billion claim filed on behalf of a group of Canadian schoolchildren, as well as $8 billion in claims filed against a group of New York City landlords. Those cases are still pending, but others have reached an end--including one that resulted in a $17.3 million judgment in Martin County, Florida. One lawyer who is already having success in the field is Alex Robertson, a managing partner at the Los Angeles law firm Knopfler & Robertson, who has also written extensively on the issue for Mealey's.

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