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."

"What we're finding is that many of these insurance companies are pleading ignorance," Ballard says. When that happens, Ballard uses her database to prove otherwise. For example, if you call Ballard to say you're suing some obscure carrier based in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, Ballard will plug the company name into her database. "I can send you 57 cases involving that company. I can tell you how they handled it, did they go to trial, and what their position was in trial."

Although most of the cases involve what Ballard considers legitimate disputes, she has realized that her attempts to publicize the issue can be a double-edged sword.

"There are some people on my database that I call Mold Kooks. They want to leave their home because their bread is moldy. I tell 'em, 'Come on, girlfriend, you're becoming a mold nut.' The paranoia can take hold," Ballard says. "This [filing a lawsuit] is not something that you do lightly. Most people don't realize what a tortuous situation it is to sue somebody."It wasn't by accident that David Weinberg detected his mold problem. As the chairman of the newly created Dallas-based Biosafety Institute, Weinberg has spent the last year hosting a series of statewide forums designed to educate a cross section of professionals about the health, legal, financial, and political implications of mold. A lawyer who is also the CEO of a company called Viditel that helps attorneys prepare for trial, Weinberg says he decided to organize the seminars at the suggestion of his clients.

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.

"They had been facing each other across the mediation table or across the courtroom, but what they discovered [while] chitchatting in the hallways was that nobody really knew anything about these mold issues," Weinberg says.

The educational seminars, which began in September, were intended to provide a "neutral" forum in which parties who often wind up pointing fingers at each other could openly discuss the sticky issue. But for Weinberg, they turned into a personal odyssey. During the first seminar, Weinberg was listening to a toxicologist he had enlisted describe the various health effects molds can cause. The speaker mentioned chronic fatigue, and a light bulb turned on: Weinberg had been to the doctor because he was constantly tired, but the doctor couldn't find a cause.

"I had a bunch of symptoms that I couldn't explain," Weinberg says. "I had congestion in my lungs. I thought I had chronic fatigue syndrome. I was fatigued. I went to my doctor and he said, 'Do you work near toxic chemicals?' I said, 'No, I work mostly at home.' He goes, 'Hmmm, that's puzzling. Maybe it's because you're 50, I don't know.'"

Weinberg asked the speaker whether mold could be affecting him, and he asked Weinberg if his home had any leaks or water damage. It had: Ages ago, he had a plumbing leak in the bathroom. "There was black stuff growing in the cabinet," Weinberg says. "I said, 'Mold. So what?'"

As it turned out, Weinberg had more leaks and, over time, they gave life to a mold colony. When he spoke to the Observer in February, Weinberg was living in temporary digs while a team of remediators, space suits and all, sealed off his Kessler Park home.

"It's not academic for me anymore," Weinberg says. "The whole perspective changes when this stuff is growing on your own wall. These are some of the things we're hoping to get across to people in the seminar--it's important for them to realize the psychological aspect of this. It's very disruptive to people's lives."

Instead of fretting over it, Weinberg saw his invasion as an opportunity to document the process of dealing with a mold infestation and all the headaches it creates. As a stream of various professionals--insurance agents, adjusters, and industrial hygienists, among others--began to trickle into his house, Weinberg sat back and watched.

"One of the things I saw was a lack of communication between the specialists," Weinberg says. "There are so many different disciplines involved that people need to speak each other's language and understand the basic concerns."

Too often, they don't. While the plumber may know how to fix a broken pipe, for example, he may not know that by tearing up the floor to get to it, he's disturbing invisible toxic spores and, in effect, spreading a problem that had been contained to one room into the entire house. The same theory applies to carpet cleaners, duct cleaners, architects, engineers, and even doctors. These professionals may not know it, but mold is their problem, too, and unless they learn how to deal with it, they may wind up in court.

"It's funny that this little problem involves so many different trades and occupations," Weinberg says. "A physician isn't going to ask you, 'Have you had a plumbing leak lately?' But he should."

State Rep. Elliott Naishtat, a Democrat from Austin, says he will soon introduce several mold-related bills, including one that would require every school district in the state to test its schools for the presence of mold. He's not optimistic about its chances of passing. Since he was elected in 1991, Naishtat has tried to pass legislation that would set strict air-quality standards in public schools and buildings, but the efforts have been repeatedly blocked by forces that say the measures are too expensive. Although Naishtat did manage to pass a set of voluntary indoor air "guidelines" for public schools, making Texas one of the few states to do so, the guidelines do not give the state any enforcement authority.

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