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.
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.
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.

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.

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 buildingto 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.

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.

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.

"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.

"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.

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.

"This is the hottest area of toxic tort and construction defect litigation," says Robertson, who litigated his first mold case in 1994. "I've got, right now, 1,000 individuals in California that I'm representing on mold cases alone. I get a half dozen new calls a day from around the country. I take maybe 10 percent of the cases that people want me to take."

Although scientists are still struggling to understand how mold attacks the human body, Robertson says the knowledge that does exist is enough to make the issue ripe for litigation.

"It's a lot like tobacco smoke. There was a huge controversy for decades about whether it was harmful," Robertson says. "Most people accept now that there are adverse health effects to exposure to toxic mold. Then you get into exactly how sick it can make you, and that's where the battle lies."

The courts have only begun to weigh legal arguments involving the health aspects of mold, but lawyers such as Robertson are increasingly winning mold claims by focusing on more traditional areas of law. Instead of arguing science, they attempt to blame people, usually builders and their contractors, for creating a mold infestation because of faulty construction practices. Other cases focus on insurance companies, which are increasingly getting hit with allegations that they failed to pay for or adequately repair a mold infestation.

Just three years ago, the insurance industry didn't acknowledge there was a problem. At the time, a spokesman for the American Insurance Association told one industry publication that "insurance companies will not take note of [toxic mold] until they are faced with numerous losses because of it."

That attitude has changed dramatically, says John Marlow, an AIA spokesman based in Austin. Although most homeowner policies now specifically exclude mold from coverage, mold-related lawsuits are forcing the industry to pay for the problem. While it is still too early to say how much these claims cost the industry, Marlow says the escalating numbers are bad news for everyone, consumers especially.

"Only now [toxic mold] is something that's becoming an increasing concern out there because of the growing rate of litigation over the issue," Marlow says. "It is a very serious concern. Litigation is a cost of doing business. As those costs go up, premiums are going to have to go up."

Marlow, like other industry representatives, declined to provide any specific examples of how insurance carriers are attempting to address the issue. It is a subject that, given the litigation, they would rather not discuss. But Robertson says some of the companies he has successfully sued have begun to create "mold units" where they train their adjusters how to recognize routine-sounding claims, such as that the Tharps phoned in, that may really involve mold.

Besides money, the fuel that's really feeding the litigation fire is publicity. As the public awareness about mold grows, so do the number of mold-related lawsuits. In just a few weeks, the most notorious of these lawsuits is scheduled to go to trial in Texas. In that case, Melinda Ballard and her family are suing their insurance carrier, accusing it, in part, of failing to inform them about the dangers of the Stachybotrys, which ultimately drove them out of their 22-room mansion, located just west of Austin in the aptly named town of Dripping Springs. The Ballards are seeking $100 million in civil damages.

While the Cleveland babies made Stachybotrys a contested issue among state and federal health officials, the Ballards introduced the substance to the public at large. In September, the CBS news show 48 Hoursaired a two-part story called "Invisible Killers." The program, the first of its kind to air at a national level, detailed the Ballards' case, relying on sensational footage of the Ballards dressing up in space suits before entering their home. There is also footage of Ron Allison, Ballard's husband and a former investment banker, who believes the mold gave him Alzheimer-like symptoms that forced him to quit his job.

The impact of the show on the general public was immediate. At the Texas health department, Stahl says he got some 400 phone calls from people who had seen the show, many of them wanting someone from the state to inspect their homes for Stachybotrys. "I had many people call me who had been living in it for years and didn't know what was causing their health problems," Stahl says. "I actually think it was helpful because it made people more aware."

People were enlightened in other ways, too. "I literally had to hire extra people to answer the phone," attorney Robertson says. The wave of worried Americans soon reached Ballard, who has published her phone number on the Internet, where she remains an active participant in e-mail discussion groups.

"When I went public, and this is no exaggeration, I got about 20,000 phone calls," Ballard says. "I kept getting calls from people saying, 'I'm having to sue my builder [or insurer], do you know anyone who has had problems with this?' I started thinking, gee, I really need to keep a record of this."

Since then, Ballard says she has compiled a private database that today includes more than 9,000 mold-related lawsuits filed across the country, including more than 200 in Dallas and Fort Worth. Although she wouldn't give the Observer access to the database, Ballard says it consists entirely of court documents, which she verifies for their authenticity and shares with plaintiffs' attorneys. While some of the cases date back to the 1980s, most of them were filed within the last two years.

"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.

"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.

Ultimately, Naishtat argues the state needs to set standards with teeth, but in the meantime, he'll settle for the tests, which he guesses will cost about $1,000 per school--a cost the school districts will most likely have to bear. And if those schools uncover mold infestations as a result of the test, who will pay for the cleanup?

"I guess they'll have to sit down with their school campus advisory councils and representatives of the Texas Department of Health and decide what type of corrective action to take," Naishtat says.

Stahl says he supports the legislation, but he's not sure how much money he'd need to monitor the testing. As things are now, he can barely answer his phone.

"I'm sure it would be hundreds of thousands of dollars," he says, adding "that's just a guess." In the past, Stahl has asked his superiors for money to expand his four-person staff, but the requests are always turned down. "There's just not enough money."

If Joanna Windham had any money, she says she would move out of her Turtle Creek condo, which she has rented for the last 14 years. She would also abandon the place on a short-term basis, but she doesn't know anyone who can put her up, along with her two dogs and two cats. Instead, she'll have to stay put.

For now, Mr. Mildew can't tell Windham what type of mold she has growing in her air conditioner vent or, for that matter, whether it is toxic. To determine that, he'll have to come back and thoroughly test the place. It could be weeks before those results are in. Until then, Windham will just have to wait and wonder, just like everyone else who finds themselves living on Planet Mold. Windham has, however, begun meeting with attorneys, and there is one thing she's sure about.

"If I have to move somewhere," Windham says, "somebody's going to pay for it."

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