Mold Age

News reports once warned of a toxic fungus that could destroy your home and your family's health. Was it all a bunch of hype?

NOT LONG AGO, MY FAMILIARITY with mold could be boiled down to the following: It turns up if you fail to put your bread in the fridge soon enough, it may have been the culprit in an offensive case of athlete’s foot I acquired back in high school, and on the brighter side, it plays some kind of key role in the making of two of the pillars of Western civilization—cheese and penicillin. So, yes, like most of you, I was completely unprepared for the arrival of mold mania, that raging political, economic, and public-health crisis that was sparked by Texas’ own self-styled mold maven, Melinda Ballard.

Ballard, of course, is one half of the Dripping Springs couple that won a breathtaking $32 million judgment in 2001 after a judge found that their home insurance carrier, Fire Insurance Exchange ( FIE), had inadequately handled a series of 1998 claims the couple had made for mold damage. In their suit, they weren’t just seeking compensation for the destruction of their 22-room mansion. They also claimed that neurotoxins produced by black mold had caused Ron Allison, Melinda’s husband, to experience memory loss and their young son, Reese, to suffer from asthma and seizures. True or not, when these terrifying charges were reported by the media, mold mania ensued. Home owners all over Texas panicked, and mold-claim payouts jumped from about $14 million to $1 billion in three years.

But when mold began to recede from the headlines this year and the suit’s judgment was reduced to $4 million on appeal, I was left wondering: Was the Ballard case really proof that there is an insidious new health epidemic facing Texans? What I soon discovered is that, for all the column inches of copy written on the subject since the Ballard suit was filed back in 1999, a body of mythology has developed. And for all of you who were driven to hysteria by mold mania, I herewith present an elixir: a list of eight common notions about mold that just aren’t true.

1. Mold is a brand-new phenomenon attacking Texas. There are somewhere between 10,000 and 300,000 species of mold in the world, multicellular organisms that are members of the fungus family, and they are certainly not new. Molds are old enough to have been mentioned in the Bible and so ubiquitous that you’ll probably breathe in a few spores while you’re reading this column. The black mold, Stachybotrys chartarum, that produces a toxin (more on

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