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?

April 2003By Comments

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 that in a minute) and that Ballard and Allison complained of is also nothing new, especially in water-damaged properties. Indeed, if there’s any increase in the mold problem lately, it may be the fault of the American construction industry. Molds flourish in damp environments and tend to feast on materials common to modern construction—the cellulose-based, paper-covered gypsum that we’ve substituted for plaster, for example—that retain water. As Joseph Lstiburek, an engineer and expert on moisture in buildings, wrote recently of some modern hotels, “We’re building paper buildings that get wet and can’t dry.”

2. Okay, mold itself might be old, but some kind of mutant “killer mold” that is potentially lethal, particularly to infants, has recently arrived in Texas. I can’t fault you for believing this. Melinda Ballard isn’t just any old embattled plaintiff but a media-savvy executive employed by the international public relations firm Ruder Finn. She knows how to get information to the press. Thanks to her, the idea that black mold had caused serious harm to her family, as suggested by an oft-cited 1994 Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) study that found a connection between black mold and a dozen cases of fatal infant pulmonary hemorrhage in Cleveland, Ohio, spread like, well, some kind of toxic mold. What was buried in most of the coverage of the case was that the trial judge excluded all medical evidence of the health effects of mold because the science behind it wasn’t sound. Black mold is a type of mold that produces and sheds a toxin, hence the menacing moniker. But there is no scientific evidence of a link between black mold’s toxin and health problems. For the moment, its ability to cause memory loss or other cognitive problems is purely conjectural, and as for its threat to babies, the alarming CDC study was subsequently disproved by two CDC reviews in 1998. “These are all hypotheses that need to be studied more,” says Dr. Robert Haley, the chief of epidemiology at the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center at Dallas. “But for now, it sounds like a lot of people went and got diagnosed by their lawyers.”

3. So mold is perfectly safe. That would be taking anti-mold mania too far. Molds are known to damage whatever they start feeding on. Most of the time, the food source is our own fruit, bread, and other things left out in the kitchen. Still, mold can invade and colonize in the body, where it will damage internal organs, particularly the lungs. But this is relatively rare; it happens almost exclusively in chemotherapy or AIDS patients whose immune systems are compromised.

Molds are also rightly feared by people with allergies, as spores can instigate as much sneezing and wheezing as mountain cedar or ragweed. I once interviewed a woman with allergies so severe that she almost died from respiratory distress after inhaling mold spores from leaves in her yard. That’s the closest thing to a true killer mold I’ve ever heard of, but its virulence was more a result of allergies on her part than the mold itself.

4. If I find mold in my house, I should celebrate, because everyone who files a mold claim gets rich. Afraid not. The Ballard case was dramatic but anomalous. The average successful mold claim award in Texas last year was about $20,000.

5. Mold mania is entirely the fault of trial lawyers. The insurance companies have played a significant role as well. Ballard and Allison’s award may have been reduced (largely because “knowingness” on the part of FIE had not been proved), but the appeals court did confirm the jury’s finding that the company dragged its feet in response to the couple’s 1998 claims. And that foot-dragging (an infuriatingly common practice by insurance carriers) begat the lawsuit, which begat the highly publicized verdict, which in turn begat an explosion of mold claims and payouts. Last year, 70 percent of mold claims in the U.S. came from Texas, yet there’s still no evidence of an increase in either the amount or danger of the mold here. Had FIE simply responded to the claim more promptly, it—and we—might have averted mold mania altogether.

6. Texas insurance companies are now going broke because of these mold claims. In response to the recent crises, last year Farmers Insurance Group, the parent company of FIE, stopped writing any new home owner’s policies in Texas—an apparent “cry for help.” That maneuver might have elicited more sympathy if the company hadn’t also had to pay the state nearly $100 million in restitution for already having overcharged customers long before its problems with Ballard. Mold claims have certainly become a burden, but even the industry admits that the bursting of the Internet bubble and the attendant stock losses on its investments caused at least part of the cash-flow crisis it now faces.

7. The best way to ensure that you don’t develop a serious mold problem in your home is to have it inspected for mold. Be careful. A lot of observers think that some companies in the environmental-inspection and-remediation business view mold mania as a needed cash cow to replace the lucrative asbestos clean-up business that has begun to ebb. And since science doesn’t know how much mold represents a health hazard, just because an inspector finds some ambient mold in the atmosphere of your home doesn’t mean that the family needs to be fitted immediately for those bulky white jumpsuits. Here’s a better way to judge: If you can see or smell mold, you probably have a problem. Look especially closely at air ducts, where water and dust that might contain mold often mingle. If you can eliminate the source of the moisture and kill the mold—soap and water will most often do the trick—nine times out of ten, you’ve solved your problem. But if that doesn’t work and you need remediation, scrutinize the company—check with previous clients, for example—before hiring them. Panic always attracts hustlers.

8. This was all a mountain made out of a mold hill and will soon disappear. Probably the biggest myth of all. Unfortunately, a mold claim these days will go on your insurance record, and a lending institution might be unwilling to sign off on a mortgage to some future buyer because of your home’s moisture history. This has come to be known as “moisture profiling,” and trust me, we have not heard the last of it. Nor have we heard the last from Melinda Ballard. She and Allison are appealing their case to the Texas Supreme Court, and in the meantime Ballard has guaranteed her presence in the headlines by suing Farmers Insurance Group for libel and slander over comments made by company spokesman Bill Miller, who called her lawsuit’s claims “fraudulent.” And based on something I found in my mailbox the other day, mold isn’t likely to leave our court dockets or the headlines anytime soon. A lawyer friend sent along an invitation he’d recently been sent from the state bar association. The event? The Second Annual Advanced Mold Litigation Course.

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