A new and rapidly growing hazard has been spotted in the headlines these days. Mold—deadly black mold, more specifically—is popping up in local evening news programs, national publications, and radio news reports. Stories about illnesses related to mold infestations and lawsuits over damages from mold-infested buildings are spreading through the media, raising awareness about the potential dangers of black mold, otherwise known as stachybotrys atra or stachybotrys chartarum.
Black mold is one of the rare varieties of toxigenic molds, one that releases mycotoxin particles into the air. Black mold isn’t always black. It’s typically slimy and white at first, turning darker over time. There are millions of different kinds of mold, or moulds, and it’s nearly impossible to tell what kind is present in your home based on the color. The only way to tell for sure what is black mold and what isn’t is to have a professional test completed using air and surface samples. Toxic mold can cause serious health problems for people who are exposed to high concentrations of it. Short-term effects include allergy and flu-like symptoms, including wheezing, coughing, eye irritation, sore throat, and fatigue. Given the right conditions, any kind of mold can trigger allergic reactions and induce asthma attacks. Toxigenic molds, like black mold, can affect different people in a variety of ways. The elderly, small children, and people with weak immune systems or previous respiratory ailments will suffer the worst from toxic black mold exposure. Studies have suggested that the negative impact of toxic molds can range from anything from seasonal allergy-like symptoms to more severe reactions, like bleeding of the lungs (pulmonary hemorrhage), cancer, or even death.
The term black mold started appearing in the national media in the late 1990s and early 2000s, when reports immerged about a mold-related sickness in infants. Over the years, news reports piled up and more studies were released about the potential health implications of mold. Despite a heavy media saturation of mold stories, much of the general public is still unaware that black mold poses such a danger. If you have heard about mold in the popular press, you may have come across some of the stories below, which range from celebrity mold cases to million-dollar lawsuits.
Perhaps the most famous non-celebrity mold lawsuit came from Cleveland, Ohio in 1994. Numerous infants in a specific area of Cleveland were diagnosed with acute idiopathic pulmonary hemorrhage. A Centers for Disease Control (CDC) investigation initially determined that toxic black mold was the cause of the health effects in the children. The case is widely credited with kick-starting the nation’s awareness of mold. The Ohio infant illness case awoke people to the need for mold removal and mold remediation in their own homes.
In one of the most famous toxic mold cases in recent history, consumer advocate Erin Brockovich sued the construction team, subcontractors, and former owners of her home near Los Angeles, California. Brockovich, who won a multi-million dollar water contamination case against PG&E in Hinckley, California—the basis for the movie Erin Brockovich—used some of her bonus money from the contamination case to buy the house of her dreams. Unfortunately, the house soon became infested with toxic black mold. Brockovich claims that she suffered from constant flu-like illnesses while living in the house. Reconstruction costs soared to roughly $600,000. Brockovich is now an advocate for other people suffering from the disastrous effects of toxic mold in their homes.
In 2008, television personality Ed McMahon sued his insurance company over damages caused by mold in his Beverly Hills mansion, eventually setting for a cool $7.2 million. McMahon claimed that a water pipe broke and was not repaired properly. Water damage to his den led to an infestation of mold throughout the whole house. The late Ed McMahon and his wife fell ill from the toxic mold, and he claims it killed Muffin, his dog. But the former Johnny Carson sidekick isn’t the only celebrity making headlines for a mold lawsuit. Former NBA star Michael Jordan sued his home construction company over an infestation of mold. Lou Ferrigno, television’s “The Hulk,” sued Mercury Insurance Company for more than $200,000 over damages and repair costs associated with mold growth in his home.
Mold has grown around several of the biggest headlines in the past few years. Take, for instance, Hurricane Katrina. In the aftermath of Katrina, mold damage hampered reconstruction efforts, making life more difficult for people trying to move back into flood-ravaged neighborhoods. Columbia University’s Mailman School of Public Health conducted a study of the air quality in sample homes affected by flooding during and after Katrina. Reports on the findings indicated that mold had spread rapidly in water-damaged homes. Air samples taken from the homes indicated that there was an unhealthy level of mold spores and other toxins present. The study was designed to provide recommendations for relief workers about how to safely conduct their clean-up work. Ultimately, the scientists suggested that all relief workers wear respirators while inside homes that were damaged by mold from the floodwaters. In a 2005 National Public Radio report, pediatric allergist Dr. Peyton Eggleston of Johns Hopkins University suggested that rather than stachybotrys, another toxic mold, penicillium, might be the biggest threat to flooded New Orleans homes.
In another major news story affected by mold, the economic depression and housing crisis has resulted in an unusually high number of vacant, foreclosed homes—and mold. When homes sit for months and years closed-up and in ill repair, mold grows unabated. Although mold problems are common in regularly occupied homes, abandoned residential buildings are particularly susceptible to mold damage. In a home with residents, the comings and goings of family members and the opening and closing of windows help to let the household air out, and the fresh, outdoor air in. However, when a house is locked up and uninhabited, the air stagnates. Moisture in the home has no way of being released or evaporating. The dust, organic material, and locked-in moisture of foreclosed homes combines for a mold smorgasbord. When the homes do eventually get sold, costly restoration measures must be taken for the removal of mold and mildew.
A 2011 report by NPR addressed the issue of mold in foreclosed homes, noting that “in some states, it’s estimated that more than half of foreclosed homes have mold and mildew issues. Realtors across the country say they’re seeing the problem in everything from bungalows to mansions.”
The story of Melinda Ballard has been featured in TIME Magazine, New York Times Magazine, and on CBS News. Noted for the size of the lawsuit, Melinda Ballard received $32 million from Farmers Insurance Group for damage to her 22-room mansion in Dripping Springs, Texas. Not everyone lands a multi-million dollar verdict, but mold lawsuits are on the rise nonetheless. According to USA Today, the state of Texas saw their mold litigation cases increase five fold in the year following the Ballard lawsuit and its accompanying media exposure. As a result of the increasing amount of lawsuits, insurance companies have begun to slash water damage-related coverage from their home insurance policies, and rates for home owner’s insurance have gone up dramatically.
Many people have compared mold to asbestos. Both mold and asbestos are commonly found in old homes, and they can both cause frightening respiratory ailments. However, an end to asbestos sickness and litigation is possible, even if it’s a long ways off. Once all of the asbestos in America has been removed, people will stop getting sick, and the problem will eventually disappear. The same is not true of mold. Fungi and mold have been around long before humans inhabited the earth, and they look to be here long after we’ve left. They can affect homes large and small. All mold needs to grow is moisture and some form of organic material, such a wood, carpeting, or drywall. Renters and homeowners should take mold infestations in their places of residence very seriously. If you suspect there is a mold problem in your home, make sure you have the mold tested and removed by trained, certified mold specialists. Don’t allow your home to become the next tragic news story.