Black mold damage hikes home costs

Black mold damage hikes home costs

Medallion Healthy Home

Toxic substance sparks health fears, lawsuits, insurance battles for homeowners, businesses
By Marisa Schultz / The Detroit News
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Damage unknown
Illness unraveled
Lawsuits, claims increase
Mold followed roof leak

Hardly anyone had heard of it a decade ago. But black mold has become one of the most controversial aspects of home ownership and is a rapidly growing health concern.

The mold, called Stachybotrys, leaped to public prominence when it was linked in a controversial study to 10 infant deaths in Cleveland. Now it is blamed for closing Washington Elementary School in Romeo, the Wayne County prosecutor''s satellite office in Westland, some units in Michael Jordan''s condominium complex in Washington and Ed McMahon''s home in California.

It has forced Metro Detroit residents to abandon their homes, fueled legal battles with insurance companies and builders, prompted federal legislation, boosted homeowner insurance rates and created a new field of research for environmentalists and health experts.

Three air quality testing companies say together they have found mold in 450 homes in Wayne, Oakland and Macomb counties. Metro Detroit experts say the numbers are actually much higher, since mold is often hidden from homeowners.

In Roseville, Bessie Mae Haus considers herself one of those victims. Shortly after a leaky roof seeped rainwater into her living room, she developed a hacking cough. Then she became so exhausted that she struggled to dial the telephone.

When Haus was diagnosed with shingles, emphysema and fibrosis of the lungs six months later, she moved in with her daughter and has not returned to her home on Glendale Street in Roseville, which was infested with the black mold she now believes caused her health problems.

She has battled her insurance company to pay for the mold''s removal and has filed a lawsuit in Macomb Circuit Court against a repair company she hired for not discovering the substance while fixing water damage to her ceiling.

Nationwide, the Insurance Information Institute in New York estimates that 10,000 mold-related lawsuits are pending in the United States -- a 300 percent increase from 1999.

Home insurance companies have redefined policies to exclude mold coverage in light of thousands of recent mold damage claims and health reports refuting adverse health effects from mold exposure.

But U.S. Environmental Protection Agency scientists have been frantically working with a short staff and limited budget to find further evidence of the cause-and-effect relationship.

"The mold is everywhere," said Marc Menetrez, an environmental engineer who heads up one of the EPA''s black mold research teams in North Carolina, "from the desert of Las Vegas to the high humidity conditions of Florida, to the cool areas of Washington state. ... The public needs to be aware of this and the public needs to deal with this quickly."

Damage unknown
Scientists from the Centers of Disease Control identified Stachybotrys in 1995 as the culprit for unexplained infant deaths in Cleveland between January 1993 and December 1994. That report was later challenged by CDC scientists who concluded there was not enough evidence to prove the mold caused the babies'' deaths.

But there''s no doubt that mold causes health problems, said Dr. Michael Harbut, head of the Center for Occupational and Environmental Medicine in Southfield. It''s the severity of those health problems that some have disputed, he said.

"You don''t have to be a Ph.D. to know that if you walk into a room that has mold and your nose starts running and you''re wheezing, that you are probably allergic to it," said Harbut, who treats "three or four" patients a day at his Royal Oak clinic for mold exposure.

Few studies attempt to gauge the prevalence of dangerous molds. But a 1994 Harvard University study of 10,000 houses in the United States and Canada found that half the buildings had mold damage that presented a dramatically increased risk of respiratory illness.

Insurance agents credit the spike to the publicity of a Texas lawsuit where a jury granted Melina Ballard and her husband $32 million in June 2001 for mold damage in their mansion near Austin. Ballard said her husband suffered memory loss and her son contracted severe asthma from the mold. The verdict against Farmers Insurance was later reduced to $4 million.

The highest disclosed mold settlement was reached this year, when former Johnny Carson "Tonight Show" sidekick Ed McMahon was awarded $7.2 million for his lawsuit against American Equity Insurance Co., consultants and others. McMahon alleged toxic mold spread through his home, sickened his family and killed their dog.

Connie Morebach, vice president of Troy-based Sanit-Air, said her air quality testing company has found black mold locally in about 300 homes. Jon Dattilo, president of IAQ Management in Livonia, said his company finds about 40 homes a year with black mold. And Christopher Cote of Air Analysis and Consulting Co. in St. Clair Shores said he''s found about 100 homes with the toxic mold. Empirical evidence suggests the problem is much larger.

Illness unraveled
It took 37 doctor visits and four hospital stays before doctors could pinpoint mold as the cause of Carolyn Miu''s health problems.

The Commerce Township woman used to juggle taking care of her son, husband and work duties as an AT&T account manager with ease. But in 1999,she developed hives regularly, needed an inhaler to breathe and had trouble remembering job tasks and plans with her husband.

"I thought I was going crazy," said Miu, 35. "Everyone was treating my symptoms. I wasn''t getting better."

A visit to Dr. Harbut earlier this year began to unravel the 4-year-old health mystery that Miu blames for a miscarriage and for leaving her job on disability.

Harbut diagnosed Miu with prolonged exposure to toxic mold. He blamed her home.

Air tests revealed mold growth in between her walls of Aspergillus and Penicillium, other toxic molds linked to health problems but not as widely reported as Stachybotrys. The mold was never visible to Miu.

Scientists suggested the mold got there after the family''s home caught fire in 1998. Ashes from the fireplace set fire to trash in the garage.

Firefighters used 9,000 gallons of water to put out the flames, Miu said. But the water was never dried out in between the walls, creating an ideal environment for mold to grow.

The family now rents an apartment in West Bloomfield. They recently hired a lawyer to work with their insurance company.

Lawsuits, claims increase
The rise in mold lawsuits and insurance claims is credited to greater consumer awareness and tighter building design, said the EPA''s Menetrez. After the energy crisis of the 1970s, homes were built to prevent less exchange between the outside and inside air. Today, homes are typically built with drywall instead of plaster, which is more resistant to mold growth.

A sister team of EPA researchers is studying the health effects of the mold on mice. So far research has shown that mice exposed to Stachybotrys exhibit characteristics of allergic asthma, said Maryjane Selgrade, who heads that EPA research team.

Help for research and prevention may be on the way.

U.S. Rep. John Conyers, D-Detroit, introduced legislation last summer aimed at protecting homeowners against toxic-mold poisoning.

The bill, known as the Melina Bill, also asks the EPA to set up standards for preventing, detecting and cleaning up indoor mold growth. Right now it rests in a House committee.

It''s named for Melina Tumpkin, the daughter of Conyers'' Detroit office manager, who at age 9 was diagnosed with exposure to toxic mold at her home in Southfield.

Mold followed roof leak
Bessie Mae Haus'' problems began in March 2001, when her roof was damaged by ice and water and started to leak into her living room in Roseville. Her roof was later replaced and a contracting company was hired to repair the interior water damage. While the repair men were working, Haus, 78, said she saw a black substance fall from the ceiling. She asked an employee if it was mold and he said it wasn''t, Haus said. And he continued to patch the ceiling.

Afterward, Haus''s health began to fail and doctors diagnosed her with mold exposure. She had to evacuate her home and move in with her daughter in Lenox Township after air tests confirmed mold was growing.

"After the mold, she became as weak as a cat," said daughter Carolyn Trombley, 43.