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Mold issue spreads concern
Growth hinders couple's ideal of a warm, fuzzy home in Cedarburg
By DAN BENSON

Dec. 28, 2002

Cedarburg - Winter is a time for woolly boots, not "extremely fuzzy" boots, like the mold-covered pair in the basement of the remodeled home of Cynthia Collins-Hansen and her husband, Lowell Hansen.

The boots stand as a damp testament to a Hansen family ordeal that began three years ago and has resulted in them being forced out of their mold-infested Cambridge Ave. home last February.

Moldy carpet, moldy walls, moldy furniture.

"You can't go in there without a suit and respirator. Everything's contaminated," Collins-Hansen said.

Since July, a four- to eight-man crew from Metropolitan Fire Restoration Services Inc. in Chicago has entered the Hansen house clothed in hooded jumpsuits, respirators and goggles to run dehumidifiers and clean mold.

Once in a while, Metropolitan's crew engages in "investigative demolition" - ripping through drywall to get at mold growing inside the walls, said Julia Seedorf, an applied microbial remediation technician and crew supervisor with Metropolitan.

Her company has two or three crews daily fighting encroaching mold in Chicago and southeast Wisconsin homes, she said.

Many homes hit
It's a problem that has beset hundreds, if not thousands of other Wisconsin homeowners. Recently, a Whitefish Bay home was demolished because of toxic mold infestation.

The Hansens' problems began in December 1999 after a 1,500-square-foot family room and master bedroom addition was rebuilt by Bartelt-Filo, a Menomonee Falls remodeling company that was hired after another company botched the job.

But when Bartelt-Filo was done, there were leaks and condensation around some light fixtures, both sides agree.

The remodeling crew returned.

But it still wasn't fixed, the Hansens say, and so moisture continued to collect and mold began to form.

A blame game ensued, with the Hansens accusing Bartelt-Filo of shoddy workmanship and reporting them to the state Department of Agriculture, Trade and Consumer Protection.

Insurance issue
They also accused their insurance company, State Farm, of negligence because the company wouldn't pay to repair the damage caused by the mold and moisture.

Instead, the insurance company has spent tens of thousands of dollars on treating the infestation with fans and dehumidifiers instead of correcting the problem, Collins-Hansen said.

"It's crazy," she said.

The Hansens finally moved out in February, moving to a hotel where they stayed for two months. Now they're renting a house in Grafton at the insurance company's expense, Cynthia said.

Collins-Hansen said her 9-year-old home-based business, selling health and beauty products, has been all but ruined, slashing her once-$55,000 annual income, forcing the family to take out loans from their retirement plans to pay bills.

So the Hansens hired Michael Childress with the Childress and Zdeb law firm in Chicago.

"It's easier for insurance companies to claim their insurers are hysterical" than to admit their customers are suffering from the effects of toxic mold, "even though it's a fairly well-reported phenomenon at this juncture," Childress said.

Childress said the problem stems from work done by Bartelt-Filo. He's working to get the insurance company to agree.

But Rob Bultman, Bartelt-Filo's lawyer with McNally, Maloney and Peterson in Wauwatosa, said the Hansens' dispute is really with their insurance company.

"The insurance company is looking for someone to blame so they don't have to pay," Bultman said.

Bultman said Bartelt-Filo doesn't believe "there is any problem with the home currently. If there's mold in there now, it isn't related to work done by Bartelt-Filo."

State Farm Insurance officials declined to comment.

Sign of the times?
Those sensitive to mold are typically the very young, the very old and people with compromised immune systems, respiratory ailments or a history of allergies.

Some think uncontrolled mold growth could be a sign of the times, attributable to changes in building materials and techniques, more tightly constructed homes and homeowner inattention to maintenance responsibilities.

In recent years, thousands of Wisconsin homes have reported problems with mold, with at least two cases resulting in homes being demolished.

Several other cases, like the Hansens', have forced residents to move out.

Experts report hundreds of people flocking to seminars on the issue and receiving phone calls and complaints from fearful homeowners.

No standards exist for exposure to mold and mold toxins, experts say, and the point at which mold exposure becomes a health threat is unknown.

Childress' firm has represented homeowners with moldy houses in 32 states.

"People are really sick. It's toxic, like poison," he said. "It's not like losing an arm or something. But for some it's very bad. For most it's like having the cold or flu for five years. Imagine living like that."

Adding to the frustration, Childress said, "is it's transitory. When you get out of the environment, it goes away," making it more difficult for homeowners to prove their case.

Seedorf said mold in the Hansens' home is confined generally to the roof sheathing and soffit area of the addition.

"A lot of the walls in the family room are still up so we don't know the extent of the mold in those wall cavities," she said.

Mold also has formed in the basement, especially on that pair of "extremely fuzzy boots." A basement bedroom's carpet also is infested with mold, "which may have migrated into the walls."

Hoping to get home
Childress said the Hansens and their insurance company are making progress toward solving the problem and getting the Hansens back in their house.

He doubted there will be a need to tear down the house.

"We want to try to get it fixed so they can move back in," he said.

He hopes work will begin this winter.

"It's something that needs to begin posthaste" while cold weather works against continued mold growth, Childress said.

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