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Mold issues continue to spread

BY MEGGEN LINDSAY
Times Staff Writer

Homes have been razed and schools emptied in recent years, as Indiana residents and families nationwide increasingly attribute ill health and property damage to the phenomenon of mold.

Although mold in itself is nothing new, its contamination has become a financial and legal nightmare for property owners and insurance agents.

More than 10,000 mold-related lawsuits are pending across the country, and two jury awards given last year topped $30 million, according to the Indiana Chamber of Commerce.

Whether the result of media hype and zealous trial lawyers, or a legitimate increasing awareness of a long-overlooked health risk, fear of mold contamination has seeped into the nation's consciousness.

A handful of states, including Indiana, has proposed legislation to research mold and look at how to regulate it. The federal government also is examining the problem: the Centers for Disease Control recently commissioned the Institute of Medicine to study the health effects of mold exposure.

And the Indiana Chamber will sponsor its third symposium on mold in January, one of a handful of presentations sprouting across the state. The forums are for concerned homeowners and parents, health professionals and the businesses most likely to be affected by the costs of cleaning mold contamination.

"There has been a lot of hysteria about mold," said Jack Leonard, president of the Environmental Management Institute in Indianapolis, a nonprofit training corporation affiliated with Indiana University.

Health effects

Internet sites are filled with horror stories of "toxic mold" and inspectors willing to come in -- albeit for a hefty fee -- to clean the fungi.

Leonard dismissed much of the media attention and the dire health warnings about mold, however.

"None of the lawsuits have been won on basis of its proven health effects," he said. "Proving that you got sick from a specific toxin from a specific mold is beyond where the science on mold is today."

There are more than 100,000 species of mold -- a fungus that thrives in moisture and is not typically hazardous to healthy people -- according to the Indiana State Department of Health.

"Mold is everywhere; it is the most common life form in the world," said Dr. William Baker, an assistant professor and allergy specialist at Indiana University School of Medicine.

Although it is well-documented that inhaling mold spores can worsen and cause both allergy and asthma symptoms, there is no medical proof that exposure to it results in more serious health problems, Baker said.

"All of the claims now on the Internet about mold, the memory loss, hemorrhaging, numbness -- there is just no cause and effect where those claims can be proven," he said. "Most of the claims are just not reliable complaints that we can attribute to mold exposure."

Helene Uhlman, administrator of the Hammond Health Department, said concerns about the health effects are not overblown.

"We are looking at a lot more children with asthma and allergies and at the same time learning a lot more about mold," she said. "We really didn't pay as much attention as we should have before. Now that we are finding out more and more, we know we underestimated the types and varieties of mold."

Although most experts cringe at the term "toxic mold," some molds do produce toxins.

A small group of molds -- including the notorious "black mold" called stachybotrys -- emit chemicals called mycotoxins. It is those chemicals that may be hazardous if they become airborne in large quantities.

However, all mold that is dark green or black is not the toxin-producing black mold.

For instance, the dark mold commonly found between bathroom tiles is not black mold, according to John Ruyack, program manager for the state health department's indoor and radiologic health division.

"There are toxic molds, but I wouldn't be concerned if I had a spot on the wall," he said. "But if I walked into my basement, and the entire wall was covered, I'd have serious problems.

"That would be a different story. (Mold problems) depend on levels and sensitivities," Ruyack said.

Lack of standards

That degree of uncertainty is partly why mold has become such a vexing problem.

Because there are so many different types of mold and people react so differently to them, there is not a certain level of contamination at which mold is deemed hazardous.

"Unlike lead or asbestos, there is no number to pinpoint as a marker, meaning that if your (property) is below this number you're safe," Leonard said. "There is no science that would support those kinds of guidelines."

And also unlike lead and asbestos, mold is not regulated by the state or federal government. But Leonard said the recent response to mold is reminiscent of the asbestos scare in the 1980s.

"There was initial panic and then people learned how to contain and manage it. I think mold will evolve in the same direction, but it's more of a problem," he said. "Mold is more complex to deal with than asbestos was, so it will take longer to get industry standards up and running."

In the meantime, disgruntled and sick homeowners may be left with mold damage to repair and lawsuits to be filed.

Insurance coverage

The insurance industry is becoming increasingly wary of mold claims, as it paid out more than $1.2 billion in repairs and litigation last year, according to a September article in The Washington Post.

Most carriers either have clarified existing mold exclusion clauses or eliminated any coverage in their homeowners' policies.

But not all insurers have eliminated mold coverage, said Joe Savarise, communications director for the Professional Insurance Agents of Indiana.

"Right now, independent agents can help consumers find coverage," Savarise said.

"Mold is a problem, and the industry is trying to find out how to deal with the problem. But I don't think it has reached crisis mode.

"If all of the hype and huge (jury) awards continue, it could get harder and harder to get coverage, but right now, it is available."

Savarise also pointed out that because mold contamination is not regulated, it is especially important for homeowners to specifically seek out its coverage.

"A little bit of protection can go a long way," he said.

Construction causes

Whether there is actually more mold in buildings than there used to be is debatable, Savarise said.

"A large part of public opinion within the industry believes that there is no more mold than there was 20 or 30 years ago. The difference is the lawsuits and rewards," he said.

But many experts believe mold contamination sharply increased because of changing construction practices. After the energy crisis of the 1970s, builders used more insulation and tighter construction, which allows mold spores to multiply through the recycled air.

"We created wonderful environments for ourselves, for mold, and for dust mites," Baker said.

In addition to the tighter construction, mold grows well on commonly used products that easily can sustain water damage, such as dry wall sheet rock, ceiling tiles and wood, according to the Indiana State Department of Health.

"Mold spores were not made to grow inside homes that are tightly insulated. A mold problem is a moisture problem," said Ruyack of the state health department. "And we're doing silly things like building schools with vinyl wallpaper on walls."

Indiana University's Leonard agreed.

"One of the things that has happened in 20th century construction techniques was a revolution in building materials for commercial and residential structures," Leonard said. "The tighter buildings have made a big difference in the nature and prevalence of mold."

He also blamed the insurance industry for "adding kerosene to the fire" by not paying mold claims -- especially for mold that arises out of water damage already covered by the carrier.

"There is a genuine increase of mold in the last century because of changed construction techniques and even indoor plumbing. But the insurance industry buries its head and says it's not responsible," Leonard said.

"That's a red flag to lawyers. The response of insurance companies has caused the level of panic to rise."

Legal, health issues

For Brad Banks, a Valparaiso attorney whose clients, Don and Diane Kaminsky, were recently forced to move out of the home they bought in 2000 because of such high mold levels, suing the insurance company is a legitimate reaction.

The family became ill shortly after moving in, and after numerous mold inspections, the house was deemed uninhabitable. The insurance company, American Family Insurance, denied the claim. Calls to American Family's attorney were not returned.

"Mold is usually the result of some sort of water damage," Banks said. "Lawyers in other states have had success with these claims. As long as we can prove that the water damage that caused the mold was covered under the policy, we should be successful.

"It's like saying we cover fire loss, but not smoke damage. One directly leads to the other."

But many in the insurance industry say such claims need to be denied.

"If insurers are now going to be asked to pay claims for something that is not covered in the policy, the price of home insurance will inevitably rise," reads an online brochure published by the Insurance Information Institute.

"Potential rate increases needed to cover the cost of mold claims threaten to make home insurance coverage unaffordable for some and unavailable for others," it continued.

And insurers are not alone in their concern.

The Indiana Association of Realtors published an article with mold guidelines for its agents last spring. Mold contamination is not a mandatory disclosure, the association points out, although warning clients of "adverse material facts or risks" is.

"Because of the lack of standards, mold continues to be very difficult issue to address," wrote Jodi Tuttle, the association's general counsel.

Tom Neltner, president of the nonprofit Improving Kids' Environment advocacy group, said the real estate sector, insurers and health inspectors are not doing enough to resolve the situation.

"People are worried," he said. "People are concerned, and the concerns are valid. Sampling spores in homes and schools is not enough, because mold can spread."

But all those involved with mold concurred on one issue: Mold and its source should be cleaned as soon as it's discovered.

"If you have a growing mold, you have a problem. If it's in small amounts, find the water source, shut it down and clean up," Leonard advised. "If it is present in larger amounts, use more care in cleaning it up because the chance of spreading (through the air) becomes more severe."

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