A growing number of families are abandoning their homes, saying that Stachybotrys
chartarum, or "black mold" is making them ill. (ABCNEWS.com)
Black Mold Panic Has Families Fleeing Their Homes.
Nov. 29 -
Believe it or not, families around the country are fleeing their homes or having
them destroyed because of an insidious intruder they say is making them sick.
The invader? Black mold. Its
technical name is Stachybotrys chartarum stachy for short and
it's got a lot of people panicked.
In Oregon, the O'Hara family asked
their local fire department to burn their $450,000 home to the ground after black mold was
found inside. "It's basically just a house that poisoned my family," Mark O'Hara
In Hawaii, a $95 million Hilton Hotel
tower has been closed since July because black mold was found in some of the rooms.
In a July 2001 story Time
magazine said toxic mold is spreading "like some sort of biblical plague." The
New York Daily News called it "killer mold."
Whatever you call it, across the
country, black mold is causing people to abandon buildings, close schools and leave
beautiful homes sitting vacant.
In Seabrook, Texas, the Hammond
family lived in tents in their backyard for almost nine months, waiting for their
insurance company to settle their claim and clean up black mold they say they discovered
in their home.
Beverly and Mike Hammond say a
bathroom leak caused the black mold to grow. The Hammonds lived for months with a
"potty tent" that served as an outhouse. "As soon as I saw the mold, then
we, you know, hightailed it for the tent," Beverly Hammond said.
They say the mold made them sick,
causing fatigue and joint pain, and will only go in their house with a respirator.
House Turned 'Toxic Tara'
Melinda Ballard's mansion near
Austin, Texas is considered by many to be the "ground zero" of the current mold
hysteria. Like Diane Fortner, Ballard once thought of her estate as a dream home. Ballard
now refers to it as "Toxic Tara."
Ballard says it all began with a
leaky roof and some burst pipes. She claims her insurance company lied to her, delaying
her request to have the wet materials in her home replaced. That's when she says the black
mold began to grow under the kitchen floorboards and spread to other areas. Finally, she
and her family left.
"On April 23rd, 1999, we walked
out of that home with nothing more than the clothes on our backs," Ballard said.
Ballard is suing her insurance
company because of the black mold. She invited 20/20 to look around her home, but
insisted we wear protective suits and respirators.
Ballard's case made news last year
when a jury ordered her insurance company to pay her a staggering $32 million for acting
in bad faith. The judgment is now being appealed.
In addition to making her house
unlivable, Ballard claims, the mold also caused serious health problems.
She said her son, Reese, was gasping
to get air into his lungs, coughing up blood and suffering terrible headaches. She said
her husband, Ron, had similar symptoms, including what she calls early Alzheimer's.
Ballard said, "I know men forget
their anniversaries and they forget things like that, but they don't forget what kind of
car they've driven. They don't forget where they live.
Some scientists say memory loss and
internal bleeding could be linked to mold.
"You can see mucosal bleeding,
like bleeding from the nose and the ears, you can see hair loss
and there are some
individuals that feel that indeed cognitive dysfunction or the inability to think, is also
the result of the inhalation of fungal spores," said David Straus, a microbiologist
at Texas Tech.
That's certainly frightening, but
it's also controversial.
Straus acknowledged that there is no
conclusive proof that these serious illnesses are caused by black mold. However, Straus
said, "The data are coming." Straus even claims his one visit to "Toxic
Tara" as a consultant resulted in permanent hearing loss.
"I can't prove that the hearing
loss occurred because of my exposure to mold in Melinda's house," but Straus added,
"that's exactly the day that it began."
The Centers for Disease Control and
Prevention says there are very few case reports of mold in the home causing internal
bleeding or memory loss, and no link has been established. Most scientists say the only
proven effects from mold are allergic reactions and possible respiratory problems
including asthma. Some say mold fear is being whipped up by lawyers and mold cleanup
companies eager to turn mold into gold.
University of Texas Medical Center
immunologist, Dr. Gailen Marshall said some of his patients have been told to leave their
homes and that black mold can kill them. But Marshall insists there's no cause for alarm.
"I think it's being blown
horrendously out of proportion
All the stories that are out there are based
primarily on testimonials and conjecture, not on hard scientific evidence," Marshall
The stories of mold panic are so
widespread they're even being spoofed on kids' cartoon shows. The parodies of mold
fear ring all too true to Gordon Stewart of the Insurance Information Institute.
"There is no such thing as
killer mold," Stewart said. He said mold including black mold has been
around for centuries, and that people have only become hysterical about mold in the past
Two years ago, there were only 1,000
mold-related insurance claims in Texas. That number soared to 14,000 last year. And now
insurers, nationwide, are raising rates or dropping mold coverage altogether.
"There isn't more mold now than
there was two years ago. There is more mold fear than there was two years ago, and there
may be in some cases, more mold greed," Stewart said.
Marshall said he does believe most of
his patients complaining of mold-related illnesses really are sick. "The question is
what is the relationship between the presence of mold and their illnesses?
really no evidence that the very presence of mold, which is really everywhere in our
environment, will by itself create bleeding, will by itself create memory loss or deficit,
et cetera," Marshall said.
He believes what may be making some
of them sick is not the mold but the panic that's been created. Marshall insists
the greatest danger isn't from the mold but from the panic that's been created.
He said, "There is clear
evidence that the chronic anxiety that may result from something like this itself has a
negative health consequence."
While there's no evidence toxic mold
in the home is deadly there is increasing debate about how dangerous it might be
and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is funding a study of mold's
In the meantime many families
aren't taking any chances.
What To Do
If you see mold in your home,
everyone agrees you should get rid of it. But experts say in most cases there is no need
to have expensive mold remediation done. They advise homeowners to stop the water
intrusion and to simply clean up the mold with a little bleach. If it has spread, experts
advise homeowners to replace moldy building materials like Sheetrock. It's also important
to note that not all black-colored mold is Stachybotrys chartarum.
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