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TOXIC MOLD: Is this silent danger lurking in your home or office?

Jul 1, 2003  While Americans have turned much of their attention to dangers posed by potential terrorist activities involving chemical or biological agents, the truth is that there are many very real toxic risks already threatening the health and wellbeing of almost every member of the public on a daily basis. Next month we will discuss a number of toxic substances which present ongoing hazards, however, this month's Newsletter is devoted to one particular substance which, in and of itself, is rapidly becoming one of America's most significant health threats. That substance is toxic mold.

Mold, which is a variety of fungus, occurs naturally and is almost universally present in small quantities both indoors and outdoors. There are hundreds of species of mold found in nature. Most of the time, these naturally occurring molds pose no heath hazard to people. Problems often arise, however, when the quantity of mold is excessive or when particular types of mold are introduced into an indoor environment.

In recent years, a type of toxic mold known as Stachybotris charatum, or "stachy" has invaded many commercial buildings and residences. Although problems associated with stachy are nothing new, better reporting methods, such as the internet, have increased the public's awareness of those risks. Recent serious outbreaks have received widespread publicity and have generated a great deal of anxiety.

When toxic mold such as "stachy" is found in a building, it must be dealt with quickly and completely. Anything less than proper handling of the problem may result in significant health problems as well as the need to demolish the building itself.

The following information explains: how to determine if there is a problem with mold in a residence or workplace; the various health risks associated with exposure to toxic mold; and the actions that should be taken to rid the building of such dangerous mold.

Health Risks Associated with Mold:

    * Exposure to certain types of mold can irritate the eyes, nose, and upper breathing passages. Burning eyes, nasal congestion, coughing, and post-nasal drip are all symptoms of respiratory irritation.
    * Many people are, in fact, allergic to mold and develop symptoms such as itchy, watery eyes, nasal congestion, sneezing, chest tightness, cough, and wheezing.
    * Certain molds create chemicals, called toxins that have been known to cause illnesses of various degrees of severity. These toxins can have effects on the skin, as well as the respiratory, immune, and nervous systems.
    * Some molds can cause infection such as chronic sinus infections. People with weakened immune systems, such as those with the HIV virus, those receiving chemotherapy, and the elderly, are at risk of developing less common infections.
    * Children and pregnant women may be at increased risk for certain illnesses or allergic reactions
    * Toxic mold is also suspected of being a possible cause of or trigger for a disorder known as Multiple Chemical Sensitivity (MCS) and may be a component of Sick Building Syndrome (SBS).
    * In extreme cases, especially those involving elderly or medically compromised individuals, some experts believe that exposure to toxic mold may result in death due to complications from other conditions.

Catalysts for the Growth and Inhalation of Dangerous Mold:

The primary reason for mold growth indoors is excessive moisture in materials such as sheetrock, wood, paper, particle board, fiberglass insulation, carpeting, paint, plaster, soil in plant pots, and cooked and raw food. Mold has been known to grow:

    * behind walls
    * under floors
    * above ceiling tile
    * inside air conditioning/heating systems.
    * on window frames and outside walls
    * on walls, ceiling, and floor in basement
    * in crawl spaces and lower rooms such as basements
    * anywhere there has been a spill or water damage
    * on paper or wood products
    * behind bubbling paint or stained/peeling wallpaper
    * on shower doors or shower curtains
    * under and around sinks, bath tubs, and showers
    * on, between, or behind bathroom tiles
    * in damp storage rooms
    * in garages
    * under carpeting that is subjected to frequent wetting or incomplete drying
    * in automobile trunks
    * in commercial buildings associated with gardening supplies and plants
    * in lumber yards
    * in stored clothing or carpeting which is subjected to moisture or dampness
    * in buildings under construction

It is important to prevent moisture from entering and remaining in commercial buildings and residences at all costs. Leaking roofs, improperly sealed window frames leaking pipes, damp ground, and condensation on cold surfaces are just a few ways that moisture can collect and remain in a building. Improper and depleted waterproofing in, on, or around foundations is another prime entry point for repeated wetting or continuous dampness. Bathrooms that are often made damp as a result of hot showers or baths can be an open invitation to mold. Improperly dried outdoor furniture pads, plastic mats, collapsible pools, and other outdoor equipment may provide a perfect environment for the growth of mold when they are stored in damp storerooms or garages over the fall and winter seasons.

Once mold is allowed to grow and infiltrate a building, it is only a matter of time before the mold spores and toxins associated therewith become airborne and easily inhaled. In addition to normal household activity, things such as building renovations and carpet changing can add to the process of mold becoming airborne. Heating, ventilation, and air conditioning (HVAC) systems may spread mold spores throughout entire buildings with devastating results.

Many experts believe that central air conditioning and climate controlled buildings have been responsible for the marked increase in mold. Temperature control and limited air exchange in modern buildings, especially in the "sun belt," have led to speculation that mold is thriving in these new indoor environments.

How to Detect Mold Growth:

While mold often grows in inaccessible, dark, or out-of-the-way places, there are a number of conditions which indicate the likelihood that some form of mold is present in a building. If you are experiencing or have noticed any of the following signs in your own home or commercial building, a further investigation should be made immediately.

    * the presence of an earthy or musty odor
    * recurring roof or plumbing leaks
    * wet or dirty insulation on ducts or pipes
    * a damp or dirty carpet in any of the rooms
    * recent spills or flooding
    * standing water near outside air intakes
    * slimy or foamy water in drip pans of air conditioning units
    * widespread exposed soil indoors and over-watered indoor plants
    * black or brown spots on bathroom ceilings, shower doors, or tiles
    * discoloration of basement or foundation walls or around ventilation ducts
    * loose tiles or caulking in and around bath tubs, sinks and showers
    * unusual odors in closed areas or under sinks or refrigerators

How to Clean Up Mold Properly:

If you have ever watched mold grow on cheese or bread you know that it is relentless and cannot simply be cut away without reappearing almost immediately. If dangerous mold has made its way indoors, complete and proper removal is critical. In addition to a thorough cleaning, it is imperative to eliminate or correct the leaks, excess moisture, or other conditions which can lead to re-growth. The only way to rid a building of mold permanently is to eliminate it at its source and remove it in every place it has grown.

If the area affected by mold is small and isolated (10 sq. feet or less), building maintenance staff, who have been trained on proper clean-up methods, can usually take care of the problem. Contacting your building's superintendent is usually the best idea as they will have the proper equipment to use when dealing with toxic mold. You should not attempt to clean up mold on your own since you may expose yourself to dangerous toxins, release mold spores into the air, or simply spread the mold by failing to remove it completely. However, if the entire affected area is small, here are some instructions as to how to go clean it up: (Remember, you may only be seeing a portion of the problem)

    * clean the work space and make sure it is otherwise unoccupied
    * make a cleaning solution consisting of one part bleach to ten parts water
    * apply the solution and allow it to sit for 15 minutes, then thoroughly dry the area
      (*IMPORTANT: Be careful never to mix ammonia solutions with bleach.)
    * light mold growth on small wood areas can be sanded off
    * contaminated materials that cannot be sufficiently cleaned should be removed in sealed plastic bags and disposed of properly

While these procedures may, in fact, eliminate the surface mold, they may not affect the material on which the mold is living thereby leading to eventual re-growth. (Significantly, there are now ammonia based paints which can be used in areas such as bathrooms, basements, and storage rooms. These paints retard the growth of mold). Thus, the best approach is to have someone with the proper expertise and equipment perform the removal work. In addition, since a landlord may be liable for the creation, growth, or failure to control or remove the mold in a residential building, it would behoove you not to interfere in the matter in order to avoid any claim by the landlord that you created or aggravated the condition.

If you are experiencing a mold problem at work, it is the responsibility of the landlord or employer to provide the proper cleanup. It is necessary to make, and document, as many complaints as it takes for the problem to be dealt with properly. The presence of toxic mold in any environment in which you spend a sufficient amount of time can have a serious adverse affect on your health if it is not dealt with swiftly and properly.

Don't Let This Happen to You and Your Family:

Earlier in this Newsletter, the various health risks associated with mold were listed. In the past few years, these health risks have received greater publicity. This has led to an increased awareness of situations wherein illnesses, which may have been of unknown origin in the past, are now attributed to exposure to toxic mold. As a result, many of these incidents involving toxic mold have prompted extensive news coverage. The following are some of the mold-related stories that have been widely covered in the media:

    * Erin Brokovich, the environmental crusader who inspired the movie starring Julia Roberts, suffered several ailments as a result of mold in her California house. In 2001, Ms. Brokovich claimed she spent over $250,000 on repairs and damages and was still unable to sell her home. This was because the law required her to disclose the presence of mold in the house thereby scaring off potential buyers.
    * All of the tenants living in a housing complex outside of Dallas, Texas, were forced to vacate when signs of mold were detected in several units. The source of the tenants' persistent headaches and itchy eyes was traced to the mold. Many of the families lost both valuable and sentimental possessions which were also claimed by the mold. Some of the tenants had trouble finding a new place to live when the landlords realized they were coming from a moldy environment.
    * In 2001, Melinda Ballard and her family were awarded $32.1 million by a state court in Austin Texas in a case involving mold damage. Ms. Ballard sued Farmers Insurance Group, alleging that not only had the presence of mold left their house uninhabitable, but that she, her husband, and son suffered major health problems including coughing up blood and neurological damage. "These cases have jury appeal," said an attorney who has represented homeowners in mold cases against insurers and builder. "The message this verdict sends is you can't just ignore this issue anymore." In order to limit their exposure in such cases, many insurers are now trying to exclude mold as a "covered loss" under homeowner's policies whether it is caused by naturally occurring mold or related to faulty construction and maintenance. A full account of Ms. Ballard's story can be found in the August 12, 2001 New York Times Sunday Magazine article by Lisa Belkin entitled Haunted by Mold. Several letters from readers were published in the September 2, 2001 Magazine section. These letters discuss numerous situations involving toxic mold and its effect on other people.
    * On August 20, 2001, Dareh Gregorian of the New York Post wrote an article about the numerous mold-related illness claims among the tenants of the Henry Phipps Plaza South building in New York City. In addition to many sick tenants, the mold infested building allegedly claimed the lives of three tenants. Troy Lang, 62, Hiram Rosado, 23, and Emilia Rivers, 82, died because of what lawyers referred to as "the negligence, carelessness, and/or recklessness" of the owners of the Kips Bay high-rise who allowed the deadly molds to spread. The molds found in the building contained toxins that cause cancer, as well as kidney, liver and pancreas problems. Another family, whose 7-year-old daughter died of a stroke, filed a wrongful death suit against the building's owners. 495 Phipps residents filed a total of 158 suits against the complex claiming that the mold was the result of long-standing water leaks, faulty plumbing, and poor maintenance. Eventually the law suits were settled for a substantial sum of money.

A Helpful Invention:

In May of 2001, two EPA scientists announced that they had developed a way to detect potentially dangerous molds, such as Stachybotris, faster and more efficiently. The mold-detecting system is DNA-based and allows for rapid identification and qualification of molds in just a few hours. Before this invention, the identification of mold could take days or even weeks. Since mold is a problem that is best dealt with swiftly and properly, and because there are about 50 to 100 potentially hazardous types of molds, this invention minimizes the duration of time that people are exposed to the mold and allows for the recommended treatment to be administered as quickly as possible.

Next Month:

While toxic mold is a substance that can render a home, school, office, or other building or structure unsafe for humans or animals, it is hardly the only toxic substance which presents a significant health threat. In our next Newsletter we will examine a number of other dangerous toxic substances in detail in order for our readers to familiarize themselves with these additional risks to their health and wellbeing.

If you suspect that you, your family, or a loved one has been exposed to toxic mold or another toxic substance as a result of the negligence or intentional conduct of another, please contact Parker & Waichman immediately by calling 1-800-YOURLAWYER or visiting http://www.yourlawyer.com.
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