Last November, Chad Theresa
purchased a new dishwasher for their five-bedroom Boca Raton home. Sixteen days
later. A repairman discovered it had been leaking water into the cabinets and
walls. In December, the Solmins and their two children began suffering from
coughs and other problems.
While searching for the cause of
their illness, Chad Slomin pulled out the dishwasher and found patches of black
mold behind it where the leak had occurred. Soon after, the Slomins moved out of
their home and hired Richard Lipsey, a consulting toxicologist from
Jacksonville. He found extremely high levels of mold spores the home. Three
months later, they are still living in temporary quarters, seeing a physician
for their respiratory problems, and seeking reimbursement from their insurer.
"After owning this house for
about 3 ½ years, we've had to move out," said Theresa Slomin. "This
problem has cost us about $30,000 so far, and it's a long way from being
In hot and humid South Florida,
it doesn't take much to encourage the growth of molds - a leaky pipe,
malfunctioning air conditioner, hole in the roof or a sudden flood can create
ideal conditions for mold. Molds typically grow in buildings affected by water
damages, including homes, offices and schools.
While most types of mold are
harmless, the greenish-black mold Stachbotrys atra, aspergillis and penecillium
produce extremely toxic substances, according to Dr. Michael R. Gray, an Arizona
physician who studied a series of 75 patients with confirmed exposure to toxic
"Inhalation and absorption
of mycotoxins have clearly demonstrated to be causive of human illiness,"
he wrote in a recent report, Molds, Mycotoxins and Human Health.
A number of mold-related research
studies are now under way in order to understand the relationship between
exposure to toxic mold and illness. Currently, there are no state or federal
health standards for molds.
Lipsey, who has been
investigating "sick" buildings since 1992, says the probability of
health problems is very high. "If you live in a home that has very high
levels of toxic spores, just about everybody will develop either upper
respiratory problems or a rash indicative of a compromised immune system,"
he said. "Once your immune system is compromised and you develop
antibodies, you’ll start having symptoms – especially someone with a history
of asthma or other breathing problems."
For homeowners, the discovery of
toxic molds can require an expensive clean-up process involving trained experts
wearing protective breathing gear and clothing. Pulling off a baseboard or
opening a ceiling panel where mold has been growing can trigger a sudden outflow
of deadly spores.
Fortunately, toxic mold does not
appear t? be a widespread problem in South Florida. Lipsey has investigated
hundreds of affected homes around the country in the past few years, but none in
Miami~Dade or Broward counties.
Leslie O'Neal Coble, an attorney
with Holland & Knight in Orlando, says homeowners sometimes overreact to
mold. "There are a 1,000 different kinds of mold," she said.
"Most of the time it doesn't create a problem"
But if you're looking for a new
home and you can see mold or smell it in the air, that's a warning sign, she
added. "You need to look further, and perhaps hire an inspector," she
Coble adds that some builders,
apartment owners and insurance companies are now putting disclaimers into their
contracts and leases, saying that mold is a naturally occurring substance and
they can't be held responsible for any problems.
Major insurers have asked the
Florida Department of Insurance to clarify the coverage rules regarding mold
claims. For instance, many insurers will cover mold removal if the cause was a
covered peril, such as a broken pipe. But if the mold is caused by a maintenance
problem such as a leaky roof, insurers typically won't pay.
Consumer awareness of the toxic
mold issue is growing, following several high-profile cases in Texas and
California. Last year, a Texas family won a $32 million judgment against its
homeowners insurance company for serious health problems believed to be related
to toxic mold. The case was profiled on CBS'
Among those who have had to
abandon multimillion-dollar mansions because of toxic mold are Hollywood's Ed
McMahon, and toxic waste crusader Erin Brockovich. In Florida, it took five
years and $27 million to clean up a newly built Martin County courthouse complex
in Stuart after toxic mold was discovered behind wallpaper and ceiling tiles in
Although the Slomins' Boca house
was built in 1979, many cases of toxic mold have been found in relatively new
homes. "Homes now are made of cheaper building materials, like pressed wood
and fiber board," said Lipsey. "When these materials get wet, they
stay wet perhaps ten times longer, and they provide a better source of nutrients
for the more pathogenic molds."
factor is that today's energy efficient homes are more airtight, which allows
concentrations of mold spores to build up, accelerating any health problems.
Activists like Massachusetts resident Ken Moulton are seeking tougher laws that
would hold builders responsible if substandard materials were found to have
contributed to a mold problem. Poor construction and lack of proper inspection
of his Cape Cod home created water problems that led to toxic mold growth.
"Mold is a problem in
Florida," says Coble. "If you're a homeowner you shouldn't ignore it.
You need to deal with it."
Richard Westlund – Special to the Herald - April 21, 2002