Got Mold?

While Stachybotrys is still tearing up homes and doing who-knows-what to your lungs, it now wreaks havoc in a new arena: the courts. As class-action suits spread like, well, mold, some victims would rather move on with their lives. Some victims can’t.

Jenny Jones was fresh out of SMU and moving into her first home in the post-collegiate world when she and her roommate snagged a two-bedroom in The Gables at Ravello, a still-under-construction apartment complex in Uptown. They chose The Gables because it was the only place in the area offering two parking spaces per unit and because, according to Jones, “There’s just something about knowing it’s brand-new and you’re the only person who’s ever lived there.” She opted for the smaller bedroom because it had the bigger closet and a huge bay window, which she knew at first sight would frame her bed perfectly.

But the complex itself was less than perfect. After nine months, in mid-April 2001, she and more than a dozen other tenants sent faxes to The Gables’ regional property director outlining their complaints. Security gates were faulty; noisy construction was supposed to be finished five months earlier; false fire alarms blared at all hours of the day; and there was still no pool or rooftop gardens. Three days later, Jones, a real estate analyst for Ernst & Young, returned home from a happy hour to find an information packet taped to everyone’s door. Cool, she thought. It worked. Then she read the posting and almost dropped her Chinese food.

“Oh, my God!” she screamed, shuffling through pages on Gables letterhead and official-looking information from the Centers for Disease Control. “We have the black mold!”

The info sheets explained that three units had tested positive for Stachybotrys, which is toxic, or might be toxic, or maybe not too toxic. Everyone needed to be out by May 15.

Jones was one of 59 people living in The Gables. They joined the ranks of hundreds of others around Dallas to be ousted from their homes by Stachybotrys, or black mold as it is now known. According to many of these accidental refugees, the mold made them sick. And now more and more doctors, scientists, and, of course, lawyers are saying indeed, this stuff is really dangerous—responsible for causing everything from chronically running noses and pneumonia to brain damage and miscarriages. Others say mold, which has been around for millennia, is little more than a nuisance, that studies have yet to establish a definitive cause and effect between exposure to black mold and health problems. Either way, it continues to sweep across Texas, costing millions of dollars to remove it from apartments, houses, schools, libraries, and even the governor’s mansion in Austin.

But regardless of what the science ultimately proves, black mold has already crippled the Texas insurance industry (which is why your homeowner’s premiums have been skyrocketing). In the courts, mold-related lawsuits have spread like, well, mold. And the mold has caused countless headaches and nightmares for people like Jenny Jones, who suddenly face a tough decision: to sue or not to sue. You can move out of a mold-infested home, but can you move on?

Jones put down the papers and Chinese food and began inspecting her apartment. She didn’t really know what she was looking for, but by the time she got to the bay window behind her bed, there it was along the sill—a strange black powdery substance. A closer look revealed that it had spread to her mattress and pillows, which was when Jones, by her own admission, “totally freaked.”

“People want to know, ’Is black mold going to kill me?’” says Mike Miller, an analyst in the EPA’s Dallas branch who says calls to his office about mold have increased by “several orders of magnitude” in the past year. “There is a health concern with too much exposure to mold,” he says, “but it’s being blown way out of proportion.”

There are more than 100,000 species of mold, and most of them are black. But “black mold,” referring to Stachybotrys and a handful of its ugly cousins, is known to emit harmful waste products called mycotoxins. These mycotoxins are so potentially lethal that Saddam Hussein has tried to harvest black mold for weapons, according to a recently declassified document from the Defense Intelligence Agency. Stachybotrys emerged on America’s medical radar in 1993, when 10 infants in Cleveland began coughing up blood—mysterious cases of pulmonary hemorrhage. One child died.

Baffled doctors called in the Centers for Disease Control. Their epidemiologists ultimately confirmed in a 1997 report that Stachybotrys was the cause. But there were skeptics, and three years later, the CDC published a new set of findings. This time they said that investigators in the Cleveland case made errors collecting their samples and analyzing the data. The CDC also mentioned a study of Chicago children with similar bleeding lungs that found less Stachybotrys in the homes of sick children than in the control-group homes of healthy children. The CDC says the science stands as written, and the science so far has been written both ways.

But it doesn’t take a scientist to determine that ugly spores, toxic or not, are unwanted in a residence, and after Jenny Jones found the mold in her apartment, she marched downstairs to The Gables management office. It was already nighttime, but the office was abuzz with people from the corporate office—the “PR team,” residents called them. They told her and the others gathered that the toxic mold was caused by a leaky roof that would have to be replaced. They said it had found its way into a few apartments and some areas in the parking garage.

Jones, who lived on the second of five floors, asked if her apartment had been tested. She was told that it had been and that she would have been notified had the results come back positive. “We don’t have the paperwork here,” the manager told her when she asked to see her test report. “It’s all been sent to corporate in Boca.”

The next morning, Jones left a message at The Gables’ Boca Raton, Fl., office requesting a fax of her report and got an early start looking for a new place to live. She drove to the leasing office for Post Properties, five blocks down McKinney Avenue. They had vacancies, she was told, but not for people from The Gables at Ravello.

Nope, sorry. They had the black mold. Too big a risk.

Frustrated, Jones called her father, a real estate developer in Little Rock, Ark. He was in a meeting but took her call, as he always did. When he returned to his meeting, he apologized for the interruption and explained that his daughter had run into a problem with something called black mold. “Oh, boy,” one of his colleagues shot back. “You should talk to my daughter.” 

The man was Claude Ballard, whose daughter Melinda was knee-deep in her own mold nightmare. She was suing Farmer’s Insurance Corp. for an unprecedented $100 million in a case that would force insurance companies, property managers, developers, architects—anyone who could be remotely blamed for mold—to consider it a serious threat.

Ballard charged that the company mishandled a water-leak claim that spawned Stachybotrys and toxic Penicillium throughout her 22-room mansion in the ironically named Austin suburb of Dripping Springs. She says it caused her family a host of health problems—headaches, dizziness, fatigue, respiratory ailments, profusely bloody noses, neurological damage, and serious cognitive dysfunction.

After learning about Ballard’s case, Jones began to think back, and she realized she had been particularly sick since moving into The Gables. She had suffered four separate sinus infections severe enough to put her on the prescription antibiotic Z-pak. Maybe black mold was to blame.

Jones, who was still unable to get a copy of her negative mold report, ordered her own test using a company recommended by Ballard. The tester turned her apartment into a virtual science lab of swabs and petri dishes for a few hours and said she’d have her results in two weeks.

A less official but no less important notice was posted around The Gables announcing a tenants’ meeting Friday, 7 p.m., at the nearby Starbucks. At least 25 people showed up, a standing-room-only crowd that was a bit chaotic at first.

“I heard it was in Building 1.”

“They told me it was Building 3.”

“I have it in my bathroom.”

“Where am I going to move?”

It didn’t take long before someone shouted out, “Somebody needs to get sued.”

Jones was at the meeting, standing near the back, but she decided to leave after 15 minutes. She had enough on her mind with her own mold problems, and she didn’t care to hear an endless string of complaints. “Everyone was just upset, talking at the same time,” she says. “It didn’t seem too productive.”

But a few days later, on April 23, the first suit, which would become a class action, was filed against The Gables. (Another tenant, Patricia Donesky, would sue individually a few months later.) The claim alleged: “The apartments are infested with mold and fungus and are not suitable for human habitation.” The suit goes on to accuse Gables Corp. of being negligent in its construction and with its inspections. It also claims something even more sinister—that The Gables continued to move people in even after management knew mold was present, and it intentionally concealed the existence of mold in what amounted to negligent reckless fraud.

The Gables, an Atlanta-based company that manages more than 150 communities nationwide, including eight in Dallas, with nearly 45,000 apartments, had no comment on all matters when contacted by D Magazine.

Jones decided not to join The Gables suit, at least for now. Her restraint could be seen as either admirable or naive. Black mold torts have taken over where asbestos left off, and some attorneys are seeing signs of tobacco-like paydays. On June 1, 2001, an Austin jury awarded Melinda Ballard an unprecedented $32 million. Though not the $100 million Ballard was seeking, it was enough to spur firms around the country to launch entire mold divisions.

Interestingly enough, though Ballard won $6 million for damage to her house, $5 million for mental anguish, $12 million in punitive damages, and $9 million for legal fees, she didn’t win anything for her medical claims. The judge wouldn’t even allow testimony on the matter, saying that the link between mold and these health claims was specious at best.

But even with the medical card turning in the insurers’ favor, they wanted out of the mold business. According to Texas’ three largest insurance companies—State Farm, Allstate, and Progressive—mold-related claims jumped from 883 in the first quarter of 2000 to 5,722 in the second quarter of 2001. The cost to handle these cases jumped from $9 million to $78 million. Farmer’s told Texas Insurance Commissioner Jose Montemayor, who in August instructed companies not to restrict mold coverage, that mold claims were ruining the company, which anticipated paying out $130 million in Texas alone in 2001. (And that wasn’t including a penny to Ballard, as Farmer’s is still appealing that verdict.) Homeowners could expect a 40 percent increase in insurance premiums, they said, to cover the cost—and this is in Texas, the state that already has the highest homeowner’s insurance in the country.

By September, Farmer’s was refusing to renew policies that covered mold. Allstate followed but did offer new policies with far more limited coverage. Also, the major carriers were no longer issuing comprehensive coverage to any home suffering any water damage in the past three years—effectively rendering such a house uninsurable and lowering the stigmatized dwelling’s value. Progressive dropped out of the Texas homeowner’s insurance market altogether.

At least Jones didn’t have to suffer the headache of dealing with insurance companies. With, in her opinion, a decent offer from The Gables, her headaches were diminishing even more. She could move down the street into a two-bedroom unit at The Gables Townhomes. The new place was about 600 square feet bigger, and she could have it for the same price as her Ravello apartment. Additionally, she and her roommate (who decided to move to New York) split $2,500 given to them for moving expenses. Jones was ready to move out of The Gables and move on with her life.

Her stuff was already in boxes when the testing lab called with her toxicology results.

“I don’t have good news,” the man told her. The mold in her windowsill was the bad kind. “Stachybotrys, Aspergillus, Penicillium, Fusarium,” he continued, listing the different toxic fungi found in her place. It was in every room, he said, and her bed was especially infested.

The Gables balked when an incensed Jones asked them to replace her mattresses and bedding and to reimburse her for the test, which cost $1,800. They would pay only if the test showed the mold to be airborne. By this point, she had already learned enough microbiology to know these molds are relatively heavy and settle quickly. So the air could be clean but that says nothing of the millions of mycotoxin-producing spores Jones might have inhaled each night as she slept.

Her nightmare grew. On the day she moved out, she discovered her closet was also full of mold, meaning her entire wardrobe was potentially infected. She began calling cleaners, but no one wanted anything to do with it. “As soon as you mention mold,” she says, “they practically hang up.”

Mold creates “moldies,” people consumed by the research, speculation, news stories, personal anecdotes, and lawsuits related to toxic mold. Even though the black mold catapulted her into a world of lab tests and specialty dry cleaners, Jones is not a moldie. Moldies run web sites and Internet message boards about mold, speak at various industry seminars about mold, talk to scientists and researchers about mold, talk to each other about mold, and, in general, claim to have been forever changed by mold.

Melinda Ballard is a moldie. So is Erin Brockovich, the consumer-crusading paralegal who inspired the Julia Roberts movie. She joined the mold cause when her million-dollar home in Southern California got infested, and she helped push forth California’s recently passed Toxic Mold Protection Act, which mandates that insurers have to offer coverage for mold damage. But there are few people more moldie than Don Vrana.

From his home in Forney, Vrana runs, which he says got more than a million hits in its first year of existence. He got mold two years ago while living in the Saratoga Springs Apartments in Addison and claims black mold, which the apartment complex let grow unchecked, gave him and his family severe respiratory infections and led to two miscarriages for his wife, whose hair was falling out.

“I knew something was wrong because I could see the rashes on my 5-year-old son’s back,” Vrana says. “I had an infant that was crying for 18 months straight. But the first three specialists we went to wanted to send us to a shrink.” The doctors at the time, he says, were unfamiliar with what mold could cause. “A lot of medical professionals think it does absolutely nothing to you,” he adds. “That’s crazy.”

Vrana says that management ignored the mold problem and misled the tenants. Because he thinks his family’s health situation was so severe—he not only moved, but he also abandoned all his furniture and some family heirlooms—he removed himself in late March from a Saratoga Springs class action and filed suit individually.

“It starts with upper respiratory problems,” he says. “The mycotoxins get in your lungs and then get distributed through the bloodstream, and if you’re a child or have any immune deficiency, that’s when it really goes after you. From there, I think they find the weakest part of your body and attack it, so you can come down with any number of diseases. This may sound strange, but I think it gets into your genes.”

He doesn’t stop there. Vrana believes mold in schools might be responsible for the increase over the past decade in kids with attention deficit/hyperactivity disorder. As paranoid as this may sound, the Texas Legislature is currently considering a bill to guarantee Texas schools are mold-free.

 “Not a bit of this will stand up in court yet,” he admits. “But I know it’s a fact. When you’ve talked to 16,000 people, like I have, about mold, you start to see patterns. This stuff causes problems wherever you find it.”

But if mold has been around forever, why is it just now making headlines?

“The experts don’t yet have this all figured out,” says Vrana. “But about six or seven years ago, drywall manufacturers started putting something in the drywall that makes the mold act like it’s on steroids.” He cites a recent study that found mycotoxin levels around infested drywall to be 40,000 times higher than what’s around mold outside doing its ecological duty of digesting dying wood. Other plausible explanations for the recent wave of mold attacks are the high-tech heating, ventilating, and air-conditioning (HVAC) systems, which could be spreading spores throughout larger buildings.

But Vrana says the moldies’ real aim is simply to make life better for people stricken with mold. He credits the “fear of litigation” for changing the way major property owners handle mold reports—no longer trying to ignore the complaints until they can move someone new into the building.

Despite Vrana’s newfound passion for mold, even he thinks a lot of people get overly hysterical about it. “People see a black spot in the bathroom and the first thing they think is, ’I’m going to die or have kids born with no arms,’” he says. “And it’s just not like that. You’ve got to be exposed to this stuff for a while. Nine out of 10 cases would be fine if they were handled properly.”

But, he adds, plenty of the horror stories are real. Initially Vrana’s wife dismissed his conclusions about mold as mere conspiracy theory. But the more e-mails that came in from cities across the world relaying mold nightmares that matched her own to a tee, the more she believed him.

Vrana recently traveled to New York on mold business. There he met a woman “no one wanted to talk to because she couldn’t shut up about mold.” He has talked to her several times since then, but the last time, Vrana says, “She called me from the funny farm.” The woman told him that her family had her committed.

“Mold people are crazy,” Vrana says. “I know. I talk to a lot of people who don’t make any sense at all. But some of them do. And I tell you what: she’s not crazy. She’s not obsessive-psychotic. She’s a moldie!”

Perhaps this is what Jenny Jones wisely or naively or accidentally avoided. Even though she still believes The Gables owes her money—for her bed and bedding, for the cleaning of her clothes, and for her own test, which revealed that the strange, black, powdery substance in her old home was indeed black mold—she thus far has opted against jumping into the latest fashion of toxic torts.

Currently, those who did sign on to the suit against The Gables are having to rethink their legal strategies. In January, a Dallas judge denied class certification for the case. In February, however, the court awarded Patricia Donesky, who had sued The Gables individually, a $125,000 default judgment—The Gables attorneys simply didn’t show up in court to argue their side. As word of the ruling spread among former Gables tenants who opted not to sue, many were regretful. Not Jones, though. She’s happy she’s not a moldie. “Oh, God,” she says, “the black mold. I just want to be done with it.”

In March, Jones was nearing a year in her Gables Townhome, where she says she loves the extra square footage. The original term of this makeshift lease was for one year or until The Gables at Ravello reopened, whichever came last. So she called a manager to check on her status. They hadn’t even started remediation yet, he said, so she could go month-to-month at the same discounted rent at least until sometime in 2003. That was fine with her. She had no desire to move, particularly that day, as her sinus infections had returned.

“Maybe it wasn’t the mold after all,” she says. “Maybe I just have bad sinuses.”

But even when The Gables at Ravello is re-finished and certified clean, Jenny Jones says she’s staying far away from anywhere that has ever had mold.

“Who’s going to move in there now?” she asks. “You couldn’t pay me to.”

Investigative reporter Dan Michalski is a frequent contributor to D Magazine.


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