Tuesday, October 29, 2002
Mold misconceptions
Scientific evidence still lacking about effects of mold on health
By JEFF MONTGOMERY
Gannett News Service

Since the late 1990s, concern over toxic mold has mushroomed into congressional hearings, dramatic increases in claims and lawsuits, demands for reform by the insurance and real estate industries, and growing business for those involved in testing for and cleaning up all things dark and slimy.


What's missing in many cases, experts said, are facts.
"I don't want to downplay the risks, but it's not as big a bogeyman as it's being made out," said David Ropeik, a director of risk communication and teacher at the Harvard School of Public Health's Center for Risk Analysis.


Few experts disagree that neglected molds can cause allergic reactions and set off dangerous asthma attacks in some people. Others with weakened immune systems might be at risk for lung infections.


But scientists say thousands of molds have existed on Earth for millennia. Many grow easily on wood, drywall or other food sources in damp, poorly ventilated areas. A few, such as the black mold called stachybotrys, have a reputation for causing illness or deaths.
Science has yet to prove that exposure to toxins produced by household molds is linked to mold-related allergies or vaguer symptoms such as impaired thinking.


"There is no scientific literature that can substantiate what some call a 'killer mold' or 'toxic mold,'" said Neil J. Zimmerman, an associate professor of industrial hygiene at the Purdue University School of Health Sciences and a member of an Environmental Protection Agency advisory panel on indoor air quality.


"That's not to say there aren't symptoms that you can't get from exposure to the kind of very high levels of mold that you might see in a poultry processing plant or grain silo," he said.


Prompt repairs of leaks and cleanup with soap and bleach solutions can end most problems, experts said.


Side effects


Yet the mere threat of a mold problem can jeopardize home sales, drive up insurance costs and force building owners into costly -- and sometimes needless -- tests and cleanups, according to the Insurance Information Institute. The institute, a national lobbying and public relations agency for the insurance industry, has estimated that mold claims in the United States cost $1.2 billion in 2001.


Mold concerns account for about 100 inquiries a year to Delaware's indoor air quality health unit. A recent case in Elsmere, Del., where 650 people were given 24 hours to evacuate their condemned and mold-ridden apartment complex, was the worst ever reported to the state, said Heidi Truschel-Light, public health spokeswoman.


But Philadelphia-based attorney Douglas F. Schleicher, who represents the owners of that complex, said that officials overreacted. "It's a serious situation that needs to be dealt with, but there is no emergency," Schleicher testified.


Elsmere officials said the owners boarded up flood-damaged apartments in 1989, making them fertile ground for molds that eventually covered the walls.


Much of the debate over mold stems from attempts to link exposure to the deaths of babies hospitalized with bleeding lungs in Cleveland in 1993 and '94. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention first found a possible connection between the deaths and exposure to stachybotrys, but follow-up studies did not, and a review later found insufficient evidence even for the initial, weak link.


Regardless of these findings, some law firms publish advertisements and maintain Web sites highlighting claims about "toxic" mold risks and soliciting clients. News accounts, Ropeik said, raise awareness of the issue while cultivating fears.


"There are risks to that fear," Ropeik said. "In our litigious society, those overreactions can be preyed upon not just by attorneys, but by overzealous journalists and overzealous indoor air quality cleaner-upper companies."


No detailed standards exist for indoor mold concentrations on surfaces or in the air. The industry operates largely without regulation of testing and cleanup operators.


Gary A. Hayes, president and owner of Middletown, Del.,-based Environmental Testing Inc., said guidelines are available despite the lack of regulations, including some from the Occupational Safety and Health Administration. Training and certification programs are on the increase, as are consumer requests for testing.


"I may actually try and talk them into fixing the problem first, spending their money on addressing what they know is a problem," Hayes said. "People need to be educated and understand the relationship, why mold occurs and the fact that you need to keep your house in good shape and minimize water damage. You don't want to let things go."

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