Curse of the Lowcountry mold


We see it in TV images of masked-and-gloved citizens salvaging treasures from their soggy, fuzz-filled, Gulf Coast homes. Ditto for rain-ravaged New England, where some towns look like Yankee versions of Venice.

But Southerners don’t need these apocalyptic pictures to remind them that mold is part of their lives. On hot, muggy days, you can almost see it grow on bread and shower tiles.

Indoor mold exposure can cause health problems, especially allergic reactions. Left unchecked, it can also affect the very structure of one’s home. Consequently, health professionals and building contractors have begun viewing mold as a potential threat to health and safety.

Two Women’s Stories

One Daniel Island homeowner knows firsthand about how mold can upset one’s life. Her mold exposure caused her to be homeless for months and seems to have lasting effects on her health.

Her problems began last year after Hurricane Gaston blew through the Lowcountry.

"After Gaston, some water came through into my town home and I cleaned it up and dried everything off right away. It wasn’t severe damage; I knew other people whose homes were hit a lot harder," said the woman, who prefers to remain anonymous. "Because there were some floor and drywall issues, I filed an insurance claim and everything was taken care of."

Weeks later, however, she discovered a thick green mold growing in her kitchen drawers.

"It kept getting worse and got to the point where you could smell it when you walked in the house," she recalled. "A friend of mine came over to help me clean and she started feeling sick."

Another friend, who had a similar experience in her Myrtle Beach home, told her that it was imperative to find the source of the mold, which was apparently growing behind the walls.

"She told me, ‘You can’t just wipe it away. You have to find the source,’" said the woman. "I had no idea about mold before that."

In February, the coughing started.

"I was coming to work and I was coughing all of the time," she said. "It got so bad that my co-workers told me that I should go have it checked out. So I did. First, they gave me an inhaler, but that didn’t help at all. Then they gave me a test for asthma, which involves inducing an asthma attack. It was not fun."

To her dismay, the mother of two school-age children discovered that she had developed cough-variant asthma, a condition that she attributes to the mold exposure. Thankfully, her children have apparently suffered no ill effects.

But the mold caused other problems for the family. They embarked on a months-long odyssey of relying on the kindness of friends while professionals rid the structure of mold and made it safe to live in again. Removing toxic mold is a hazardous undertaking and workers donned respirators and wore special protective gear while inside the building.

"We moved eight times in six or seven months," the woman said. "Basically, we were homeless until our home was fixed. It was one of the worst years of my life, but, thankfully, things are better now."


***image3***Pamela Cate was excited when she landed a job at a downtown King Street store this past summer. But on her first day, the 42-year-old James Island resident noticed that her nose was constantly dripping while she was inside the building.

"When I went home at night, I was fine," Cate recalled. "The next day I went in and it was the same thing. By the third day, I was so ill by the end of the day, I could hardly drag myself home."

On her fourth morning at work, her symptoms worsened.

"A girl I worked with told me, ‘Pam, go home. You look terrible.’ I had a runny nose, headache and felt physically drained," Cate said. "I felt horrible. The closest thing I can describe it to is a hypoglycemic reaction, like when you have low blood sugar. So I went home and, again, within hours, I was OK."

She concluded that she was allergic to something inside the store. And when she started looking around the next day, she noticed that the air conditioner sat behind a barrier of file cabinets and boxes.

"I don’t think anybody ever changed the air-conditioner filter," Cate said. "When you walked into the store, it smelled musty, like mildew. So I told the owner, ‘I can’t work here any more. I think I’m allergic to your store.’"

She said the symptoms have not returned since resigning. And she’s convinced that mold spores triggered her illness.

"I’ve felt great ever since," she said.

Scientists have identified approximately 100,000 different kinds of molds worldwide, 1,000 of which are found in the United States. They can grow on almost any substance as long as they have water, air and a food source.

Some people experience health problems because certain molds produce allergens, which can cause a runny nose and red, irritated eyes. For people with asthma or impaired immunity, it can be more dramatic, resulting in asthma attacks and systemic infections.

A few molds produce mycotoxins, which can trigger symptoms such as skin rashes, heart palpitations, headaches and respiratory problems.

One such mold is stachybotrys, which is a greenish-black mold that can thrive in moisture from excessive humidity, water damage and flooding. It needs highly humid or wet conditions for days or weeks to grow on wood, paper and cotton products. Experts estimate stachybotrys can be found in approximately 5 percent of U.S. homes.

Concern about mold’s toxic effects registered on the public’s radar screen in 2001 when a Texas jury awarded an Austin, Texas homeowner a $32 million judgment. She said her mold-infested home caused her family to become ill. (The amount was later reduced to $4 million.)

The plaintiff, Melinda Ballard, told the court that her family became acutely ill in a few months after moving into their house. She said her husband began having memory difficulties, trouble breathing and began coughing up blood. Tests also showed that he was having brain seizures, which some experts attributed to mycotoxins. Her son reportedly suffered severe digestive problems.

This case helped spawn a flurry of lawsuits and insurance claims across the country. Some people claimed that "toxic" mold might be the cause of serious conditions such as pulmonary hemorrhage in infants, chronic fatigue syndrome, learning disabilities, mental deficiencies, heart problems, cancer, multiple sclerosis, lupus, fibromyalgia, which is a muscle and tissue disorder, rheumatoid arthritis, multiple chemical sensitivity, and much more. In 2002, U.S. insurers paid out $2.5 billion in mold-related claims.

However, the scientific community is divided about how dangerous mold is to people. In May 2004, the National Academy of Science’s Institute of Medicine issued a report called "Damp Indoor Spaces and Health."

"Occupants of damp and moldy buildings have sometimes reported central nervous system symptoms—such as fatigue, headache, memory loss, depression, and mood swings—that they attribute to the indoor environment. However, mycotoxin exposure of those people in their environment has not been identified and measured," the report said.

The panel of epidemiologists, pediatricians and toxicologists concluded that while mold can cause respiratory problems in some vulnerable people there is no concrete link between mold and cancer, reproductive problems and neurological conditions.

However, the report did recommend how governments and health officials can work with designers, contractors and building managers to prevent or reverse indoor dampness and educate the public about the importance of minimizing mold in buildings.


***image2***Daniel Island resident Tal Askins said he started thinking about mold during a tour of Kiawah homes. It happened when he struck up a conversation with an architect who believes that mold prevention will become more common in new home construction.

This resonated with Askins, who is a contractor and owner of Askins Construction.

About two weeks later, Askins said he was walking on Daniel Island when he met Todd Hanik, also an Island resident, who happens to own US Pest and Environmental Services in Charleston. Hanik mentioned that his company offers an affordable mold treatment for building materials.

"I said, ‘Funny you should mention mold because I’ve been thinking about that a lot lately,’" Askins said. "Then I told him about my conversation with the guy on Kiawah."

Askins is building a $1.5 million home at Beresford Hall and had Hanik’s company treat his building materials with mold-prevention spray developed by a Jacksonville, Fla. company called Protective Coatings Group (PCG). According to PCG company literature, independent lab testing found that its products eliminate mold on contact and inhibits more than 99 percent of mold growth. It comes with a 25-year warranty.

Building materials can get wet during construction, thanks to rain and high humidity. Consequently, anti-mold treatments can be an important selling point for builders, according to Hanik.

"Why do you have to have a termite bond?" he asked. "To protect you and give you peace of mind. A builder can show that he is proactive about mold prevention to a potential buyer and that can help make the sale."

Daniel Island Publishing

225 Seven Farms Drive
Unit 108
Daniel Island, SC 29492 

Office Number: 843-856-1999
Fax Number: 843-856-8555


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