By the time Geneva Nunnally discovered the bulge in her bathroom wall in June, she had been experiencing headaches, frequent nosebleeds and a sore throat off and on for about a year. It didn't occur to the interior designer that the doughy bathroom wall and her persistent flu-like symptoms were connected until inspectors discovered a thick layer of black mold growing between the exterior wall and the plaster of the bathroom wall.

"When we removed the wallpaper, the stench was so bad they had to wear masks," Nunnally said. "The environmental consulting company said it was the worst case of black mold they'd ever collected."

After the molds were identified as aspergillus, penicillium and stachybotrys chartarum--the so-called toxic molds that have made headlines--Nunnally vacated her custom home in Westlake Village and took up residence with a friend in Malibu. When she's in her house, even briefly, Nunnally dons a face mask, and, like other fearful homeowners who are battling household molds, she refuses to move back until the house is deemed safe for habitation. Whether this is prudent or overreacting is the topic of much debate among experts.

Although molds have existed on Earth since the first rock took up residence in a dark, humid corner, the black, icky stuff that pops up regularly under sinks and in dank closets is causing a lot more hysteria today than it did back then.

With household molds being blamed for everything from runny noses to pulmonary bleeding, a cottage industry of "remediation experts," mold investigators and contractors in moon suits have sprung up, often charging $15,000 or more for mold detection and removal. Lawyers and insurance companies are sparring in court over whom should pay for eradicating the funky fungus.

State lawmakers also have stepped into the fray, trying to legislate what level of mold is acceptable for human exposure, while health experts are struggling to educate a public that suddenly views mold as this century's black plague.

Many mold experts, meanwhile, say they don't understand what the fuss is all about.

"This boggles my mind," said Harriet Burge, associate professor of public health at Harvard University and one of the preeminent mycologists in the country. "I haven't seen any good evidence so far that mold causes memory loss, chronic fatigue and other severe symptoms. One stachy spore is discovered, and families are falling apart."

Although statistics are unavailable about the extent of health problems stemming from "toxic mold," anecdotal evidence abounds that the recent mold mania has led to a dramatic increase in reported cases of mold-related illnesses, a slew of lawsuits and millions of dollars in insurance claims.

So what's causing the uproar?

Molds are simple, microscopic organisms that thrive in warm, damp, dark, poorly ventilated environments, such as shower areas, closets, behind refrigerators. They most often are the outcome of unrepaired leaky roofs, sprinkler spray hitting the house, plumbing leaks, overflow from sinks or sewers, a damp basement or crawl space.

Nearly all mycologists, or fungi experts, agree that indoor mold exposure, if extensive, can cause those exposed to the spores to become sensitized, resulting in the development of allergies. Symptoms usually include wheezing, shortness of breath, sinus congestion, eye irritation, a dry cough and skin rashes. The elderly, asthmatics, infants and young children and people with weakened immune systems are most at risk to reacting negatively to molds.

There are no definitive studies proving that "toxic mold" makes people sick, nor is there yet a way to measure one's exposure to mold. But a growing number of medical experts and lawyers now believe that exposure to one type of mold in particular, stachybotrys chartarum, can result in more serious health symptoms, such as pulmonary bleeding, memory loss, even brain damage.

Not all experts are sure there is a connection, however. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, for example, concluded in May 2000 that a possible association between serious symptoms, such as lung bleeding, and exposure to molds such as stachybotrys, has not been not proven.

Furthermore, the California Department of Health Services reports that in some situations, the misinterpretation of the amount of exposure to stachybotrys has led to erroneous diagnoses, unwarranted environmental testing and unnecessary community anxiety.

Even "forensic" contractors--those who track down and eradicate household molds--complain that some companies are taking advantage of frightened homeowners, charging them exorbitant fees to clean up infestations that require little more than bleach and water.

"It costs thousands of dollars for mold testing, and it just isn't worth it," said Robert Miller, a Torrance contractor who specializes in mold remediation. "People need to fix the leak as soon as it's detected, get into the wall where the mold is, dry it out and get rid of it."

As for the health repercussions, until further studies prove unequivocally that mold toxins are associated with some serious illnesses--a theory that a growing number of scientists now embrace--the issue will remain hotly contested.

"We just don't know for sure if there is long-term health damage from mold exposure," said Dr. Jay Portnoy, chief of allergy at Children's Mercy Hospital in Kansas City, Mo., a specialist in the health effects of mycotoxins. "When I hear some plaintiffs in mold cases say their symptoms are permanent and expanding, I think they're spinning the roulette wheel to make money. Many of these claims are bogus."


A Family's Experience

With Infestation

Run that theory by victims of mold exposure, however, and a far different scenario emerges.

Bert Autorre, a Long Beach homeowner, and his wife, Angela, learned of the mold infestation under their two-bedroom house in April 2000, when a plumber repaired a broken sewer line under the house.

Because of the mold infestation, the Autorres moved out of their house while their insurance company's experts conducted spore testing, cleaned up the mold and painted the affected area. A week later, when the family returned to the house, Autorre discovered more mold on the walls, he said.

Two months later, a general contractor hired by Oregon Mutual inspected the house again and declared it all clear, but said that the home's poor placement of planter boxes and lack of ventilation beneath the house were the causes of the infestation. By the end of August, further tests revealed more mold, and the Autorres' insurance company agreed to pay for the cleanup in the area where the pipe had broken.

Meanwhile, the couple's 2-year-old daughter, Chloe, began wheezing when she was in the house, and in August of that same year, ended up in the hospital in critical condition. According to Bert Autorre, the doctor ran tests to determine the cause of Chloe's respiratory distress and concluded that she possibly was allergic to the mold aspergillus, which tests revealed was present in the house. She currently is being treated for asthma, which she did not have before the mold was discovered, Autorre said.

"This whole situation has been murder on my marriage," Autorre said. "Our lives were normal before all of this, but my inability to get workers in here and get the job done right has hurt us."

The Autorres, who still are living with Bert's parents while they await mold remediation, hired a plaintiff's lawyer to help them recover medical costs and funds to pay for a proper cleanup. The insurance company has refused their claim, and a trial date has been set for March. Oregon Mutual declined to comment for this story.

Nunnally, the Westlake Village homeowner whose mold grew out of an undetected leak after a new roof was installed, has fared better. Her insurance company is pursuing redress from the roofers, whom Nunnally said are responsible for the mold infestation, and who have refused to cover the costs.

Nunnally's health problems have disappeared since she left her home several weeks ago. Nonetheless, Nunnally said, "I'm just exhausted from the whole process."


Insurance Companies

Affected Negatively

As bad as it gets for homeowners, some would argue the big loser in the mold controversy is insurance companies. With the number of mold claims increasing monthly, three of the nation's largest carriers--State Farm, Allstate and Farmers--have decided to eliminate homeowners' coverage altogether in some states.

In Texas, for example, State Farm stopped writing new property insurance policies after the carrier's Lloyd's division incurred about $647 million in losses for all claims, including water and mold, from Jan. 1 through Oct. 31 of this year, said spokeswoman Lisa Wang. In contrast, total claims for all of 2000 were $298 million. The company attributes the sharp increase to mold claims.

Insurance companies typically do not cover mold damage, which is considered preventable, said Mike Trevino, an Allstate insurance spokesman. Most policies cover only accidental, unforeseen events, such as lightning, theft, fire, pipe explosions.

If, for example, mold develops as the result of leaky plumbing, the claim typically would be turned down, Trevino said, because pipe maintenance is the owner's responsibility and the loss (mold destruction) is considered preventable.

On the other hand, if mold develops because of a water heater disaster, it probably is covered, because that event is catastrophic and accidental.

"Now that we have more information about mold and know how to prevent damage, the situation should improve," Wang said. "Legislation should help too."

Gov. Gray Davis signed the Toxic Mold Disclosure Act of 2001 in October, which requires anyone selling, transferring or leasing commercial, industrial or residential property to disclose a potentially dangerous mold problem. The law also directs the Department of Health Services to convene a task force of mold experts and health professionals to advise on exposure limits and remediation standards for toxic mold. The legislation will go into effect in 2003, six months after such standards are developed.

Mold attorneys such as Alexander Robertson of Woodland Hills say that the goal of toxic mold lawsuits is not to stiff insurance companies and builders, but to "get reasonable costs" to fix underlying water problems, decontaminate homes and personal belongings and get clients back into their houses.

"A toxic mold discovery is like finding out you have cancer," Robertson said. "It might not be terminal, but when you get the diagnosis, it's scary."

Robertson, whose practice primarily concentrates on multi-occupant cases rather than those of single-family homeowners, said he hasn't lost a case yet in the current litigious environment in which a Texas homeowner was awarded $32.1 million in a widely publicized toxic mold case in June.

Robertson currently is working on 1,000 mold cases, including one that involves a four-story condominium complex in Santa Ana. The tort attorney is representing 500 plaintiffs who have complained about a history of water leaks and mold infestation. The developers and 250 subcontractors have cross-complained, forcing lawyers involved in the case to communicate with each other through a special Web site.

"There may be frivolous cases, but I haven't seen them," Robertson said. "Most of my cases are very serious ones; by the time I get involved, it's fairly extreme."

Oak Park residents Marc and Julie Rashba experienced the ill effects of mold contamination but refused to go the lawsuit route, even when lawyers approached them to join a class-action suit against the builder of their 10-year-old development.

Crumbling caulking in his kids' bathroom, coupled with the children's chronic respiratory infections, propelled Marc Rashba, an entertainment executive, to call in an environmental engineer a year ago. The specialist uncovered several toxic molds, which had eaten through the bathroom framing and other parts of the house.

The builder, Warmington Homes, agreed to pay for the abatement and the Rashbas' three-month stay in an apartment while the work was being done. The cost to remove the mold and repair the affected rooms totaled about $75,000.

"We didn't want to join a class-action suit," Marc Rashba said. "We just wanted the builder to fix the mistake and make it right. We think it's better to settle the issue yourself, quickly, and get out of there."

While the lawyers, scientists, doctors and insurers wrestle with the legal and health implications of toxic mold exposure, the simplest advice to homeowners may be just this:

"The name of the game is prevention," said Derrick Denis, vice president of indoor air quality at Clark Seif Clark Inc., an environmental consulting and engineering firm in Chatsworth. "A leaking 30-cent plumbing fixture behind your toilet can cost you thousands and thousands of dollars if you ignore it. It's hardly worth it."