Mold Quickly Spreads as Health and Legal Issue
Two Newport Beach women who say toxic mold in their apartment made them ill are suing their former landlord, a subsidiary of the Irvine Co.
It is one of a burgeoning number of lawsuits statewide over toxic mold--a topic of heated debate among health officials, lawyers and others. One state legislator has drafted a bill that would set state standards for mold.
Susan Blanton and Julie Coefield argue in their lawsuit that their immune systems were compromised by 11 types of mold growing under carpets and in the closet of their unit in the Park West Apartments, owned by Irvine Apartment Communities, a subsidiary of the Irvine Co.
From inhaling the mold and its spores, Blanton has at least 16 fungal masses, including one the size of a golf ball, in her lungs, said their physician, Dr. Gary Ordog, a Santa Clarita toxicologist who specializes in disease-causing molds. Coefield has had fungal bronchitis and still has vertigo, blurred vision and short-term memory loss, Ordog said.
Mike Stockstill, spokesman for the Irvine Co. and its subsidiary, declined to comment on the lawsuit.
Mold is common everywhere, especially in moist coastal environments. Some, such as penicillin, can be beneficial in some forms but irritating in large quantities. Others can be dangerous. But in many cases there is uncertainty about the severity of risk.
A fact sheet from the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says the agency has received reports suggesting a link between toxic molds and pulmonary hemorrhaging and memory loss, but a “causal link between the presence of the toxic mold and these conditions has not been proven.”
Sandy McNeel, a research scientist with the California Department of Health Services, said the most common reactions to mold include allergic symptoms similar to hay fever. A 1999 Mayo Clinic study found that nearly all of the 37 million Americans who suffer from chronic sinus problems have them because of mold.
And while there are no state or federal statistics about the scope of the problem, McNeel said her department received at least 250 phone calls about indoor mold contamination last year.
As awareness has risen, building industry officials caution against jumping to conclusions. But lawsuits such as Coefield and Blanton’s are springing up across California.
Pharmaceutical giant Amgen of Thousand Oaks is being sued for allegedly hiding toxic mold in a building where kidney medicine is made.
More than 150 courthouse workers, including judges, bailiffs and court reporters, have sued Tulare County, claiming hazardous working conditions and ailments from mold at a Visalia courthouse.
Pacific Gulf Properties Inc., a Newport Beach real estate investment trust, is being sued for $10 million because of mold at a Sacramento building it owns.
Valley Attorney Won Large Settlement
San Fernando Valley attorney Alex Robertson is representing about 100 plaintiffs statewide in toxic mold cases, ranging from a low-income condominium complex in Santa Ana to plush condos in Coto de Caza, among others.
In 1997, Robertson won the largest known settlement in a toxic mold case: $1.35 million for an unidentified actor and his wife for damage at their multimillion-dollar Malibu beachfront home.
“About two years ago, you couldn’t get [an attorney] to go to a seminar on this stuff; it was kind of unheard-of,” said Newport Beach attorney Jeffrey Milman, who represents Blanton and Coefield. “Now it’s the hot topic.”
Last month, Milman filed another case on mold in a Laguna Niguel home, and he said he is preparing three more lawsuits involving homes in Fullerton and Sunset Beach.
Dr. James Craner, a Reno physician who specializes in occupational and environmental medicine, said there is no simple method, such as a blood test, to determine whether mold is causing illness.
“The biggest problem is this condition is commonly misdiagnosed as everything from the common cold to allergic rhinitis to depression,” said Craner. He said he has treated thousands of patients who suffer symptoms caused by toxic mold.
California’s health department does not keep data on types of calls or illnesses, but it is now researching health risks linked to mold, according to McNeel.
“We get lots of calls from people in rental housing and low-income families,” she said. “But . . . we also get a fair number of calls from people who have just invested in brand-new homes. It really does extend the entire gamut.”
Likewise, Kelly Hayes-Raitt, a consumer advocate with the Santa Monica-based HomeSafe Campaign, said toxic mold is being found in all kinds of structures, from low-income apartments to mansions.
“It’s a growing problem,” Hayes-Raitt said. “Homes are being built faster, and builders are using less quality materials, and they’re not waterproofing as well as they should be.
“When water seeps in . . . behind walls, there’s nowhere for it to go, no way for it to evaporate. By the time someone sees mold on their wall or ceiling, there is a major problem.”
Coefield and Blanton moved into their $1,250-a-month Park West apartment in 1999. They said they moved out in May 2000 after becoming ill and finding black, fuzzy mold in dark corners of their closets and growing out from under the carpet.
The roommates now share a modest one-bedroom apartment in Newport Beach. They said everything they owned in the Irvine apartment--furniture, clothing, kitchen utensils, books--is contaminated by nearly a dozen different kinds of mold and is in storage.
State and federal health officials recommend destroying items that become moldy and cannot be cleaned. The women say nearly all of their belongings will be destroyed after they are used as evidence in their trial.
State Sen. Deborah Ortiz (D-Sacramento) said part of the problem is that there are no official thresholds for contamination or cleanup.
Ortiz, chairwoman of the Senate’s Health and Human Services Committee, said she plans to introduce a bill this month directing the state health department to set safe levels.
The bill would allow local code enforcement officials to act, such as requiring evacuation and cleanup, if large amounts of toxic mold are found in a home or office
“They have no authority now to go in and say with certainty, ‘This is a health risk and an imminent hazard,’ ” Ortiz said.
She said more than 800 complaints were lodged with code enforcement officers in Sacramento County last year. Orange County does not keep such records.
Ortiz said, “Many of these homes cannot be made safe, and people continue living in them because they have nowhere else to go. Their children are at risk. It’s very sad.”
She said she anticipates strong opposition from the insurance, real estate and building industries.
But David Smith, general counsel for the Building Industry Assn. of Southern California, said his organization takes a cautious attitude.
For instance, “We need to look into whether that airtightness of new homes may be promoting growth of mold,” he said.
Knowledge “is increasing exponentially in this country,” Ordog said, “but we need more research into it, we need more understanding and we need more recognition.”