In 1999, after her four-year-old son began coughing up blood and her husband started suffering respiratory complaints and memory loss, Melinda Ballard and her husband Ron Allison were told by their family physician to evacuate their Austin, Texas home immediately. They left in fear, with just the clothes on their backs. The force that drove the Allison-Ballard family from their home was not a malicious landlord or a tragic fire, but rather a toxic mold called stachybotrys that had infiltrated the walls of the house and taken root, spreading dangerous spores and triggering a host of health problems for the family.
The couple later sued their insurer, Fire Insurance Exchange, a Farmers subsidiary, for failing to cover the necessary repairs for a water leak in their home that fostered a dank, humid, mold-friendly environment. The family was awarded $32 million dollars, and the suit set a precedent as the first case in which a homeowner was awarded damages in a mold case against an insurance company.
With over 100,000 types of indoor and outdoor mold growing across the world, preventing incursion into your building by the 50 to 100 varieties deemed hazardous by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) might seem easy, think again. According to the New York City Department of Health's (NYCDOH) division of Environmental & Occupational Disease Epidemiology, wet or damp material - whether it's drywall, caulking, grout, wood, or carpet - can become moldy, and when the moldy material is damaged or disturbed, spores are released into the air. If those spores are inhaled or ingested by a human, trouble is not far behind. This puts the nuisance of a dank basement or leaky roof into a whole new perspective.
Technically speaking, molds produce chemicals called mycotoxins, which can cause illness in people who are particularly sensitive to them or who are exposed to them in large amounts or over a long period of time. The most common symptoms of mycotoxin exposure are runny nose, eye irritation, cough, congestion, and aggravation of asthma. Stachybotrys chartarum - the mold found in the Allison-Ballard home - has been the subject of many building-related illness investigations. In 1994, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control (CDC) reported the deaths of several infants in Cleveland in a case that involved Stachybotrys. The alleged cause of the deaths was idiopathic pulmonary hemorrhage (IPH), possibly - though not decisively - brought on by exposure to Stachybotrys mycotoxin exposure.
On May 7, 1993, NYCDOH, along with the New York City Human Resources Administration (HRA), and the Mt. Sinai Occupational Health Clinic convened an expert panel to develop policies for medical and environmental evaluation and intervention of Stachybotrys contamination in residential dwellings. The panel outlined the health impact of mold exposure and drafted guidelines for removal procedures in response to cases like those of the Allison-Ballards and several similar instances in New York City buildings in the early 90s.