Harrison Case Study: One Family’s Escape from Toxic Mold
By Stephen Andrews
Judy Harrison’s story is one of physical, emotional, and financial tragedy. What began as a sound investment soon turned into a nightmare as Judy and her family began to suffer from the consequences of poor building practices. When Judy first called me, she was very distressed. Her initial responses to my questions were disjointed and even nonsensical. After a few minutes, she settled down and told me her home was making her family sick. Over the last year, she and both her sons had been extremely ill. Her oldest son, Jason, had frequent nose bleeds and had passed out in their home. At one point, his tongue even turned black. Her youngest son was sick all the time. Judy said she had chronic headaches, joint pain, and pain in her internal organs, fatigue, and had passed out in their home on two occasions. She could not concentrate, and her memory was so bad she had to quit working.
After hearing Judy’s story, we agreed that I would come out and conduct an air-quality assessment. The initial thing I noticed upon arrival was that the home was situated on a sloping lot with portions of the ground floor below grade, where water could easily settle up against the house. The exterior was framed with hardy board, and the house and lawn were well maintained.
Judy’s house was only two years old. I couldn’t imagine how the environment inside a home could become so bad in such a short period of time that it could affect a family’s health. However, during my investigation, I became convinced the house was responsible for the family’s illnesses. It was the first time I advised someone to move out of their home.
On the front left corner, it was apparent water was settling against the exterior wall of a ground- level bedroom. The grade was above the floor slab covering a portion of a framed wall that was not designed as a retaining or foundation wall – an obvious red flag for conditions that sustain mold growth. This turned out to be Jason’s bedroom.
I walked up a flight of stairs and entered the home. When I first stepped inside, it appeared to be dry and no visible mold was immediately apparent on the main floor. I set up my equipment in the dining room to begin taking air samples, but within minutes my chest began to tighten, and my head began to hurt. I told Judy that I could not stay inside without wearing my respirator. After putting on my respirator I took two air samples inside, one in the dining room and one downstairs in Jason’s bedroom. I also took one outside sample for comparison.
In Jason’s bedroom, there was black mold growing on the surface of the perimeter wall. Where the bedroom was located, the grade was about six inches above the concrete slab, allowing water to drain toward the bedroom. Water settled against and seeped into the bedroom wall cavity. The moisture in the sheet rock wall measured eighteen percent. Moisture in the concrete floor measured a whopping thirty-five percent – well into the range where mold growth occurs. The elevated moisture in the slab was probably an indication that the builder did a poor job of waterproofing, handling water drainage, installing a vapor barrier, or some combination of these three things. However, high moisture level in the slab was definitely contributing to the conditions that were sustaining mold growth throughout the home.
Stachybotrys Chartarum is the official name for what most people refer to as toxic black mold. The sub-strate almost requires moisture at the saturation point to sustain growth, and I find it in only about one in ten homes I sample. Bear in mind; however, that most of the homes I sample for mold have a family member or members suffering from allergies or some other illness. Judy’s home had the highest level of Stachybotrys of any home I have ever tested – and I’ve tested hundreds.
As soon as I received the results I recommended to Judy that she move her family out of the house immediately. It was hard for me to make that recommendation, knowing how it would negatively affect my customer, it was a difficult decision for Judy to make. She could not afford to pay rent for an apartment and keep the mortgage current on an uninhabitable home.
I talked to Judy on March 6th, twelve months after my initial visit. Judy told me her family was still not living in the house. Most of her furniture and family’s clothing had been covered with mold and had to be discarded as the empty house continued to deteriorate. The family gave up everything, including their beds, and received no help from their insurance company. Judy had reached the point where she could no longer keep her house payments current – she could not afford two places to live. She didn’t have the resources to pay for the mold clean-up, and her insurance would not pay for damage caused by faulty construction. Her builder was in financial distress and refused to fix or take any responsibility for the problem. He later filed for bankruptcy.
When Judy originally bought the home, she wanted to make sure the payments were affordable. She’d cashed in her 401K, and paid forty-five thousand dollars down so that her monthly installments would be lower. Now because of shoddy building practices, Judy and her family’s health has been compromised, the family’s home foreclosed, and her entire retirement savings was lost.
The Harrison family’s health has slowly improved since moving out of their home. However, I doubt if the emotional scars and anger toward their builder will heal very soon. This story is similar to those of thousands of other people suffering from illnesses caused by mold around the country. Many of these people don’t know why they are sick and are helpless to do anything about it.
It is Judy’s hope that publishing this story on our website will help others become more aware of both the physical risks of living with mold and the financial risks of purchasing a home that has not been properly built or inspected.
It will take a long time for Judy and her family to recover from the nightmare. In the meantime, if her builder continues to build houses, it is a given more of his homes and their owners will become sick. Regulations, governing codes and local government inspectors are in place to prevent situations like Judy’s. However, codes do not cover every potential problem. Many problems are related to poor or lack of workmanship. Even ethical builders and inspectors can’t know or catch every mistake made by individual workmen. For this reason, a significant portion of homes will continue to be built that create conditions that support mold growth.
Consumers like Judy Harrison do not need to buy homes that act like incubators supporting mold, virus, and bacteria growth. Just testing for mold, however, is not adequate. Buildings should be carefully inspected from the construction point of view, with a scientific perspective to determine if they have been built in a way that is likely to sustain mold growth.
The best advice I can give anyone purchasing a home, new or old, is to engage a competent building inspector who has a thorough knowledge of building codes and understands how buildings can become excessively hydrated. These inspectors are pretty rare. However, taking the time to research and vet a prospective inspector may save thousands and some of that cost may come in the form of medical bills.
Understanding why buildings become “sick” will help you to make good purchasing decisions when you are looking at a house.
In my book “A Breath of Fresh Air”, I provide background information about the history of Sick Building Syndrome and some of the things to look out for in your own home.