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Byline: Mariko Thompson Staff Writer

RAISING THE specter of a modern-day black plague, tales of toxic mold have spread through the suburban landscape:

--The Porath family in Northern California was forced to burn their contaminated home to the ground.

--Entertainer Ed McMahon sued his insurance company, alleging mold in his Beverly Hills home sickened his family and killed his dog.

--Eva Javurek and her fiance fled their Burbank rental, leaving behind all of their furniture and clothing.

``It started with allergic symptoms that didn't go away,'' said Javurek, whose symptoms included skin irritations, sinus infections and chronic fatigue. ``I went to all sorts of doctors. I knew it was the house, but I couldn't figure out why.''

The truth: Toxic mold, as the various fungi have been dubbed, is not some mutant superstrain wreaking havoc on homes, offices and schools. It's the same old mold that's always been around, for good or ill. Toxins in mold have been harnessed to create the drug penicillin, and they've been used in the chemical-biological weapon yellow rain.

``The term 'toxic mold' is kind of a misnomer,'' said Sandra McNeel, mold expert and research scientist at the California Department of Health Services' environmental health investigations branch. ``There are over 400 molds that are capable of producing toxins. This is not a new contaminant inside our homes.''

Mold, found indoors and outdoors, releases spores that, when inhaled, can cause common allergic reactions, including skin rashes, respiratory problems, nasal and sinus congestion and dry cough. When competing against other bacteria and microorganisms, certain molds also can produce toxins called mycotoxins. Severe symptoms including memory loss and pulmonary hemorrhage have been associated with mold toxins.

The extent to which mold toxins are responsible for these more serious ill effects has stirred debate, as has the question of how much mold exposure is too much.

``This has a parallel to the breast-implant concerns,'' said Dr. Joseph Fedoruk, who specializes in environmental medicine and toxicology at the UC Irvine Medical Center. ``It wasn't until large-scale studies of implants were done that some of the questions were answered. We're faced with the same thing with mold. There's limited data and people making all kinds of health claims.''

Protect people - but how?

Toxic mold has spawned a niche of litigation that affects insurance companies, developers, landlords and homeowners associations. In California, the indoor mold threat led to the passage of the Toxic Mold Protection Act of 2001, which charges the state Department of Health Services with developing permissible exposure limits and other guidelines for testing and clean-up.

The Department of Health Services has taken the stance that moldy buildings pose a public health threat, whether the culprit is mold allergens or toxins. The young, the elderly and people with weakened immune systems are particularly susceptible to ill effects.

But determining where to draw the line, as the Toxic Mold Protection Act calls for, is not so simple, experts say. Unlike chemical exposure where dose levels can be correlated to symptoms, mold doesn't affect everyone at the same levels in the same way. Also, just because a mold is capable of emitting toxins doesn't mean that it always does, Fedoruk said.

Though research on animal subjects has examined health effects through ingestion, how mold toxins affect the human body when inhaled is a relatively new question, state researcher McNeel said.

Dr. Gary Ordog, who runs a mold specialty clinic called Medical Toxicology in Santa Clarita, treats 5,000 patients from around the world for severe cases of mold exposure. Ordog says enough is known from research in military and agricultural settings to show that mold toxins cause serious health effects.

``There's no doubt that mold is toxic,'' Ordog said. ``There usually are multiple signs or symptoms. When you put them all together, it's a poisoning of the whole body.''

When Ordog talks about toxic mold, he isn't referring to mold that grows on shower tile. He's concerned with mold caused by water damage, in particular a greenish-black strain called stachybotrys chartarum.

``Stachy is the Mr. Hollywood of mold,'' said Glenn Sigmon, owner of the mold remediation firm Aqua Restoration in Van Nuys.

Stachybotrys, along with penicillium and aspergillus, are the molds most often cited for wreaking havoc on home and health. Sigmon estimates he's seen stachybotrys in about 5 percent of the buildings his company has treated for mold.

An air-tight case

One of the reasons indoor mold has become such a nagging problem can be traced to building construction since the 1970s. Though buildings have been made more energy efficient, they're so airtight that moisture gets trapped, creating the perfect environment for mold, Sigmon said.

``Buildings need to breathe,'' Sigmon said. ``Air movement is the best anti-microbial.''

Many homebuyers, renters and office workers have no way of knowing if the building in which they spend a substantial amount of time was subject to water damage. Dale Evans was told when he bought a townhouse in Rancho Santa Margarita that the complex developer had been sued for construction defects. He now believes those defects, which included a faulty overflow drain, led to mold contamination. In February, he spent five days in the hospital with what appeared to be viral meningitis. Evans has since had his townhouse gutted and rebuilt.

Dr. Albert MacKenzie, a dermatologist in Burbank, was exposed to mold in his office building, which had been hosed down by firefighters after the 1994 Northridge earthquake. MacKenzie worked in the building for three years, suffering from manic episodes, headaches and dizziness, before the mold was discovered.

``These are things I ridiculed before my own exposure,'' MacKenzie said.

Dr. Ashok Jain, associate professor of emergency medicine and environmental toxicology at USC, would like to see doctors better trained to recognize environmental impacts on health. Too often, doctors match symptoms to treatments without considering the underlying cause, said Jain, who specializes in sick building syndrome. As a result, patients continue to suffer from chronic symptoms that could stem from their homes or the workplace.

``You're told everything looks normal, and you just have to learn to live with it,'' Jain said. ``In the medical curriculum, there's not much stress on environmental factors. We need more education for doctors. Any time people in a house are sick and it doesn't go away, that's a clue something is wrong environmentally.''

More on mold

--Mold, a simple microscopic organism, can be found both indoors and outdoors. Mold releases spores into the air that, when inhaled, may trigger allergic reactions. Certain molds, such as stachybotrys, aspergillus and penicillium, are capable of producing toxic compounds called mycotoxins.

--Molds grow naturally indoors. Spores may enter the house through open doors and windows as well as heating, ventilation and air conditioning systems. Spores also can attach themselves to people and animals and be carried inside.

--If you can see it or smell it, you probably have a mold problem. Whenever cleaning mold, wear rubber gloves and a particle respirator (N-95) as a precaution. For areas larger than 10 square feet, consult a professional contractor experienced in mold clean-up.

--Water damage is a major cause of mold contamination. Check the house for water leaks at least once a year. Clear out everything in the cabinet below the sink. Examine crawl spaces for pooling water. Look at ceilings, floors and walls for signs of warping, discoloration and paint bubbles.

--Other preventive measures include: keeping indoor humidity levels below 50 percent, running exhaust fans in the kitchen and bathroom, leaving closet doors ajar for ventilation, ensuring sprinkler spray doesn't hit the side of the house.

For more information on mold, visit the California Department of Health Services at, or the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency at

- M.T.


4 photos, box


(1 -- cover -- color) HIDDEN DANGER

Toxic effects of mold are well-known, but just how harmful are these sneaky spores?

Illustration from photos by Michael Owen Baker and John Lazar/Staff Photographers

(2 -- 3) To rid a house of mold, workers use a high-powered vacuum, top, before removing the drywall.

(4) no caption (DO NOT ENTER BIOHAZARD sign)

Courtesy of Aqua Restoration


More on MOLD (see text)
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Publication:Daily News (Los Angeles, CA)
Date:Jun 3, 2002
Next Article:PULSE.

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