Breaking the Mold

Rampaging microbes are driving some people out of their homes, and nobody agrees on how to fight back.

Stachybotrys. Alternaria. Cladosporium. Aspergillus-penicillium. The slimy sounding scientific names of these molds are scary enough. But when they are found in your apartment, then labeled with a sign reading "Microbial Hazard--Keep Out--Authorized Personnel Only--Respirators and Protective Clothing are Required in this Area," it's enough to make you want to leave immediately and never come back.

That is exactly what happened recently to Gloria Thierjung and her daughter at the Casa Loma Apartments on east Broadway Boulevard. But their experience was greatly intensified because they are allergic to mold.

The health and financial impacts of mold are just beginning to be debated. A recent cover story in the New York Times Magazine stated that there is "no definitive epidemiological study proving that mold makes people sick." The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has yet to take a stand on the issue, arguing that more research is needed.

According to the Times, insurance companies are hoping that public fears about mold are just a short-term fad based on the power of suggestion. Because if it isn't, enormous claims could be filed seeking compensation for property damages caused by mold to homes, furniture and other personal possessions.

But some high-profile people, from Laura Bush to Erin Brockovich, have reportedly had mold-related problems. In addition, many physicians are convinced that mold is a genuine health concern. The Times article states, "These doctors cannot yet say definitely how these toxins work and why they affect some people more than others. But they do know that victims of the toxins visit their offices every day, more this year than last year, and that their problems range from minor memory loss to devastating cognitive failure."

Locally, medical mycologist Mark Sneller says mold is a common problem in apartment complexes. He estimates that 10 to 15 percent of Tucson's population is sensitive to it.

Sneller is careful to differentiate, however, between common mold occurrences and large infestations. "This isn't normally little spots of mold," he says, "but serious stuff square feet in size." His solution to this type of major problem is simple: "Getting out is often the best thing to do."

GLORIA THIERJUNG DIDN'T KNOW any of this last December when she first spotted mold in her apartment. She says she'd clean it with Clorox and it would go away, then reappear.

By May the mold wasn't going away any longer and she was having breathing difficulties, headaches and chest pains. She reported the situation to the apartment managers, but she says they did nothing. She had already signed a one-year extension to her lease and so was financially tied to the unit.

The apartment managers, who Thierjung accuses of dragging their feet on the issue, finally offered her a second-story apartment that she couldn't accept because she has a bad back. Plus, she says, when she looked at it, "It was full of mold."

Marie Kaul of P.B. Bell Asset Management, the firm that operates the apartment complex, denies that Thierjung's complaints were ignored. She even eventually agreed to let Thierjung out of her lease. But Kaul refused to answer any questions about the situation, referring them to the company's attorney, James Frisch.

By early August, Thierjung's medical problems were getting worse. After being in the apartment for only a short time, she started itching, her head would break out in a rash and she couldn't breathe. "It was almost like an asthma attack," Thierjung recalls.

Sneller was contacted and he inspected the apartment. He found several species of aspergillus-penicillium in concentrations of 480 per cubic meter of air, when the normal amount is 10 to 25. He also identified a low level of the black toxic mold stachybotrys, and the allergenic molds alternaria and cladosporium. He recommended more tests be taken in the apartment and that Thierjung not handle "mold-contaminated items or [transfer] them to an alternate location."

In a later interview, Sneller said he found mold in only two places in the apartment and it was not covering a large area. Plus he says his advice to leave items was meant only as a temporary measure until further tests could be performed.

According to Thierjung, Sneller also suggested she vacate the apartment. He agrees he said that, but did so because of Thierjung's frustrations with the situation and that the recommendation had nothing to do with the mold in the apartment. She disputes that, saying he told her to get out because of her breathing problems.

Thierjung did move, taking only her 13-year old daughter, some clothes, their two cats and a guinea pig with her.

Attorney Frisch doesn't believe the apartment managers should be liable for compensating Thierjung for the possessions she left behind. Frisch wouldn't comment on her allegations that several other tenants want out of the complex because of mold problems.

After Thierjung left, the complex managers had their own inspectors look at her apartment. They concluded, according to a letter sent by Kaul, "that the one wall in the guest bedroom did need to be remedied. However, they did not report seeing mold throughout the apartment. The mold they indicated needed to be cleaned or remedied was the north wall of the guest bedroom, the dresser that was against the wall and one pair of shoes."

Thierjung disagrees. She says she found it throughout the apartment and describes the mold as orange stuff dripping from her cooler vents, black mold in the bedroom and bath, and orange/gray/green stuff growing on the bed.

Eventually the apartment managers brought in a company to clean the unit by removing an entire wall. Sneller says he has been in contact with them, and from what he has heard he is satisfied with the remediation.

But Thierjung has now left the complex for good, leaving behind up to 90 percent of her possessions, including her furniture. She has submitted a $9,000 request to be compensated for her property loss and her rent payments from June through August.

That figure is just an estimate, Thierjung states. While she waits for the apartment complex's insurance company to contact her, she is talking to an attorney.

What to do about mold and its medical consequences may become a major issue nationwide. In Tucson it already has received substantial publicity. The University of Arizona last year decided to tear down its Christopher City student housing project instead of spending an estimated $2.6 million to clean up mold in the 360 unit complex, which had previously been slated for demolition in three years. It remains to be seen whether other property owners with mold problems will face the same possibility.