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The Toxic Mold Rush: California Mom Helps Fuel an Obsession 

Ed McMahon is among those caught in paranoia over fungus' supposed perils

Wednesday, Jul 23 2008
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The old trailer where she forced her daughter to sleep in the bad days takes up most of the driveway. Her home sits at the end of the cul-de-sac of upper-middle-class homes in San Diego’s North County. Odors from two overweight dogs have permeated the house, sinking into the dark-brown rug, and rising from tracks of dirt along the floor. It’s a scene of disorder: The living room couches are much too large, the cabinets are crammed with bric-a-brac and papers brought from the old house after the leak. After the world changed.

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The Ballard home in Texas

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Sharon Kramer in a recent photo.

It is here, in a small room behind drawn wooden shutters, that Sharon Kramer maintains her national, sometimes global crusade against mold. She sits at a desk piled with articles she is working on, journals on indoor air quality and scientific reports. And there is dust everywhere, as if nobody has been in the room in a very long time. “I just don’t understand why this guy is being such a hard-ass,” the 56-year-old says over the phone to a local bureaucrat, her thick fingers nervously tracing on the notepad in front of her.

The skin on her face is loose from age and fluctuations in weight. But she blames it all on the mold. Her lips are pursed in measured anger. “My husband will pay the fine, but he shouldn’t have a misdemeanor. This is a small town and I don’t think this new attorney understands how things work.”

This morning’s battle is with the Escondido City Attorney’s Office. Kramer’s husband, Mike, has illegally parked the maintenance trucks for his parking-lot-cleaning business. He is saddled with a $500 fine and a misdemeanor. “As you can see,” she says, hanging up, “I don’t do well with bullies.”

As a 9-year-old in Ohio, she confronted a schoolyard tough guy. The boy, Danny, was taunting two of her friends. She told him that if he kept it up, he’d never be allowed to eat Apple Jacks, because “Apple Jacks aren’t for bullies.” He beat her up, so she spread rumors about him. “I remember Danny caught all kinds of hell from the boys at school the next week for beating up a girl. Back in the mid-’60s, that was a real social no-no, to fight with a girl, even if you were a bully.”

But Kramer has taken on a much bigger foe than Danny or a small-town assistant city attorney. Her battle is with enigmatic, omnipresent mold. Huge corporations and major law firms know Kramer’s name because of it.

In the late 1990s, the term “toxic mold” found its way into media coverage and a handful of courtrooms. A few victims reported a frightening array of symptoms, from severe memory loss to infections and bleeding gums.

In a country where fear is second only to sex as a hot sales tactic, household mold, which has always been in the environment, soon became, in Kramer’s words, “toxic, dangerous, a killer.” While mold can be dangerous to the infirm, an opportunistic group of plaintiff’s attorneys convinced juries of an exaggerated threat — to the healthy. Awards by juries in Texas, California, Oregon and several other states exploded into massive figures, topped by $32.1 million the Ballard family of Texas was awarded in 2001 when their home was inundated with mold.

Builders and insurance agents feared that they would have “another asbestos” on their hands, an area of litigation that grew so huge, so vague — and so lucrative for lawyers — that some now refer to it as the “Asbestos Blob.” Construction companies, home insurers, health insurers and contractors decided to fight back against claims of health problems and property damage caused by mold, arguing that there is very little scientific or medical proof that household molds make people seriously ill.

But their side didn’t have Sharon Kramer. With Kramer as its Erin Brockovich and her daughter as a starring victim, a mold war exploded, with California at its center. By 2001, water-damage claims in California — driven by the discovery of mold — skyrocketed by a third, to $430 million of all homeowner-insurance claims paid, according to the Insurance Information Network of California. The average claim surged 80 percent from 1998 to 2001, to $4,730, to remove what, mere years earlier, had often been scrubbed away with a little Dutch Cleanser. The Mold Blob had arrived, and by 2002, insurers reported $3 billion in annual losses nationwide — paid as settlements for personal-injury claims and property damage caused by mold.

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