By Hillel Aron
By Joseph Tsidulko
By Patrick Range McDonald
By David Futch
By Hillel Aron
By Dennis Romero
By Jill Stewart
By Dennis Romero
Says Jed Waldman, chief of indoor air quality for the California Department of Public Health, “The scientific literature is inconclusive about links between mold and the health effects you list [cancer, brain lesions, bleeding lungs].” But that didn’t prevent a belief system that ruined lives and cost millions, its epicenter in California.
Few Angelenos who fear“toxic mold” realize that the origins of the scare lay in an obscure tragedy 2,000 miles away. In 1994, four babies in a poor Cleveland neighborhood started coughing up dark, thick blood. The Centers for Disease Control flew a group of researchers in from Atlanta, causing fear to ripple through the neighborhood.
In the damp basements of the babies’ homes, researchers found black ooze, Stachybotrys chartarum, a mold with spores full of poisonous mycotoxins.
The doctor who alerted the CDC to unusual bleeding in the infants’ lungs told The New York Times in 1997 of one of his patients: “She just drowned in her own blood.”
The story was an instant sensation. The imagery of poor black babies trapped in an environmental wasteland in middle America captured the imagination of an outraged national press, and sent scientists scurrying for answers. Nearly three years later, a CDC report found a connection between the mold and the bleeding lungs of the children.
But because it was not conclusive, the federal scientists kept digging. In 1999, toxicologists announced that their review of the initial CDC findings showed no link between the black mold and the babies’ blood-filled lungs. The CDC, in an unusual about-turn, released a far more detailed report refuting its original work, which critics noted had been conducted under extremely intense media and political pressure to side with the victims.
The rational crowd at the CDC was too late. The blood was in the water, so to speak, and the litigation feeding frenzy began. In 1999, Melinda Ballard, owner of a 22-room Texas mansion, sued over mold that had infested her home. Nationwide at the time, just 227 such claims were believed to exist — a number that has since exploded to tens of thousands. A Texas jury agreed that the Ballards had been made sick by mold, and in 2001 awarded the wealthy family $32.1 million.
The Ballards’ attorney was renowned Texas litigator Fred Hagans, and he told a dramatic tale of clouds of airborne “toxins” in the Ballard mansion. Hagans changed the way normal indoor mold — it’s been around for eons — is viewed. “To this day, I get death threats, and a few people still think I caused their insurance rates to skyrocket,” Ballard told L.A. Weekly.
While the mold rush grew in courtrooms, Sharon Kramer was enduring her own, very real mold drama — she just didn’t know it yet.
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Texas fold 'em: The Ballards home, demolished with the furniture inside, became a sensation when a jury awarded $32 million.
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The Kramer family once lived in this posh Lake Hodges home where Sharon says mold sickened them.
In 1998, Kramer’s daughter Erin, who has suffered from cystic fibrosis since early childhood, was a freshman in high school. Because of the cystic fibrosis, her immune system was weak. Her lungs were coated with thick mucus, in which one genus of mold, Aspergillus, thrives.
Erin, then 14, is among a very small population believed to be susceptible to mold allergies and other mold-related health problems. During a remodeling at her high school, she fell ill. She was admitted to Thornton Hospital in La Jolla, where her breathing difficulty went from bad to worse.
One night, mother and daughter were trying to get some sleep in the unnaturally cold hospital room where Erin had asked nurses to turn up the air conditioning. She was so ill, and her lungs so weakened, that her body had begun overheating from the exertion of breathing.
Suddenly, at dawn, Erin felt as if she were drowning, and the tubes in her nose were providing too little oxygen. She shot up in bed. “I can’t breathe!” she recalls croaking, as her lungs burned like fire. “I can’t breathe!” Kramer bolted out into the hall, shouting for help. The intercom announced, “Code blue, code blue!” Nurses poured in and shoved tubes down Erin’s throat. After a horrible several minutes, the attack passed.
She slouched over, clutching a white stuffed rabbit to her abdomen. Kramer held her. Today, Erin describes how caring her mother was after what they both still call The Code Blue. For hours, Kramer propped her weakened daughter upright in her bed, only telling Erin later how much pain she was in as she physically supported her. After the episode, Erin was diagnosed with allergic bronchopulmonary aspergillosis — a clear-cut finding that mold had made her sick.
Sharon Kramer’s memories of that harrowing week in the hospital overshadowed all of her actions three years later, when the family’s refrigerator sprang a leak — and the Southern California wife and mother began her ascent among the ranks of a geographically dispersed but ideologically cohesive group of mold warriors.