Fungi phobia

Posted: Aug 21, 2001 12:00 AM
The cover shows a woman in a white biohazard suit standing in front of a staircase, her face obscured by a respirator mask. "Lurking, Choking, Toxic Mold," it says, with "Mold" in giant type, spanning the full width of the cover. Inside, under the heading "Haunted by Mold," a blurb summarizes the plot: "It grows in the walls. It chokes your child and renders your husband senseless." In short, it's your "worst nightmare." This is not a horror novel. It's the cover story of the August 12 New York Times Magazine. Author Lisa Belkin describes "toxic mold" infestations that cause families to flee their homes in terror, leaving behind all their possessions. The symptoms she mentions include rashes, dizzy spells, vomiting, asthma, pulmonary hemorrhaging, hearing loss and "devastating cognitive failure." Belkin tells the story of Melinda Ballard, a wealthy Texas woman who was awarded $32 million in damages after suing her insurer for failing to take a mold infestation in her mansion seriously enough. Ballard claims exposure to mold toxins so impaired her husband's memory and thinking that he was asked to leave his job as an investment adviser. Now he is "more like her child than her husband." Anxious to avoid such a fate, Belkin dons a respirator mask when she visits Ballard's abandoned home and, afterward, throws out everything she wore there "so that mold spores that might have settled on my clothing won't contaminate everything else I own." She seems to view the mold as an insidious, virulent pathogen that messes you up while messing up your house -- sort of a cross between Ebola and termites. Sprinkled through the article are details that undermine that portrayal. Belkin concedes, for instance, that many of the symptoms blamed on mold "can also be spread by suggestion and word of mouth." And she notes that the judge who heard Ballard's lawsuit "disallowed all medical evidence, saying that there was not sufficient epidemiological research directly linking health problems to mold." In fact, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the evidence that molds can cause "unique or rare health conditions such as pulmonary hemorrhage or memory loss" is limited to a "very few case reports," and "a causal link between the presence of toxic mold and these conditions has not been proven." Far more common are complaints of "hay-fever-like allergic symptoms." In addition, "certain individuals with chronic respiratory disease ... may experience difficulty breathing," and "individuals with immune suppression may be at increased risk for infection from molds." The CDC's take on mold is not nearly as alarming as Belkin's account. The government's disease controllers do not even buy her distinction between the ordinary, omnipresent mold that we inhale all the time and the varieties that supposedly make people cough up blood and lose their memories. "It is not necessary," says the CDC, "to determine what type of mold you may have. All molds should be treated the same with respect to potential health risks and removal." So who are you going to believe: the CDC or the plaintiffs, trial lawyers, mold remediation contractors and maverick physicians with whom Belkin sides? Far be it from me to suggest that the government's experts are always right. But if anything, public health officials tend to err on the side of alarmism, the better to increase their budgets and cover their behinds. Then, too, the toxic mold scare has all the earmarks of a bogus menace: nonspecific symptoms that could be coincidental or psychosomatic; post hoc, ergo propter hoc reasoning; the substitution of anecdotes and faith for hard data; and self-interested players who insist we can't afford to wait for more evidence. One of the lawyers who is cashing in on the scare tells Belkin he is sponsoring a study aimed at bolstering the case against mold. He has hired researchers to conduct medical interviews with the tenants of a mold-infested California apartment building where some of his clients live and compare their responses to those of tenants in a "control" building without mold problems. Chances are this study will find more health complaints in the building where tenants are already convinced that the mold on their walls and ceilings is making them sick. But what exactly is that supposed to prove? It's the sort of question a sharp reporter might have asked -- if she weren't so worried about the spores on her clothes.