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No easy fix for expensive problem

Published on 08/31/08
By Prentiss Findlay
The Post and Courier

Melinda Ballard felt so bad that she wondered if she had cancer. Eventually, she learned her illness was related to mold in the leaky Dripping Springs, Texas, home where she lived before moving to Charleston.

"You almost feel like you're dying because it's such chronic fatigue," Ballard said.

Seven years ago, a Texas jury awarded her $32 million after hearing arguments in her mold-related suit. Her insurance company appealed the verdict to the Texas Supreme Court. Ballard decided to settle the suit for "a goose egg," in essence walking away from the situation because she feared her case would be remanded for a new trial. That would have meant she couldn't bulldoze the house because it would have to be preserved as evidence. She feared the home would become a tremendous liability.

"I just wanted to get out of Texas," she said. She spent $2 million on the trial and lost $9 million on the house, she said.

During her Texas legal battle, she had gotten to know Charleston as a frequent visitor to Renaissance Weekend. She purchased a home here and took up the cause of mold-related health and financial issues for homeowners through her locally-based non-profit organization, Policyholders of America.

She said that she fields hundreds of e-mails and phone calls daily from homeowners with questions about mold.

"It's serious business when you talk about people's assets," she said.

Problems with mold in houses here are not unusual, experts say.

"Everybody in the coastal region should run a dehumidifier in their house. Almost every house that we check on, all the levels seem to be elevated. It's rampant," David Swinea, president of Cleanx Corp. of West Ashley, said.

Terrence Tully, owner of Moisture Control Experts of Summerville and Mount Pleasant, tested the homes of three Daniel Island families that left their residences recently after consulting doctors. Benjamin and Joy Allen said that for months they lived with health problems that affected a young daughter severely. When they noticed a moldy growth on the house exterior, they called in Tully, who opened up a wall and found extensive mold. They recently sued the builder, alleging that construction defects allowed water to seep inside walls, creating conditions for widespread mold.

Tully said musty odors and cupped floors are signs of a possible mold problem. Some homeowners report headaches, a runny nose or flu-like symptoms. Pregnant women, kids and the elderly are most susceptible to problems. "It just depends on the person," he said. Odor is a good way to pick up on a mold problem, he said. However, it might not be apparent to a homeowner who has lived with the smell for a long time. "Get away for a day or two," he said.

Eleven years ago, Tully re-located his business from Long Island, N.Y. He said homeowners initially were skeptical when he recommended mold control measures such as a dehumidifier in a crawl space. "We were told we were crazy Yankees," Tully said.

Government standards or regulations for acceptable levels of residential indoor mold are non-existent, but federal and state agencies recommend actions that homeowners can take to prevent mold growth, which might lead to a health problem.

Maintenance to reduce moisture is the key to preventing a serious mold infestation, experts say. Keeping humidity levels between 40 percent and 60 percent; promptly fixing leaky roofs, windows and pipes; thoroughly cleaning and drying after flooding; and ventilating shower, laundry and cooking areas are recommended ways to control mold growth, according to the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

"If you can see or smell mold, a health risk may be present," according to the CDC.

There is no practical way to eliminate all mold and mold spores indoors, but the way to control mold growth is to limit moisture, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. If a mold contamination problem is present, inhaling mold spores can produce health symptoms including irritation of the eyes, skin, nose, throat and lungs. Molds produce allergens, irritants and in some cases potentially toxic substances, the EPA says.

The state Department of Health and Environmental Control does not perform mold tests or inspections in homes. It recommends consulting the yellow pages under "Environmental Consultants" for professional advice and assistance. The local phone book also has listings under mold and mildew services.

Local mold inspectors said consumers should look for professional certification from the American Indoor Air Quality Council of the Indoor Air Quality Association Inc. Check that the business has environmental pollution insurance and is bonded, Swinea said.

Reach Prentiss Findlay at 937-5711 or

--Keep humidity levels between 40 percent and 60 percent
--Promptly fix leaky roofs, windows and pipes
--Thoroughly clean and dry after flooding
--Ventilate shower, laundry and cooking areas
Source: Centers for Disease Control and Prevention

--Centers for Disease Control
--Environmental Protection Agency
--Department of Health and Environmental Control
--Indoor Air Quality Association
--Policyholders of America

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