No evidence that mold in buildings poses danger, scientific panel says

Respiratory ills occur, but severe risks doubtful, says Institute of Medicine

May 26, 2004|By NEW YORK TIMES NEWS SERVICE

Stepping into an issue that has alarmed homeowners and led to hundreds of lawsuits and billions of dollars in insurance payments, a government panel of experts reported yesterday that mold in homes did not appear to pose a serious health threat to most people.

Although the experts said mold and indoor dampness were associated with respiratory problems and symptoms of asthma in certain susceptible people, they found no evidence of a link between mold and such conditions as brain damage, neurological damage, reproductive problems and cancer.

They based their conclusions on an examination of hundreds of scientific papers and reports, but they cautioned that the research was limited and that more studies were needed.

The panel of epidemiologists, toxicologists and pediatricians was convened by the Institute of Medicine, an arm of the National Academy of Sciences that advises the federal government on health issues.

Its findings come amid growing public concern over mold-related health problems, stoked in part by highly publicized lawsuits and accounts of people driven from homes and schools by mold. In 2002, insurance companies in the United States paid $2.5 billion in mold-related claims, double the sum for 2001.

Sufferers respond

Yesterday's findings drew criticism from homeowners who say they have experienced the phenomenon firsthand.

"Somebody in the house usually has nosebleeds," said Janet Ahmad, president of Homeowners for Better Building in San Antonio, an advocacy group for people affected by mold. "They go away for the weekend and the children stop coughing and having nosebleeds. That's when they realize something was wrong."

But the government panel said that even the link between mold and respiratory problems is not conclusive.

"We know that when people are in damp spaces they report more upper respiratory tract problems and asthma symptoms," said its chairwoman, Noreen Clark, dean of the School of Public Health at the University of Michigan. "But we don't know that mold is the cause, because dampness is associated with dust mites, bacteria, and can lead to chemical emissions from buildings and from furnishings. The data don't tell us which of these elements are causing these symptoms."

Allergy connection

Dr. Jordan N. Fink, an expert on allergy and immunology and professor of pediatrics and medicine at the Medical College of Wisconsin in Milwaukee, disagreed, saying there was strong evidence that dampness and mold cause allergic diseases.

"The allergy literature over the years demonstrates that molds can cause asthma and hay fever," he said. "It's pretty much accepted by the allergy community that this is the case. There is definitely a causal link."

But Fink agreed with the report's conclusion that there was no basis to the claims that molds can produce non-allergic health problems. In the more than 70 years that scientists have been studying molds, he said, "you would think that someone would have reported some evidence of that."

Melinda Ballard, a Texas homeowner who won a $32 million judgment - later cut to $4 million - against an insurer in a mold lawsuit several years ago, said her mold-infested home made her family violently ill in a matter of months.

Her husband suffered memory loss, had trouble breathing and started coughing up blood. He had brain seizures that were evident in brain scans. Their son developed stomach problems and diarrhea.

A mold expert, who found that they were breathing in mycotoxins, a mold that is often caused by water damage, persuaded them to leave, she said. Some scientists say mycotoxins can set off brain and lung damage.

The family lived in Austin, not far from an elementary school where large amounts of stachybotrys - another mold linked to serious health problems - were found in 2000. A number of teachers and students were sickened.

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