Mold's peril unproven but best to prevent it

Insureres take some comfort from study that found no evidence of dire effect on humans

July 18, 2004|By Emily Bregel | Emily Bregel,SUN STAFF

Mold cleanup and testing has become a growing piece of the real estate industry as property owners and renters have filed record numbers of claims against insurers, builders and landlords during the past few years.

Some believe the mold concern has been fueled by misinformation, while others maintain that toxic molds can cause serious health problems.

A federal study released this spring found that mold does not appear to pose a serious health threat to most people.

The study - compiled by the Institute of Medicine at the request of the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention - found that mold can cause respiratory problems and asthma among those susceptible to such conditions. But the study did not find enough evidence to prove that mold can contribute to reproductive problems, cancer, neurological or immune-system damage.

As the latest development in the so-called "mold crisis," the study comes as a relief to insurance companies that have been inundated with mold-related claims since 2000. But others said they expect the real estate industry to err on the side of caution and to keep asking homeowners to test for the substance, especially since the Environmental Protection Agency has not taken a position on the new report.

"I think [the study] was a complete validation of everything we were saying," said Robert Hartwig, chief economist of the Insurance Information Institute, a trade group that says claims of health problems resulting from exposure to mold are unsubstantiated.

Others don't expect the issue to go away with one report.

"Quite often, we get mixed messages," said Cindy Ariosa, president of the Greater Baltimore Board of Realtors. "Consistently, with all health and environmental issues, there is a gray area of what is really affecting the public."

The 281-page report is being reviewed by members of the EPA. John Millet, an EPA spokesman, said the agency has yet to dismiss the potential hazards of mold exposure.

"This is an extensive report, so it's going to take us some time to look and see how to move forward with our research plans and our communication about air quality," Millet said.

Most molds are not harmful to the general population, according to the EPA, and it is virtually impossible to remove them from homes completely. But experts recommend that homeowners work to make sure their property is free from conditions in which mold can breed. That primarily means eliminating moist environments and cleaning or removing any areas affected by mold growth. Dehumidifiers and fans often are used to help dry an area.

If left unchecked, experts maintain, some molds can create health problems among people with allergies, children, the elderly and pregnant women. Mold reaction symptoms can include itchy throats, watery eyes and asthma attacks.

The EPA said mold can cause walls and floors to deteriorate.

$3 billion in claims

The predominance of mold cases in Texas and other states in the Southwest has had an impact nationwide on homeowners' insurance costs. Insurance companies paid out $3 billion in mold claims in 2002, more than double the $1.4 billion paid in 2001, according to Hartwig. That, along with other issues affecting the insurance industry, has pushed up premiums.

"Texas has almost brought the homeowners insurance industry to its knees," said Randi Johnson, associate commissioner for property and casualty at the Maryland Insurance Administration.

Multimillion-dollar mold claims filed by celebrities such as Ed McMahon, Erin Brockovich, Bianca Jagger and Michael Jordan also have added to the visibility of the issue.

In June 2003, Alfred W. Redmer Jr., commissioner of the Maryland Insurance Administration, allowed insurers to exclude mold coverage from homeowners' policies. Many companies provide the coverage for an added charge.

"In Maryland, the fact that mold is not going to be deemed a mandatory coverage allows the marketplace to price premiums at the appropriate level, so that not everyone has to pay for a coverage they do not want, or need," Johnson said.

Locally, mold remediation companies have seen significant increases in business in the past few years. Certified mold inspector Kevin Bristol, president of Advance Mold Remediation in Linthicum, estimated that his business has increased threefold.

"It's real," said Towson resident Susie Hunter, whose insurance covered a $10,000 mold remediation for her home in January 2003 after harsh winter weather contributed to roof leakage. "And this wasn't even a toxic mold."

Although no one in Hunter's family became ill through mold exposure, she said, it spread within a matter of weeks and a support beam in the attic was damaged by the growth.

"There's been a lot of hype and a lot of negative media regarding mold," said Frank Nemshick, executive vice president for Alex R. Szeles Inc., a Baltimore mold remediation firm. "There are certainly legitimate concerns, but a lot of it really does get pushed too far."

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