When a water stain appeared on the ceiling, it was discovered that a leaky air-conditioning line had bred a big patch of black mold in the attic, and spewed water down the walls and under the floors. Five weeks later, as their health continued to deteriorate, the Richardson family abandoned their home and nearly all its contents.
"I was bumping into walls and getting lost in my own neighborhood," says Dawn Richardson. "The final straw was when my 16-month-old daughter stopped talking. She regressed to primitive grunting and screaming; she lost her coordination and dexterity. The house was literally killing us."
Both Dawn and her youngest daughter, Erica, were diagnosed with neurological disorders, brain damage, and low blood pressure. Dawn, who has a degree in electrical engineering from the University of Connecticut and used to design microprocessor chips, feels like a part of her has been forever stolen. "I was pretty damned smart," she says. "And there are areas of my brain now that are permanently damaged. This affects my whole family, especially now that I'm a mother."
In March, the Richardsons sued the builder, David Weekley Homes, claiming that their negligence during the construction process created the optimal environment for the growth of toxic molds and compounds, many of which produce poisonous chemicals that cause chronic and acute health problems, including cancer.
The afflictions plaguing the Richardsons are not isolated incidents. An increasing number of people both at home and in the workplace are being affected by sick building syndrome (SBS), defined as situations in which a substantial proportion of building occupants experience discomfort and health effects that subside upon leaving the building. The Environmental Protection Agency has indicated that indoor levels of pollutants are often higher sometimes as much as 100 times than outdoor levels. Moreover, the EPA says that sick buildings cause an estimated loss of $61 billion a year in employee absenteeism, medical costs, reduced productivity and lower earnings.
Legal action has been a fast-growing response to the rising incidence of SBS proliferating as quickly as mold behind damp drywall. The building industry has responded in kind after the Richardsons filed their lawsuit, they discovered that a clause in their construction agreement stipulated that all disputes must be resolved through binding arbitration, a legal condition that has become increasingly common in the construction industry. This means that a designated third party often one chosen by builders, contractors, and attorneys with ties to the construction industry will unilaterally settle a suit, with no judge, jury, right of appeal and often no public record. Even if the Richardsons decide to move forward and prevail in the arbitration, they stand to have tens of thousands of dollars in arbitrator fees deducted from any award.
As concerns and lawsuits have mounted, building and furniture industries have begun to introduce environmentally friendly building materials, toxic-free paints and other products and advances in ventilation technology. The movement isn't as quick as some would like, and it won't do anything to remedy the damage already caused, but it is a sign that the same industry whose phenomenal growth has led to unprecedented health problems is realizing that it has to clean up its act, or suffer the consequences. There are multiple causes of SBS, but the main culprits are toxic mold and volatile organic compounds. "Molds have an array of biological weapons that they use against each other to compete for available nutrients," says Harriet Ammann, senior toxicologist at the Washington state Department of Health. "And some of them, under certain circumstances, can make toxic materials of varying potency. We sometimes get caught in the biochemical warfare crossfire."
Volatile organic compounds (VOCs) are found in the chemicals used to manufacture and prepare many building materials. Depending on moisture levels and temperature, some of these chemicals evaporate, and if a structure is not properly built or ventilated, the indoor air may become toxic and unhealthy.
"Chemicals like formaldehyde are in the resin used to manufacture most cabinets, wall paneling and closet shelves," says John Bower, founder of the Healthy House Institute, an organization through which he writes books and produces videos on indoor air quality. "They may have a fancy oak, walnut, or cherry veneer, but underneath is particle board or plywood held together with toxic materials. The clear finish used on cabinetry and furniture is also a formaldehyde-based chemical. It's so potent that it will burn itself off in six to 12 months. But even after that, the plywood or particleboard under the veneer will continue to off-gas for several more years."
Moreover, as houses, apartments, and office buildings are being hastily erected , proper building standards are not always followed, particularly when it comes to moisture protection and ventilation. "The only reason mold grows indoors is because of moisture," says Ammann. "And that's a big problem with a lot of modern construction. Houses and buildings are put up in such a hurry with a relatively unskilled workforce."
Bower doesn't think the construction industry will change its behavior quickly. "Based on what I've seen over the past few years, I think it's going to be a slow evolution," he says. "I don't think industry is willing to admit that they made an unhealthy product, but they certainly can say 'We're improving our products, and here are the latest improvements.'"
"Today consumers have more of a choice whether they buy products that have high or low VOC emissions," adds Ammann. "But most people having houses built don't pay attention to that kind of detail. It really requires some research to find these products."
Of the environmentally friendly building materials being marketed, two of the more popular products are Medex, an exterior-grade product originally developed for highway signs, and Medite II, which fills the need for a lower-cost product for interior applications such as cabinets. These materials are bound with "phenol-formaldehyde," which does not off-gas as much formaldehyde as do conventional building products made with urea-formaldehyde. Standardized tests indicate that the formaldehyde levels from both products are well below most indoor air-quality standards.
In addition to low-formaldehyde board manufacturers like Medex, there is a growing number of other environmentally friendly products including nontoxic and VOC-free paints and finishes, flooring and roofing materials, as well as a variety of cleaning products.
Another key feature of a healthy house is sufficient ventilation. You can spend as little as $100 to upgrade your existing local ventilation system, such as quieter and more energy-efficient exhaust fans in the bathroom and kitchen. Or you can spend thousands for a general ventilation system, which brings in fresh air and exhausts stale air throughout the entire house. "It's sort of like the difference between buying a used Geo or a brand new Mercedes-Benz," says Bower. "Of course a lot depends on your needs."
Most experts stress that to ensure a healthy house, consumers should expect to perform a little homework and due diligence, as well as incur some additional costs (usually around 10 percent more than a conventional home). But if toxins and molds are of a particular concern, it's well worth it.
"If the added expense cuts down on your doctor bills or insurance payments or the possibility of having to destroy the house because of moisture problems hidden in the wall cavity, it's money well spent," Bower says.
Of course not everyone reacts to toxic molds or VOCs the same way, and experts say there is no widely accepted threshold to these toxins. "As with all toxic materials, the amount of exposure is really important," says Ammann. "But we still don't have a good way of measuring the connection between mold exposure and health. That field is still somewhat in its infancy."
"There are people like George Burns who can smoke cigars every day and live to be over 100," says Bower. "Then there are those who are on the hypersensitive end of the spectrum. Say you have a family of five, typically you're only going to see one or two family members that is hypersensitive, unless they just happen to be genetically disposed, or the problems are really severe."
Unfortunately for the Richardsons, their case is extreme in that they fall into both categories. Dawn says that although Weekley Homes fixed the leak in the attic, they failed to dry or remove the wet building materials. Subsequent tests by an Austin environmental engineering firm revealed that the Richardsons' house contained high levels of both toxic mold and VOCs such as benzene, benzaldehyde, and formaldehyde.
Ironically, because Dawn has long battled allergy problems, the family had ordered special design features for their new house to reduce the potential of allergens, including all wood and tile floors. (New synthetic carpet off-gases hundreds of VOCs and is a particularly fertile breeding ground for mold and other allergens). But after moving in, they soon noticed the water leaks, and began suffering from a number of health problems. "We started to get sicker and sicker," Dawn says. "But at the time, we had no idea what toxic mold or VOCs were."
The family has been living in a small Austin hotel since abandoning their house last May. "David Weekley Homes paid for the hotel for the first three days, then they dropped us," Dawn says. "Since then we've been on our own, paying two sets of living expenses. We've lost every piece of belonging we had clothes, furniture, even the kids' toys. It's all contaminated. The house is like a toxic gas chamber."
Sam Boykin is a reporter with Creative Loafing newspaper in Charlotte, North Carolina. This article originally appeared in Salon.