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Spore War

New York has all the right conditions for a mold outbreak: middle-age buildings, lots of lawyers—and Bianca Jagger as toxic avenger.

‘You see my eyes, how they look?” asks Bianca Jagger, just before she straps on a rubber respirator mask. “They’re completely bloodshot.”

But Jagger—international human-rights activist and deposed member of rock’s peerage ever since she divorced Mick in 1979—can see well enough to point out the large patches of plaster bubbling menacingly on the walls. This postwar two-bedroom apartment, at 530 Park Avenue, was her home for nearly twenty years—until, she says, toxic mold moved in.

In 2001, Jagger’s eyes began to feel bleary on an increasingly regular basis. She figured it was too much time on the computer. Then the symptoms migrated: to her sinuses, throat, and lungs. “It was like the flu,” she says. But it wouldn’t go away. A friend in another building who had mold problems of her own suggested Jagger might, too. A few minutes on Google, and she was convinced.

“It’s best that we spend as little time in here as possible,” she says as she moves tentatively past a stack of perhaps 50 shoe boxes—Ferragamo, Gucci—into the living room, where dozens of large cardboard cartons are stacked along the walls, labeled in Sharpie ink: AFGHANISTAN, SREBRENICA, ANDY WARHOL BOX. She stares at them. “They’re all contaminated. All my archives, all my documents from the last twenty years. I don’t know if they can be saved.”

At first it seemed like a problem a super could deal with. And more than once, says Jagger, the building scraped away and painted over the rotten plaster—but without addressing the leaks that were causing the problem. Over the next 24 months, she contacted the city and paid for environmental tests from three separate consultants. They reported finding four subspecies of Aspergillus, a mold that produces harmful mycotoxins; Penicillium, a fungus far less salubrious than it sounds; and even Stachybotrys chartarum, the infamous and quite poisonous “black mold.”

By December 2001, life in her $4,600-a-month rent-stabilized apartment (it’s an exception to the $2,000 rent-stabilization cap) had become intolerable. She hasn’t slept there since. “I’m homeless,” Jagger says with a weary shrug. “I’ve rented an apartment in London, but a lot of my work is here, so I have to stay in hotels, which are extremely expensive, or with friends. It’s been a living nightmare.”

But mold may have met its match in Bianca Jagger. Over the past decade, the Nicaraguan-born ex-model (once dubbed the Queen of the Night) has transformed herself from tireless socialite to tireless, if highly social, political activist. Over the past eighteen months, she’s been in Iraq, Afghanistan, and, most recently, Ecuador, where she railed against ChevronTexaco for drilling in the rain forest. In Bosnia, she commandeered a British tank escort to get a gravely ill boy medical help. So, a spirited fight was perhaps inevitable, though this time it’s taking place entirely on the home front.

A year ago, Jagger stopped paying her rent; instead, she puts the full sum monthly into an escrow account while the city’s Housing Preservation and Development department investigates the matter. The building filed suit, claiming that the apartment was no longer Jagger’s primary residence, a violation of the rent-stabilization codes. Then, in September, Jagger’s attorney Dan Bryson filed a $20 million countersuit against the building’s landlord, Katz Park Avenue. (A lawyer for the building declined to comment.) While the figure sounds staggering, Jagger—who received only $1.2 million when she divorced Mick—insists it’s not financial opportunism. “All of my work is pro bono, and the tests and the litigation have cost a fortune. I’m not wealthy. I just didn’t know what else to do.” And so the woman who once rode into Studio 54 on a white horse became a toxic avenger.

The war on mold needed a local hero. The first great scare started in 1995, when the Centers for Disease Control linked black mold to a cluster of fatal pulmonary-hemorrhage cases among children in Cleveland. In 1999, a Texas woman named Melinda Ballard sued her insurer over mold damage in her 22-room Austin mansion, winning $32 million (the jury award is currently under appeal) and becoming the Erin Brockovich of mold litigation. Not to be outdone, the real Erin Brockovich soon filed suit over her home in L.A. Before long, it was Ed McMahon suing for $20 million in Beverly Hills.

It seemed only a matter of time before such huge lawsuits made it to New York, which, as a town of ambitious lawyers, old buildings, neurotic tenants, and alarmist tabloids, has all the conditions necessary to become the mold-litigation capital of the world.

Sure enough, according to Ballard’s watchdog group, Policyholders of America, mold-related insurance claims have tripled in New York State over the past two years, with most of them in New York City. “We’ve seen a bigger surge in New York than anywhere but maybe Florida,” Ballard says. “A lot of it has to do with landlords who just put a Band-Aid on the problem.”

And with the claims has come an entire new subindustry—call it Mold Inc.—featuring abatement specialists, inspectors, “mold dogs,” and the requisite pack of lawyers. “It amazes me how much is happening,” says attorney Daniel Sitomer, who represents buildings and tenants. “In terms of depreciation of value, mold will have greater impact than asbestos.”

New York’s first megasuit came on the last day of 2002, when real-estate developer Richard Kramer filed suit against Zeckendorf Realty for $2 billion, alleging that faulty construction at 515 Park Avenue—billed as the world’s most expensive residential building—had contributed to mold problems that had made both his wife and his daughter (then 3) gravely ill. Not long afterward, Jagger stepped forward in her luxury building across the street.

Despite such suits, the question of just how toxic “toxic” mold is remains very much up for debate. Mold, in its 100,000 species, has been a problem since biblical times (see Leviticus for removal advice). Only a few species are considered potentially harmful—those that produce by-products called mycotoxins, which in sufficient amounts appear to cause headaches, respiratory problems, fatigue, and perhaps worse, particularly in people with poor immune systems. The most dramatic links—say, to cancer—remain quite controversial. In fact, the CDC has reversed course on its Cleveland findings, saying that the study samples were too small.

But the about-face barely registered. The momentum was just too strong—too strong for the insurance industry anyway, which had seemed like the homeowner’s last line of defense.

Almost overnight in New York, insurance companies have started to exclude mold claims from policies. Unlike some other states, insurers here are not required by law to offer mold coverage, and these days they have every reason not to. “People in the industry talk about mold as ‘the perfect storm,’ ” says Alejandra Soto, a spokeswoman for the Insurance Information Institute. A few years ago, mold claims tended to be settled for perhaps $3,000, says Soto. Now many shoot well past $100,000. Translation: If your current policy still covers mold, it’s probably the last one you’ll ever have that does.

Toxic mold is a particularly perilous issue in New York, where an entire class of postwar “modern” buildings—like Jagger’s—is entering middle age. Mold, of course, can grow in any building where cracks and leaky pipes aren’t promptly tended to. Any spot where it can find “food, and something to wash it down with,” can be a problem unless you get to it with Clorox in time, says abatement specialist Bill Sothern. Some molds even eat the rubber in latex paint.

But in most prewar buildings, there aren’t many spots for mold to hide. The walls are solid: brick, plaster, paint. In most postwar buildings, walls are hollow, covered in Sheetrock—and when Sheetrock gets wet, its paper surface is a favorite food for molds like Stachybotrys. Ignore one drippy pipe, and the mold can spread, unseen, until walls start to bubble out.

It’s been a bad season for urban neurotics. First electrified streets in the East Village. Then deadly carbon-monoxide leaks in Murray Hill. Naturally, once something like mold starts creeping into the media, more and more people start to wonder if they have it growing in their walls. Defense lawyers call this “mold hysteria.” But doctors are increasingly receptive to complaints.