A decade ago, most patients who said they had chronic fevers, coughing, headaches, and fatigue would receive a conventional diagnosis. “They’d say you have asthma or bronchitis, migraines, or even chronic-fatigue syndrome,” says Jordan Josephson, a sinus expert at Lenox Hill Hospital who specializes in mold-related disorders. “If someone was actually diagnosed with ‘fungal sinusitis,’ doctors would assume they had aids. That’s all changed. The Mayo Clinic recently issued a report saying that fungus is a factor in 96 percent of the cases of chronic sinusitis.”
Doctors aren’t the only ones seeing an uptick in mold-related business. In some circles, black mold is quietly called “black gold.” And the rush is on. Michael Collins, the owner of Indoor Air Quality Management, has been flying around the country touting his company’s exclusive “super-foam” biocide called Structural Decon. It’s a “fogger that neutralizes the microtoxins,” he says. A typical job might set a tenant back $3,000 or so, but a serious one can get up to around $13,000. “By the way,” he adds, “it also kills anthrax.”
“Mold dogs” have also become popular. One canine specialist, Bill Whitstine, charges an average of $500 a visit. “They’re trained just like a bomb dog or a drug dog,” he says. “In the past, people would rip out furniture and cut up the walls until they found it. Dogs can tell you exactly where the mold is.”
“It amazes me how much is happening,” says one lawyer. “Mold will have a greater impact than asbestos.”
The hazardous-fungi business has even spawned its own Amazon.com, Moldmart.net, offering masks, gloves, and Tyvek bodysuits. “Very soon, you’re going to see architects specializing in mold-resistant construction,” says Daniel Sitomer. “This will be a gigantic industry.”
Stuart Saft would be the last person to disagree. The chairman of the Council of New York Cooperatives and Condominiums, he hosted a mold seminar at Hunter College last month. “When we planned it in November, we figured, well, maybe we’ll have 30 people,” Saft says. “We wound up having 200, and we turned away 100 more.” Then there was the other crowd, the one milling around afterward. “I’m walking up the stairs,” Saft says, “and there are twenty people, from every imaginable business—inspecting, monitoring, whatever—handing out their cards. The problem is, people are seeking advice from consultants who make money if they find a problem.”
And when the hazmat suits and Labrador retrievers won’t do the trick, there’s only one place to turn: the lawyers.
“Business is exploding,” says plaintiffs attorney Steven Goldman. “Ten years ago, if you tried to sue for mold, people would laugh. ‘Mold? Big shit. I’ve got rats the size of cats.’ Now I’ve got more than a hundred cases pending in New York. After Phipps, this really took off.”
“Phipps” is Henry Phipps Plaza South, an 838-unit public-housing complex in Kips Bay. The city’s first major-media (if minor-bucks) mold case, it went to trial in the fall of 2001. Although 480 residents sued the building’s management for alleged failure to address a mold problem, in the end only seven of them—all handled by Goldman—made it to court. Clients got $25,000 if injured, $250 if not. Goldman spent three years on the case and fronted the tenants more than $400,000. In a billable-hours sense, it wasn’t exactly worth it.
Except for the publicity. Now Goldman’s practice essentially is mold. “Phipps set off a bit of a frenzy,” he says.
Caught up in that frenzy were all sorts of New Yorkers who might not have thought to identify mold as a cause for their ailments had they not heard about it on the news. Barbara Leonardi, an office manager for a Queens periodontist, divorced her husband of 30 years in 1996 and moved into the vast North Shore Towers complex, which she had watched rise along the Grand Central Parkway in the sixties. She liked its promise of “country-club living.”
But after a while, a familiar plotline began to unfold. There were chronic leaks in the building’s climate-control system, Leonardi claims. “And I’d get this fatigue where I couldn’t get out of bed. I developed sinusitis, rashes, a running fever. You don’t want to be a baby, but when I started showing emphysema-like symptoms, I knew I had trouble.”
One specialist tested her for allergies. “The only positives were for indoor molds and rye grass,” she says. “It was the middle of February, so I knew it wasn’t rye grass.” She was referred to a mold-testing firm, then to an abatement specialist. It was a terrifyingly costly process, she says. Which is why she sought out Steve Goldman, who filed suit on her behalf late last year. Typical of this emerging field of litigation, Goldman’s is not one suit but many. He’s targeting not only the co-op board but also the managing agent and the apartment’s sponsor. So it’s a property-damage lawsuit—Goldman argues that her clothes and sofa are ruined—but it’s also a personal-injury suit (building representatives did not return calls for comment).
And he’s suing for diminution of property, a hot new element of mold lawsuits. Goldman argues that Leonardi’s apartment, worth maybe $230,000, is now virtually unsellable because sellers must disclose any past toxic issues. Some lawyers won’t even stop there. They’ll sue the contractors, the subcontractors, the architects. The possibilities are as endless as the risks to buildings’ solvency.
Which makes it, at this point, a bit of a lopsided fight. New builders are already thinking in terms of mold prevention, like using cement-board instead of Sheetrock, but all most owners have on their side is a bottle of Clorox or a good attorney.
There is, however, some hope to be found in the woman who helped kick up this fuss in the first place: Melinda Ballard’s Policyholders of America, in conjunction with a major national carrier, plans to extend insurance coverage to homeowners and landlords in all 50 states by September, provided they first install a $300 sensor system to detect pipe leaks. “Ralph Nader always liked to complain, but he never did anything to build a safer car,” Ballard says, laughing. “Now, I love the bitching thing. But I’d actually like to be part of the solution.”
As would Bianca Jagger, who may yet become to toxic mold what Princess Di was to land mines. “It’s so ironic,” she says. “Here I am, working on human-rights issues in Ecuador, how people have a right to clean air and clean water, and yet I don’t even have these rights in my own Park Avenue apartment.”