Spore War

‘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.

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.”

Spore War