On the Trail of Toxic Mold: As Mold-Related Litigation Grows, Occupational Safety and Health Professionals Are Focusing More of Their Time on This Pervasive Problem. (Editors Notebook)

Article excerpt

Ed McMahon has a problem with mold, and he's not alone. In April, McMahon, the longtime "Tonight Show" sidekick and veteran television pitchman, sued his home insuror, American Equity Insurance Co., and several contractors for $20 million. In the suit, he said that a pipe burst in his Los Angeles home last July, causing his den to flood. The contractors brought in by his insuror failed to properly clean up the damage, resulting in mold spreading through his luxury home. He said he, his wife and their household staff became ill as a result, and his dog died because of a mold-related infection.

McMahon's case is far from unique. At a recent seminar, experts reported that some 9,000 toxic mold and mildew-related claims have been filed in the United States and Canada in the past decade. Texas will have an estimated 50,000 to 60,000 active mold claims by the end of this year. There are an estimated 2,000 plaintiffs in mold-related lawsuits in California.

High-profile cases include a $32 million award to a Texas family who charged that their insurance firm improperly handled a claim for water damage, allowing toxic mold to form and take over the family's $3 million home. Other major cases include an $18.5 million award to a California homeowner and an action by a New York employee seeking $65 million for workplace mold exposure. Some observers have likened this wave of litigation to what has occurred with asbestos.

According to the Environmental Protection Agency, molds typically grow in buildings affected by water damage. They have been found in homes, hospitals, schools and office buildings. It is estimated that about 50 to 100 common indoor mold types have the potential for creating health problems. Exposure to mold has been associated with health problems including asthma, sinusitis and infections.

Industrial hygienist Brian Ruffe is one of a growing number of occupational safety and health professionals who spend a good deal of their time hunting toxic mold. Ruffe, director of Indoor Air Quality Services for BEM Systems Inc., Chatham, N.J., said his firm's work in this has grown out of its due diligence indoor air quality surveys. In looking at HVAC systems, checking potential indoor air contaminants and interviewing employees, Ruffe and his co-workers have found a number of cases where mold has infested a building. …