Metro Detroit faces growing threat
WESTLAND — About a week after the blizzard of 1999 flooded Ed and Nancy Ajlouny’s house, their son’s nose began to bleed. Then their tempers shortened, their memories failed and their heads ached.
When Nancy Ajlouny was diagnosed with interstitial lung disease nearly a year later, they packed a few bags and left the house filled with the black mold they now believe has ruined their lives.
As they crawl through a seemingly endless arbitration process with their insurance company, the Ajlounys near the end of their financial rope while fungus continues to consume their Westland home.
The mold, called Stachybotrys, was linked in a controversial study to 10 infant deaths in Cleveland, but was virtually unheard of in Metro Detroit two years ago. After only modest media attention, one local air-testing company says it has found the mold in more than 150 homes in Wayne, Oakland and Macomb counties. It has caused families to abandon their homes, fueled contentious legal battles with insurance companies and bankrupted families.
Consumer advocates say insurance companies are reluctant to pay mold damage claims because scientific proof of cause-and-effect eludes researchers. But experts and doctors from Harvard University to West Bloomfield Township agree: anecdotal evidence of mold-related health risks call for a better-safe-than-sorry approach, especially when it comes to Stachybotrys.
“The general public does not know about this at all,” said David Straus, professor of microbiology at Texas State University in Lubbock. “Obviously, we’re trying to get the word out.”
An invisible threat
Like any mold, Stachybotrys spores are found in nature and can grow anywhere cellulose-rich materials like wood or plaster remain damp. Long before homeowners catch the first glimpse of its shiny black surface, it can grow behind walls in inch-thick sheets from basement to attic. Stachybotrys poses greater danger than common refrigerator mold because it sprays the air with invisible poisons called mycotoxins.
In 1995, Dr. Dorr Dearborn of Rainbow Babies and Children’s Hospital near Cleveland used a scientific study to finger Stachybotrys as the culprit in a widely reported case of unexplained infant deaths.
The Centers for Disease Control in Atlanta recently argued that there was not enough evidence to prove the fungus caused the babies’ deaths.
But Dearborn points out that scientific proof can take decades to achieve. “Thirty year ago, the surgeon general told us we’d get cancer from smoking. But it wasn’t until very recently that we were able to establish a cause and effect with absolute medical certainty,” he said.
Straus, the Texas State professor, is the author of a 1998 study that showed a strong correlation between Stachybotrys and public buildings that appeared to make people sick.
“If you’re working with this stuff, you’ve got to wear a moon suit and a respirator,” he said. “If you get this stuff on your skin, it’s going to cause sores and rashes. If you inhale it, it’s going to cause serious health problems.”
Straus knows this from experience. After just 30 minutes inside a Stachybotrys-infected house in Dripping Springs, Texas, Strauss found himself dizzy and vomiting. “I suffered permanent hearing loss in one ear. I can’t prove it to a scientific certainty, but in my mind, there’s no doubt — it was the mold,” he said.
Few studies attempt to gauge the prevalance of dangerous molds, but a 1994 Harvard University study of 10,000 houses in the United States and Canada found that half the buildings had mold damage that presented a dramatically increased risk of respiratory
Dr. Dearborn of Cleveland estimates that Stachybotrys may be lurking in 1 percent to 2 percent of all homes. Connie Morebach, Vice President of Troy-based Sanit-Air, said her air-quality testing company has found the black mold locally in about 150 homes in the last two years.
The Ajlounys’ ordeal began Jan. 15, 1999, when they returned from a weekend trip to Traverse City. Their carpets were soaked, and they could hear the sound of water running through their walls. They called Allstate, the agency with which they had a policy covering “all peril” for nine years.
Over the next several months, the Ajlounys said, they were shuffled to four or five different adjusters. They agreed to try arbitration, but have been stalled for several weeks trying to find a neutral umpire agreeable to both sides.
Allstate‘s largest settlement offer came in an Oct. 22 letter from Orion-based Montgomery & Sons, a restoration contractor. The firm offered $34,229 to cover all losses, or about one-tenth of the losses the Ajlounys estimate they actually suffered.
Repair estimates submitted by the Ajlounys’ contractor, Healthy Homes of Southfield, totalled nearly $200,000. Ed Ajlouny, a 39-year-old professional roofer, and Nancy Ajlouny, a 37-year-old real estate agent, estimate the belongings ruined were worth about $147,000.
Just two weeks after they first discovered the water damage, the Ajlounys decided to send their son, Christopher, to live with Nancy’s sister. The couple decided to stay in their home because they believed the mold wouldn’t affect them as badly. Besides, Nancy Ajlouny said, there was no way they could cram their son, themselves, three cats, a dog and a five-foot iguana into her sister’s living room — or so she thought.
Couple files suit
It was months later before Ed and Nancy Ajlouny realized how seriously their own health had deteriorated. In addition to soar throats, headaches, chest congestion and a burning in her eyes that felt like “someone poured bleach in them,” Nancy Ajlouny said she started to feel “mentally foggy.”
The biggest shock came on Jan. 26, when Dr. Michael Harbut of Southfield told Nancy Ajlouny she had interstitial lung disease, a broad category of disorders characterized by scarred lung tissue. At its mildest, victims will experience restricted breathing and trouble exerting themselves. At its most severe, it can require heart or lung transplants.
Harbut’s diagnosis was confirmed by a second specialist, Dr. Michael Hepner of West Bloomfield.
“Stachybotrys has been found (in the Ajlouny house) in high levels,” Hepner wrote in a letter. “In addition, Mrs. Ajlouny has been found to have interstitial lung disease, which has developed undoubtedly due the high mold levels in their home.”
Nancy Ajlouny and her sister Phyllis set aside their reservations about moving in together, but Phyllis drew the line at Rex, Christopher’s pet iguana. Nancy Ajlouny left the lizard at the Marquette Street house, but returns each day to feed it, donning the respirator experts say she needs to protect her now scarred lungs.
The Ajlounys still have 11 years left on their mortgage, but they can’t bring themselves to default on the loan as long as there’s some chance they will get a settlement large enough to fix their place.
The couple has filed a lawsuit against Allstate in Wayne Circuit Court, but are still hoping to resolve the matter through arbitration before taking it to trial.
“The bottom line,” said Ed Ajlouny, “is that we we didn’t have a mold problem until they decided to put it off, and we end up with a contaminated house. They think if they wait long enough, we’ll just give up and go away. But they don’t know who they’re dealing with. I’ll lose everything I’ve got and live in a teepee outside before I give in to Allstate.”
One of the Allstate adjusters who handled the case referred questions to a company spokesman in its Southfield office. He did not return several phone messages seeking comment.
The bottom line
Doug Heller, a consumer advocate with the California-based Foundation for Taxpayer and Consumer Rights, compared new mold-removal standards to procedures accepted throughout the medical establishment but rejected by insurance companies.
“They have a window of opportunity here with new procedures in mold removal,” he said. “It has nothing to do with the newness of the science and everything to do with holding onto people’s premiums as long as they can. The don’t mind sitting around and watching the grass grow — or, in this case, the mold grow — because if the policy-holder gives up and goes away, they win. If he gets so tired he finally settles for some low-ball settlement, they win.
“Even if they have to pay out everything the customer is asking for, they make money by delaying, because they’re using the money they should have paid out months or years earlier as investment capital.”