Sharyn Iler, 52, of The Woodlands, Texas, an upscale suburb of Houston, couldn't figure out what was wrong. Every time she went into her bathroom to put on makeup, her eyes started burning. She felt constantly exhausted, her vision was blurry and she had a dry cough that just wouldn't quit. Diagnosed with breast cancer in 1998, Iler feared the worst. Perhaps after two years of remission, the disease had returned. She never imagined that the source of her troubles might lie buried within the walls of her $300,000 home--or that she and her husband Bruce would be forced to flee for health reasons with nothing but their dog and cat in tow.
Yet that is exactly what happened one ill-fated afternoon last February. Inspectors had found a thick black mold growing between the stucco and the drywall of the master bedroom, bath, study and dining room. After some of it was identified as stachybotrys atra--a fungus that has been linked to everything from sinus infections to brain damage--an industrial hygienist warned the Ilers to evacuate. Thirty minutes later, they abandoned their home forever. "I thought, This can't be happening to me," says Sharyn. "This is my sanctuary. This is where I come when everything else is wrong."
Like some sort of biblical plague, toxic mold has been creeping through homes, schools and other buildings across the U.S. Although press reports have focused on stachybotrys, strains of aspergillus, chaetomium and penicillium have also triggered their share of grief. At least two families have burned their homes to rid themselves of the contamination. Thousands more, including antipollution crusader Erin Brockovich, are suing home builders, landlords and insurers for damages to their property and their health. Last month the California state senate approved the country's first mold bill, which would set standards for acceptable levels indoors and require home sellers to disclose mold problems.
Amid the frenzy, a cottage industry of fungus busters, mold lawyers and support groups is growing. On June 4 a jury found that Farmers Insurance should pay Melinda Ballard of Dripping Springs, Texas, $32 million for mold damage to her 22-room, hilltop mansion and for her ensuing mental anguish. In May the Delaware Supreme Court upheld a $1 million jury award to Elizabeth Stroot of Wilmington, Del., who claimed that moldy water leaking into the bathroom of her apartment aggravated her asthma and caused cognitive disorders.
Faced with a rising number of claims, insurers and home builders are looking for ways to minimize their liability. Farmers, which estimates that in Texas alone it will have to shell out $85 million in mold claims, has simply eliminated coverage in some 30 states. Says Janet Bachman, vice president of the American Insurance Association: "We are not the guarantors of public health." The California building industry tried and failed to push through a "home warranty" bill, under which homeowners could be required to enter binding arbitration instead of suing for defects.