Starting at the beginning, Stachybotrys is pronounced stack-ee-bah’-tris. Maybe no one has the final say on pronouncing fungal names, but this is a common pronunciation.
Stachybotrys is the so-called “toxic black mold,” featured in countless media stories. Stachybotrys is one of about a half dozen common black molds that are found in houses. One telltale sign of Stachybotrys growth is that the area has remained wet for a prolonged time, more than a week. Stachybotrys needs more water to grow than many other common molds. It particularly likes drywall, so is much more common at younger houses than at older houses with plaster walls. In my experience, Stachybotrys is one mold that is often visible to the naked eye. If you see black growing on wet drywall, that could be Stachybotrys, especially in leak areas, rather than areas of condensation. At the latter, the black growth is more likely Cladosporium, another type of black mold that might grow on your refrigerator gasket or shower curtain.
What are the concerns with Stachybotrys? Why has it gotten such a bad reputation? Could it be any worse than Aspergillus?
Story: Where it all started….
Ron Allison was in the field of finances, where he had to multitask constantly and where a good memory was essential. For some unknown reason, something was wrong with his formally acute mental capacities. Finally, he was let go from his job. Then, his wife Melinda had to go out of town, and on her flight she happened to sit next to an engineer. They got into conversation, and she told him the perplexing story about her husband’s health. The engineer was the first one who brought up the subject of mold exposure to her.
When she returned home, she pursued the mold hypothesis. Sure enough, Stachybotrys mold was found in a bathroom due to leakage. She contacted her homeowners insurance, Farmers Insurance, and they agreed to certain actions, but Ballard/Allison believed that more was needed. Negotiations broke down, and a lawsuit was initiated. Even though by this time, the homeowners had seen a consulting physician specializing in fungal exposures, and had been convinced that Ron’s problems were due to exposure to Stachybotrys, their lawsuit was based on negligence of the homeowners insurance company, not on health issues.
In a decision that put mold on the map, Ballard/Allison were awarded something like $33 million by a jury. Farmers Insurance appealed, and the amount was scaled back to basically just cover their legal fees. Nevertheless, this lawsuit opened the door to mold litigation. Within a few years, many homeowners insurance companies, becoming alert to the magnitude of the mold issue, sent out pollution exclusion codicils on policies, backing off from mold coverage.
What is it about this mold Stachybotrys that could have caused the losses in Ron Allison’s neurological abilities? Stachybotrys has long been known for its potential to produce toxic compounds, known as “mycotoxins.” There are thousands of different mycotoxins produced by many fungi, but the trichothecenes produced by Stachybotrys are particularly nasty, so nasty that they have been used in germ warfare.
The hypothesis was that exposure to these trichothecenes may have resulted in neurological damage to Ron. Although mycotoxins can affect anyone, some individuals genetically have a tougher time in excreting toxins than others – perhaps as many as 25% of the population.
Subsequent research relating to the neurological effects of Stachybotrys exposure has come down on both sides of the fence. That is, some research points to permanent neurological damage; other research does not support these findings.
Further, in addition to the Ballard/Allison mold episode, there was another potential red flag in Ohio where a cluster of about 10 infants developed pulmonary hemorrhages, and some died. Subsequent testing of their homes confirmed Stachybotrys mold in all of them. Some medical professionals believe that Stachybotrys was linked to these hemorrhages in infants under eight months of age, whose lungs were still developing. The CDC issued a statement that such linkage was not proven. Some, if not most, of the homes involved had smokers in the house, and the research did not account for homes with or without smokers.
Story: A New York City subway tale
A young mother, who was to become my future client, was riding on the subway with her baby when suddenly a woman from across the aisle came over to her. The stranger identified herself as a nurse and told the young mother to get off at the next stop and head immediately for an emergency room. She pointed out a drop of blood at the infant’s nose and said that the child could be hemorrhaging.
The young mother followed the advice of the nurse who may have saved her baby’s life. She hailed a taxi and got to the nearest emergency room. Sure enough, the child was suffering a pulmonary hemorrhage. The baby recovered, but in the interim, I was called in to do a mold inspection at their apartment. I found Stachybotrys at the opposite end of the apartment to the baby’s room, but it was enough for the parents to decide not to return to the apartment with their child. I was told that the NYC Department of Health had been notified and was involved in monitoring the situation.
Story: A tale of a two-year-old in a two-year-old townhouse
Rauly was a sick baby, diagnosed with some fairly rare blood condition, cytopenia something or other. He was being treated at the children’s oncology unit of a local medical center where doctors reportedly told his mother that this condition was probably environmentally induced but that they didn’t know by what. She, desperate, searched the Internet for clues.
Finally she found what she was looking for in veterinary medicine. Horses that had eaten grain contaminated with Stachybotrys developed the same condition as her son. Stachybotrys mold… could that be present in this rented townhouse?
She called in a local mold inspector, and working with a moisture meter, he discovered that the back of the kitchen sink cabinet was wet from a slow leak. Apparently the contractor who installed the sink cabinet nicked one of the water pipes. The slow dribble of water over two years was sufficient to allow a lot of Stachybotrys to grow in the wall cavity. The family moved out of the rental and commenced a lawsuit.
Meanwhile, they took their son for treatment to Dr. Dorr Dearborn at Rainbow Children’s Hospital in Ohio. Dr. Dearborn had treated the original cluster of babies some years before. Dr. Dearborn was to be their expert witness in court.
Somewhere along the line, the mother learned about my service, and we worked together in their subsequent housing misadventures. I understood to some degree the tremendous financial pressure these folk had experienced in addition to the endless worries and care-taking of their son. They had piles of medical records ready to present to the court when a jury trial was finally set, after several years of legal procedures.
A week before the trial was to start, the judge dismissed their expert witness and informed them that they would not be able to tell the jurors about the cytopenia – only about the asthma that their son had developed. The guts of their case were in a minute wiped out. As I recall, the judge said their expert witness didn’t have standing as an expert with mold related research, or something like that.
I believe the family was offered $25,000 by their former landlord’s homeowners insurance. $25,000 was a pittance compared to their legal and medical expenses, to say nothing of what they believed was the uncertainty of the future for their son’s health.
I asked this mother what advice she would have for anyone finding Stachybotrys in their home. Her response was immediate, “Leave the house!”
That said, Stachybotrys is in fact a common mold. I find it in three or four places in some homes, especially newer homes with drywall that has remained wet for a prolonged period of time. It can be difficult scientifically pinpointing cause for physical ills. This young mother is absolutely convinced that Stachybotrys was responsible for her son’s illness. Proving that scientifically is another story.
About 10 years ago, I attended a conference sponsored by Johns Hopkins and a slew of other institutions. This was in the earlier days of the mold phenomenon, and the purpose of the conference was as a brainstorming session for physicians to tell researchers what they needed researchers to work on. By the time the three-day conference was over, suggestions from physicians had been placed on a sufficient number of poster boards to line 3 walls of the conference room. Needless to say, I didn’t even understand the terminology for most of them.
I do recall one physician moderator pointing out that any physician in the room could be asked if he or she had experience with someone developing asthma after mold exposure. The moderator said that he was sure that every physician had this experience. But, he continued, the scientific research is not yet there to establish that asthma can be related to mold exposure. Look how long it took to scientifically establish that smoking could be responsible for lung cancer.
At another early mold conference, a researcher asked for patience, stating that this sort of research is long and tedious. She thought that the first papers would be coming out relating to the neurological effects of mold on people. I’ve heard more about respiratory effects. I also have a literature review on inflammation linked with exposure to mold. If you would like a copy of that, please email me at may at createyourhealthyhome.com.
Because of the potentially exceptionally toxic nature of Stachybotrys by-products, professional mold remediation should be considered where there is a chance that remediation would release a lot of mold particulates to the air.