Fungus among us

August 27, 2003
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- V.C. Rogers
You have to feel bad for N.C. Central University Chancellor James Ammons. Forever trying to climb out of holes left by previous administrations, Ammons is now beset by a mold crisis that has forced the closure of several dormitories--including two built in 1999--and displaced hundreds of students. Academic buildings have likewise been infested by fungus; two-thirds of the library's collection is threatened. Workers exposed to the mold report respiratory and other ailments. The mold nightmare will require millions of dollars to fix, diverting scarce funds from much-needed capital projects on campus.

It may take years for the spores to settle. Assessments of responsibility have barely reached the finger-pointing stage, even though records show that at least some of the mold problems have been apparent for years. The architect of the two new moldy dorms, former U.S. Senate candidate Harvey Gantt, as well as the contractor and plumber, refuse to discuss the matter, no doubt awaiting the flood of lawsuits that will follow like stormwater runoff.

It would be easy to dismiss the predicament as just another in a long line of screw-ups at NCCU. Certainly, administrators there deserve at least some of the blame, especially since workers involved with the facilities in question apparently noted problems with construction and maintenance well before they reached Code Red. The hiring of Gantt by close friend and former NCCU Chancellor Julius Chambers to design the dorms and the university's education building (which has its own set of defects) again raises questions about how no-bid government contracts are awarded.

But confining an investigation to school employees and contractors ignores the external factors that contributed heavily to the current straits. During his tenure, Chambers labored tirelessly--and with only spotty success--to leverage state cash that would shrink the school's enormous maintenance backlog. Long neglected by the legislature, Central's physical plant had deteriorated badly during the 1980s and early '90s. Its aging steam plant, which has been linked to some of the damage, should have been replaced two decades ago. Across-the-board budget cuts in lean years and failure to fund such low-profile needs as maintenance when money was available created an environment in which mold could thrive.

And let's not pretend that indoor incursions of mold in North Carolina are limited to the NCCU campus. Older school buildings throughout the region, for example, have mold problems of varying degree, mirroring conditions nationwide: More than 20 percent of the nation's public schools have reported air-quality problems, according to a recent report issued by the U.S. General Accounting Office. School systems here and elsewhere can barely afford enough teachers and books, let alone consider spending millions of phantom dollars to fix leaky roofs and outmoded plumbing. The same goes for the dozens of state and municipal agencies in the Triangle housed in crumbling facilities.

The cost of remediation is enough to choke even the most arrogant politician. NCCU has earmarked at least $10 million to clean up its mess, though the actual costs are likely to be much higher. The Buncombe County school system shelled out $1 million to de-mold a single high school earlier this year. It would not strain credibility to say that fixing all the mold problems that currently exist in North Carolina's public sector would bankrupt the state.

Mold has other consequences. The specific health effects of mold exposure are in dispute and under intense study, but scientists concur that certain strains of toxic mold such as the notorious Stachybotrys often have adverse respiratory affects; people with sensitivity to mold can experience more severe symptoms including fever, chronic fatigue, shortness of breath and lung infections.

So when mold problems surface, authorities are caught between the rock of prohibitive expense and the hard place of human suffering. Not surprisingly, they often take the path of least resistance, which is to scrupulously avoid finding mold in the first place--even when black blotches appear on the walls. Spore sightings and possible related health affects were reported to The Independent by two area government employees, though both were too fearful about possible reprisals to identify the agencies they worked for, let alone the buildings. Their paranoia is not entirely misplaced: At IBM, two workers who experienced health problems they thought were related to mold infestation at the company's RTP complex filed a federal complaint and were fired a couple of months later.

The IBM dispute arose after a 2000 flood inundated the facility with 30,000 gallons of water. No one seems able to calculate a number, but this year's unusually heavy rains have doubtless left a significant number of businesses and homes with water damage. Invariably, where water damage leads, mold follows.

The impending wave of mold casualties spotlights another low point in the spore chronicles. Last year, state Insurance Commissioner Jim Long quietly approved a proposal by the insurance industry to cap mold claims at $5,000 on homeowner's policies and $15,000 on policies for commercial property. That meant that even if a homeowner or business was covered under a policy for flood damage, for example, insurers would not have to pay more than the cap amount for mold problems stemming from a flood.

As anyone who has experience mold problems can attest, the cap limits are a joke. If the mold is pervasive, remediation for a single-family home can exceed $100,000; testing alone can eat up the cap amount, leaving nothing for repairs, relocation expenses and other related costs. As the NCCU disaster shows, remediating commercial buildings can push into seven figures.

Long also allowed insurers to add mold exclusion clauses to new or renewed policies, meaning that no mold damage would be covered under any circumstances unless buyers purchased special mold coverage. The few insurers that now offer such coverage charge exorbitant premiums that only a handful can afford.

Insurers and tort reformers who support caps and exclusion clauses characterize stories of mold damage and illness as myths invented to extort money from deep pockets. They blame a rise in mold claims across the country the past several years on their favorite scapegoat--"Greedy trial lawyers turning mold into gold," as the headline in one recent industry newsletter succinctly put it. As with medical malpractice insurance, they cite a handful of multi-million dollar jury verdicts in Texas and other states (Ed McMahon won $7 million in California) as proof that caps are warranted.

But as with medical malpractice insurance, the argument doesn't hold water in North Carolina. Mold claims have in fact increased in the past decade, but the numbers are by no means exorbitant: According to the N.C. Rate Bureau, 513 mold-related claims were filed from 1987 to February 2002, compared with 36,600 fire-related claims from homeowners in 1999 alone. And the slight uptick can be traced to many legitimate factors, including an increased public awareness of the health risks of mold and new building methods that tend to limit ventilation and promote mold growth. All those insurance executives and tort reformers haven't said diddly about the very real mold at N.C. Central. Nor will they.

Insurers have never been responsible for damage resulting from shoddy construction or owner neglect, meaning that NCCU couldn't seek an insurance payout even if it wanted to. But by giving insurance companies a free pass on all mold claims, Long has shifted the mold burden to homeowners and businesses, many of whom couldn't afford to fix mold problems if they arise. That could leave the owners of moldy homes unable to fix them and, with disclosure laws mandating that mold contamination be disclosed to prospective buyers, unable to sell them.

Not all states have seen fit to limit insurers' exposure to mold claims. More than 30 have caps; the rest do not. Maybe that's why Long chose to announce his giveaway in a trade publication, Carolina Agents Journal. The mold policy drafted by the insurance industry, "received careful review by department officials before being approved," read the commissioner's notice.

That leaves property owners to duke it out with builders and architects as mold advances in the summer dampness across the state's campuses, through its office buildings and into the walls and ducts of homes and businesses -- with insurers standing high and dry on the sidelines. EndBlock

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