After the floods, there is poisonous mold | opinion


From Donna Murch

Every time I see footage of floods, my heart sinks. The images of cars trapped under water, sunken gas stations and highways, stranded wild animals and houses whose upper floors barely rise above the muddy expanse of the flood unleash torrents of mourning.

The triggers for this are not only the immediate loss of human life, an elusive degree of property destruction and, of course, the incredible extent of man-made climate change. It is also from intimate knowledge that what follows water damage is often as bad or worse than the triggering event itself: the growth of toxic mold. My fear for others arises from one of the most difficult experiences of my life, after losing loved ones.

Like so many disaster stories, this one begins with a dream. Ten years ago I bought an apartment in New York City. I spent five years paying off my student loans and credit cards, attending first-time home buyer seminars sponsored by the New York Housing Agency, and saving every penny on the 20% down payment. My father’s generosity ultimately made the purchase possible as he gave me half the price of the down payment and I got the rest by taking out a loan for my retirement and emptying my Roth IRA. Ouch. It literally cost every penny I had and more.

But I thought it was worth owning an apartment in New York City beyond my wildest fantasies. For the first two years, I enjoyed the satisfying process of building a lasting life, which for many people is exactly what a home is. The high ceilings and honey-colored oak floors in the beautiful Art Deco apartment in Inwood balanced the knob and tube cabling and the original cabinets from the 1930s with generations of satin white enamel.

Just two years later, one night I was greeted with a terrifying crash that woke me up. I rushed to the bathroom to see the bathtub filled with large pieces of hard plaster and broken pieces of wood. My ceiling had collapsed and I was confused. Years later, I found out that the water damage was due to the incorrect installation of a hot tub without a drip pan in the apartment above.

Water continued to flow through my ceiling for weeks, but the elected leadership of the stable I lived in refused to investigate the true origin of the leak. Instead, they replaced the plates twice, only to reappear an ugly brown stain. Even more unsettling was the smell that accompanied this bloom of organic matter. The sharpness of moisture, earth, and decay reminded me of a hike in the marshes of Lake Erie. Little did I know that this smell was the dangerous smell of rapidly spreading black mold.

When the building refused to take action, the problem grew until my building literally made me sick. Heaviness in my lungs caused constant wheezing, and often when I was on the subway I felt like I was suffocating, no matter how fast and how hard I tried to breathe.

Later, when I had COVID-19 symptoms, it reminded me of my sick building syndrome, which was also characterized by a strange dryness in my throat that caused a dry cough and left my voice flat and harsh. Increasingly, I felt so tired that I could hardly get out of bed, let alone go to work. My eyes had a permanent red caste, and I often saw spots on my visual field and reddish, brown rashes on my face. Next to breathlessness, the second worst symptom was the confusing brain fog that came with my exposure. I just couldn’t concentrate or think for a long time. At first I had no idea what it was.

As so often in the most difficult times of our lives, some wonderful people came into mine with wisdom and grace. The first was a black healer, Dr. Courtney Witherspoon, who suggested that I immediately get out of the bedroom next to the collapsed ceiling, seal the door with towels and keep all windows open, even in the dead of winter, to encourage constant fresh air circulation. I felt better immediately.

The next good Samaritan was Ed Olmsted, who single-handedly did more to combat toxic mold in New York apartments than anyone else I can name. As a trained environmental engineer, Mr. Olmsted has led over 3,000 mold cases exclusively on the tenant side. He tested my apartment and found dangerous levels of Stachybotrys Chartatrum and Aspergillis. Through his network of experts, he connected me with a mold diagnosis specialist who would later do blood tests that showed 14 times the exposure to normal antibodies to toxic mold species.

I learned so much from Mr Olmsted about how to deal with mold-related diseases that the vast majority of doctors are unaware of. Equally important were his observations of the enormous impact of toxic mold on people’s lives. Olmsted worked with people whose homes had been ravaged by Hurricane Sandy with the Rockaways and other low-lying parts of the New York metro region. The large social housing towers, which were without electricity and renovation for months after the storm, were particularly hard hit. Too often geographic vulnerability corresponds to racial and class inequalities, reminding us that mold and water damage are political and must be viewed through the lens of environmental racism.

Unfortunately, there are no regulations on the amount of mold allowed in people’s homes. The real estate industry has been fighting mercilessly for decades to prevent substantial state supervision against such organic damage to buildings. In contrast to lead, there is no finite maximum number of molds for the household or statutory test procedures. Without proper government regulation, mold disease inhabits an underworld where people develop severe symptoms that mimic autoimmune diseases but find little remedy through medical care or legal protection.

With the catastrophic effects of climate change, with floods and fires becoming the norm, we need to educate ourselves about the dangers of toxic mold and water damage to our health and communities. Children are the most vulnerable and exposure can have lifelong consequences. Compared to many others, I had considerable resources on my side, including networks of activist friends and the help of a wonderful radical lawyer – the amazing Michael Smith of the Center for Constitutional Rights. Ultimately, I was able to completely refurbish my apartment according to a plan by Mr Olmsted.

However, many people are not so lucky. After Hurricane Katrina, people developed the “Katrina cough” when activist organization Common Ground fought to spread knowledge about toxic mold and help people clean up their homes properly.

As we enter an ever-worsening climate crisis, toxic mold is a pressing matter that requires a fight for public policy changes, government regulation, and subsidies for remediation and health care. Only with these changes can we ensure real recovery of buildings and people after the floods.

Donna Murch is an associate professor of history at Rutgers University.

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