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In September, Crystal Todd happened to catch a television documentary that surprised her. The program, on the health effects of water damage and mold in homes and buildings, could have starred Todd and her 8-year-old son.
For five years, Todd and her son, Connor, lived in the Vista Montaña Apartments on Baseline Road in Gilbert. Todd says she and Connor were sick 95 percent of the time. Constant coughing, allergic reactions and lack of sleep were symptoms Todd now attributes to high levels of mold in the apartment.
The unit is on the first floor of a three-story building, is partially underground and receives no sunlight. Over the years, water from busted water heaters, leaky pipes and faulty gutters in upstairs units seeped into and settled inside Todd's walls, breeding countless patches of green and blackish mold that make the apartment an unlivable "biohazard," according to a lawsuit she's now filed in Superior Court.
The suit, filed last month, accuses CJ Management Inc., the Phoenix-based complex owner, of not providing a "safe, sanitary and habitable apartment." The lawsuit also alleges neglect, claiming the company was aware of health hazards associated with mold but that company officials never told Todd about the risks.
Lanae Rossi, property manager for CJ Management, says she can't comment on the case. "I have been advised by legal counsel that the lawsuit is public record and you could get a copy of it," she says.
Todd, 33, says the apartment flooded at least once a year while she lived there.
In July of last year, the unit was flooded four times, mainly in the bathrooms. In months prior to the flooding, Todd says she would often hear drops of water plopping inside the bathroom walls. She says a maintenance worker tapping the wall for damage stuck his hand through the drywall under the toilet and pulled out a soggy clump of chalk.
Todd initially thought nothing of it, but the television documentary seemed to be speaking directly to her situation. She wrote a letter to the management office requesting a mold test be conducted in the apartment. Todd says the company initially refused but agreed to replace her plumbing.
In October, when the drywall had been removed to repair the pipes, Todd paid $1,000 for Environmental Research Consultants in Chandler to conduct the mold test.
James Dohm, executive researcher for ERC, says the test revealed above-average levels of two molds -- penicillium and aspergillus.A sample of stachybotrys mold was found on a chunk of drywall sitting on Todd's porch, but it was unclear if it had come from inside the apartment.
Penicillium is common in households but can cause respiratory problems in some allergy sufferers, Dohm says.
Aspergillus and stachybotrys, in a worst-case scenario, produce toxins that can cause serious health conditions including nerve damage, Dohm says.
Stachybotrys is believed to cause bleeding lungs in infants, according to research by the Case Western University School of Medicine in Cleveland.
The management company also sent in its own tester, ACT Environmental Inc. of Tucson, but found that mold levels were not at an unsafe level.
"They basically gave her the clean bill of health, and our results did not show that," Dohm says.
After the mold test, Dohm suggested that Todd move out of the apartment because her son already had health problems that could worsen if they stayed. In late October, Todd and her son moved in with her mom in Mesa.
"Generally, this place is wonderful for its lack of mold," says David Feuerherd, vice president of programs for the state chapter of the American Lung Association. "The problem occurs always -- always -- inside of walls where leaks are occurring. It's the only place in Arizona where it can manifest itself. The problem is that in most cases it's not visible."
Cases in Arizona involving mold contamination are relatively few, Feuerherd says.
"You live in the desert, compared to, say, Seattle or moldy, wet, damp places in the world."
Once Todd got the test results, she asked management to clean up the mold and replace or clean any furniture, clothing or other items that might have been infected with mold spores. The company refused, and she called an attorney.
Now, she wants her property cleaned and the company to pay her medical bills associated with mold-related symptoms.
"What I want is for them to take responsibility," Todd says. "Sadly, the way to make the biggest impact is through money."
Most important, she says, "My son is out of his home."
When they moved to her mother's, it was like a vacation for a while, she says.
But soon Connor was asking for his books, his toys -- his GameBoy, especially. But under the advice of her attorney, Todd has left all the items in the apartment, partly because they're contaminated and also because they might be needed in the lawsuit. Todd, a single mother working on a master's degree in social work at Arizona State University, has replaced some clothing and toys but can't afford to do much more.