If crime and pestilence and natural disaster and the other perils of modern life make you want to stay at home with the doors and windows locked, think again.

You're not safe even there, as a Tempe family discovered when a plumber searching out a persistent water leak from a water filtration system uncovered a toxic and technicolor rain forest of mold and other fungi growing inside the walls of their house. Then, like a Biblical scourge, the mold's spores and poisons allegedly spewed forth, making family members sick and driving them from their house.

So they sued the company that installed the water filtration system, the company that cleaned up the mess and the insurance company that paid for the cleanup. Whether they collect remains to be seen. Indoor environmental contamination is a newly discovered plague; litigation over such contamination is an as-yet-untested cure.

Shirley and James Lange had leased a Culligan reverse-osmosis water system for their Tempe home for more than ten years. In the fall of 1993, according to their lawsuit, Culligan came to the Lange house to service the system. A month later, the Langes noticed a leak behind their refrigerator and called Culligan to come back and fix it, which the company did.

Seven months later, in May 1994, the Langes noticed another leak, and this time they called a plumber. When they opened up the wall behind the refrigerator, they found a secret garden: 200 square feet of mold sticking to the studs, insulation and drywall like a wet fur coat.

Black mold. Green mold. Yellow mold. In places the drywall had soaked through, and black mold had oozed onto the outside walls and some items in the family's storage room.

The Langes called Culligan, Culligan called its insurance company, Continental, and Continental sent a company called Paul Davis Systems of East Valley to clean up the mess.

The Langes--husband and wife, two grown daughters and five grandchildren--moved out until the weeklong cleanup was done.

Then, on June 11, 1994, they came home to a supposedly clean house--and became deathly ill. Neither the Langes nor their attorney, Gary Engle, would comment on which family member suffered which symptoms, but the suit alleges a whole hospital ward's fill of medical complaints: "severe headaches, excessive coughing, irritability, chronic fatigue, nausea, constricted breathing, diarrhea, asthma, dizziness, muscle aches, burning sensation in skin, fever, lung damage, shakiness, vision problems, skin rashes, extreme eye/lip swelling, extreme body swelling, vomiting, chills, laryngitis, swollen glands, expanded lungs, unusual hair loss, oral discoloration, and symptoms of immune system deficiency and/or suppression."

Various Lange family members had long suffered from allergies--and people prone to allergies tend to be more sensitive to mold spores and toxins. The molds that allegedly had been spread through their house by the cleanup crew, they claimed, had seriously, perhaps permanently, worsened their health.

They have not been able to move back into their house, and their legal filings claim that the contamination was so bad that when the vacant house was burglarized last summer, the police officer who investigated became ill as well.

The Langes sued Culligan for product liability, sued Culligan and Paul Davis Systems for breach of implied warranty, and sued all three defendants for negligence. The suit, which did not specify damages, is pending. Lawyers for the defendants refused to comment on the particulars of the case; their responses in the legal record merely denied all allegations of impropriety.

But lest this seem a frivolous lawsuit, consider that scientists are gathering a growing body of evidence to suggest that many common molds produce deadly toxins, and may help explain other medical complaints--chronic fatigue syndrome, for example--that seem to have no obvious cause.

All the tiny mold plants proliferating in the Langes' walls have enormous Latin names, among them Stachybotrys atra, Trichoderma, Aspergillus, Chrysosporium, Actinomycete, even Penicillium, which, as its name suggests, comes from the family of molds that produces penicillin. And though they mostly cause problems for people with asthma and allergies and immune problems, even among the healthy they can cause severe allergic reactions and respiratory diseases with charming names like "Farmer's lung" and "Fungus Ball," which is like a hair ball, only alive.

The worst of the bunch is Stachybotrys atra, a greenish-black mold that emits a toxin so poisonous that the West German military studied its possible uses in biological warfare.

"Stachy," as it was affectionately referred to by one employee of the U.S. Public Health Service, lives wherever it can find damp cellulose materials like cardboard or wood or the paper backing on drywall. It flourishes in damp bathrooms, flooded basements and wet roofs. Its spores can blow through your attic, filter through cracks in walls, and recirculate in the air-conditioning system, and are a major contributor to the '90s illness known as "Sick Building Syndrome," in which air contaminants trapped in hermetically sealed homes and offices sicken the building's occupants.

Although mold contaminations are much more common to humid climates, they can occur here as well under the right conditions.

"The mold problems you find in Arizona are due to chronic water problems," says Eric Bolin, director of indoor quality for Aerotech Laboratories, an environmental consulting firm in Phoenix.

"I would say that if you have a water leak in drywall or a cellulose-type material, then you will have Stachybotrys," Bolin says. His company is currently working on about ten sites with Stachy problems; two years ago, they didn't know to look for it.

Which does not mean it didn't exist before. In the late '70s, for example, Legionnaire's disease seemed to descend out of thin air until frantic medical investigators discovered that it really descended out of air-conditioning units. And though the bacterium that causes the disease grows in water everywhere, it only becomes dangerous when blowing out of water heaters or air conditioners.

Knowledge of this sort often blows on the winds of litigation. In 1993 in central Florida, a brand-new county courthouse that had cost $35 million to build was found to be contaminated by mold after more than 70 courthouse employees took sick. The county extracted a $5 million settlement from the contractor who built the courthouse.

Similarly, 11 employees of the New Museum of Contemporary Art in the SoHo district of Manhattan realized that their persistent medical problems resulted from a severe mold contamination that started years before when the museum's basement flooded. They are suing for $400 million.

Welcome to the age of fungal litigation.
"I think it's going to become significant in the future as people realize more and more that there are things in our indoor environment that can negatively affect our health," says Gary Engle, the attorney representing the Lange family, "light, noise, mold, chemicals, inadequately designed heaters or air conditioners, whatever. We're making ourselves sick in our [indoor] environments and we better start paying attention to this."

Engle suspects that builders and homeowners will start contracting with specially trained environmental inspectors in the wake of floods and house fires (if the fires were extinguished with water) to make sure that the damp materials are adequately dried or removed before reconstruction begins. If not, Engle predicts litigation.

Engle would not comment on the particulars of the Lange case, but he claims that he has several similar cases pending.

"I seem to be the only lawyer who's interested," he says. "You talk to these people and they tell you, 'I've been sick for months and I can't seem to shake the virus.'"

Shaking the contamination may prove to be trickier.
Dr. Eckardt Johanning, a New York state physician who has become a leading expert on Stachybotrys, has said, "If the infestation is large enough, it has to be treated like asbestos."

And guidelines for Stachybotrys removal formulated by the New York City Department of Health and Mount Sinai Occupational Health Clinic, also in New York, state that contaminated areas that require removing more than one sheet of wallboard need to be sealed off with plastic sheets and air lock exits, and disinfected by hazardous waste personnel wearing respirators and protective clothing. The affected materials have to be placed in double-sealed bags and removed.

Engle claims that if the problems are serious enough, it is cheaper in the long run to knock down the house and rebuild it.

There is precedence for such treatment. In Biblical times, if a homeowner found red and green spots of "plague" on the wall of his house, he called the priest to take care of it.

According to the Book of Leviticus, "If the mildew reappears in the house after the stones have been torn out and the house is scraped and plastered the priest is to go and examine it, and if the mildew has spread in the house, it is a destructive mildew: The house is unclean. It must be torn down--its stones, timbers and all the plaster--and taken out of town to an unclean place."

Lawyers are the priests of our time. Can the apocalypse be far behind?

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Michael Kiefer