A report by the National Academies of Sciences two weeks ago debunks the myth of "toxic mold," a myth that has spurred such headlining lawsuits as the 2001 $32 million verdict for homeowner Melinda Ballard, who claimed that mold in her home injured her family, and the 2003 $7 million settlement for TV personality Ed McMahon, who claimed the fungus killed his dog. A pair of reports released last summer by the Manhattan Institute and U.S. Chamber Institute for Legal Reform outline both the history of the mold panic and its legal implications (in an article written by attorneys) and the (lack of) science supporting "toxic mold" claims (in an article written by scientists).
Much of the mold panic was fueled by earlier U.S. Centers for Disease Control studies in 1994 and 1997 that initially found an association between exposure to stachybotrys chartarum mold and lung damage in a group of infants in Cleveland. In 2000, however, the CDC took the very unusual step of retracting its endorsement of the earlier reports, citing faulty methodology.
By that time, however, mold claims had been popularized by the media, and the CDC's retraction did little to stop the stories -- or the suits. The New York Times Magazine ran photos of workers in hazard suits combing through Ballard's mold-infested Texas mansion. The American Bar Association Journal headlined an article MOLD IS GOLD and predicted that mold could be bigger than asbestos. Law professors referred to "toxic mold" in academic papers, and consultants advertised their services claiming mold is "black gold." Through 2001, mold claims had added over $1 billion in annual costs to the homeowners-insurance system in Texas, or about $440 for every insured household.
The new NAS report, like the MI-ILR paper published last summer, finds that mold is an allergen that can cause wheezing, coughing, and the like among atopic (allergic) individuals; but also finds no link between mold and alleged more serious injuries attributed to it, and thus no scientific basis for claims of mold toxicity.