News Brief

Two Books on Mold and Indoor Air

Carpet Monsters and Killer Spores: A Natural History of Toxic Moldby Nicholas P. Money. Oxford University Press, New York City, 2004. Hardcover, 178 pages, $19.95.

My Office is Killing Me!: The Sick Building Survival Guideby Jeffrey C. May. Johns Hopkins University Press, Baltimore, 2006. Paperback, 317 pages, $18.95.

In 2000, Melinda Ballard sued Fire Insurance Exchange, a member of Farmers Insurance Group, alleging the company had committed bad faith and fraud in handling claims connected with water damage and mold in her family’s mansion in Dripping Springs, Texas. Successive leaks in a toilet, a refrigerator, an icemaker, and a shower had caused extensive water damage and growth of the toxic mold

Stachybotrys chartarum, leading, Ballard claimed, to memory problems for her husband and concentration problems for her son. In June 2001, a jury awarded Ballard $32 million.

That lawsuit is widely cited as a tipping point in the nationwide trend for multimillion-dollar claims and lawsuits associated with indoor mold, the insurance industry’s subsequent moves to reduce or eliminate coverage for mold, as well as a general national fright about mold and indoor environmental quality. It is therefore more than a mere curiosity that the judge in the Ballard case excluded personal injury testimony on the harmful effects of mold because the scientific evidence was lacking. Ballard won her case on breach of contract and her award (later reduced to $4 million) on the jury’s sympathy with her mental anguish. Nicholas Money’s new book on toxic mold,

Carpet Monsters and Killer Spores, which makes this analysis in detail, may not initially soothe fears of mold, but the scientific understanding it offers should ultimately be a better antidote. Another recent book, Jeffrey C. May’s

My Office is Killing Me!, also offers a scientific, practical, and thorough guide to indoor air quality.

As their titles make clear, Money and May’s books don’t dismiss the dangers of mold and other indoor pollutants. The most troubling case detailed in

Carpet Monsters is that of 11 Cleveland babies hospitalized in 1993 and 1994 with bleeding lungs, diagnosed as idiopathic pulmonary hemosiderosis (IPH), a one-in-a-million condition in babies. Several died. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) investigated and eventually found that

S. chartarum, which produces toxins associated with the hemorrhaging of blood vessels in animals, had proliferated in the homes of the sick babies following a summer of heavy rainfall and flooding.

Confronted with knotty scientific questions, and perhaps under pressure from the insurance industry, CDC undercut its own investigation, and the incident has not been completely resolved.

Carpet Monsters is filled with anecdotes like these, which Money relates clearly, with considerable dry humor and with a resistance to drawing easy conclusions. Money shows that while molds could not have evolved with the goal of provoking humans (they were here first), their biology is uniquely suited to going wherever humans go—including aboard the International Space Station. His book offers a model of rational response to the provocation and at the same time encouragement for architects, builders, and homeowners to examine and improve their record in preventing mold problems.

In

My Office is Killing Me!, mold is just one of the dangers to indoor air quality. Others examined by May include volatile organic compounds (VOCs), hydrocarbons, radon gas, bedbugs, dust mites, and

Legionella bacteria. These organisms, gases, and particles—many of them allergens, irritants, and potential or known carcinogens—can turn up anywhere in the conventional indoor environment, but, as May illustrates with numerous photos and case studies, they are generally more prevalent in buildings with roof leaks, plumbing leaks, or other sources of moisture and inadequate or poorly maintained ventilation systems—all avoidable problems.

In this sequel to his popular 2001 book My House is Killing Me!, May wisely credits his readers’ intelligence while never hesitating to review basic assumptions. For example, in his chapter on gases, May defines important but oft-misunderstood terms like “organic,” while also offering well-informed overviews of more specialized topics like nitric oxide, ammonia, and amines and their implications for indoor air. All of his chapters conclude with lists of practical steps, and, while many readers who are new to the topic may find reasons to worry about the indoor environments where they work or study,

My Office is Killing Me!, like

Carpet Monsters, generally confines scare tactics to its title.

Published July 9, 2006

Add new comment

To post a comment, you need to register for a BuildingGreen Basic membership (free) or login to your existing profile.