South Floridians tamed the swamp in which they live, turning it into a thriving metropolis by corralling water into canals and retention ponds, building barrier islands and generally showing mankind’s indomitable will over nature.
But the inhabitants here at the southernmost edge of the continental U.S. can’t seem to conquer the smallest of organisms: the mold spore.
With two fire stations falling victim to a possible mold infestation in Boynton Beach, the fungus appears to have again planted its icky — and expensive — flag in our humid clime.
There is indeed a fungus among us. It repeatedly displaces employees from their workplaces and residents from their homes.
And at its worst, it can cause respiratory illness and some say even death.
“I have whole families I’m treating,” said Dr. Harlan Bieley, a general physician from North Palm Beach who specializes in treating patients suffering from the effects of mold. “What happens is the mold produces spores which release mycotoxins that block or deplete antioxidants. And so when the antioxidants decrease, it accelerates any kind of disease — autoimmune diseases, cancer, anything.”
Child with lupus
Bieley got interested in treating patients suffering from mold exposure after a Miami friend of his died of lung cancer and her son was diagnosed with lupus. A bank took over the unit above his friend’s place and it got infected with black Stachybotrys mold, often considered the most deadly. “She never smoked and young boys don’t often get lupus,” he said.
In Boynton Beach, two of the city’s five fire stations, built in 1966 and 1986, were closed because of a suspected mold infestation. The closures have led to officials to voice concern about response time to emergencies. And now firefighters — always at risk of respiratory illness because of smoke — must now worry that their workplace possibly is making them sick.
The city is paying for lung X-rays and blood work if needed, as well as physical exams by a doctor in Port St. Lucie. Station 3 on Congress Avenue has been shuttered since October. Station 1, which has been closed a couple of weeks, is connected to City Hall.
Two firefighters at Station 3 have been found with elevated levels of feces and feathers in their lungs — an indication that their respective station was possibly a sick building in other ways. In fact, the mold was discovered when investigators came across dead mice in the air duct.
Jeff Livergood, the director of public works and engineering for Boynton Beach, said the city does not conduct routine tests for air quality in city buildings. “We would check for mold based upon identification, if we see instances where we believe it may exist,” he said.
Mold not regulated
Mold has not been found at Boynton Beach’s three other stations and officials say they hope to open Station 3 by early next week at the latest.
Fighting toxic mold remains more of a reactive than proactive exercise.
“Mold is not regulated and affects people differently,” said Tim O’Connor, the Health Department’s spokesman in Palm Beach County. We used to do courtesy visits to look for mold and other indoor air issues. But we discontinued as we had other regulated issues to review and enforce,” he said. “We now work with the building regulatory authorities when asked for assistance.”
Mold bedevils city and county buildings throughout South Florida. Courthouses seem especially susceptible.
The Legislature has set aside about $13.6 million to move the 4th District Court of Appeal — which hears appeals from Broward, Palm Beach, Martin, St. Lucie, Indian River and Okeechobee counties — from its location on Palm Beach Lakes Boulevard by 2018. A nasty mold infestation forced the courthouse’s closure for a while in 2013.
Mold problems with federal and state courthouses in South Florida are stuff of legend in the legal community.
Mold in Miami’s David W. Dyer Courthouse, shuttered since 2008, was blamed for the death of a federal judge in a lawsuit that was ultimately dismissed. West Palm Beach’s federal courthouse also was closed for two years as mold developed in the wake of hurricanes in 2004-05.
In Martin County, the courthouse in Stuart was closed in 1992 for four years and completely gutted because of mold. The Los Angeles Times cited the building at the time in calling mold “Florida’s plague.”
Authorities usually find that the root of a mold infestation is maintenance, such as leaking windows, roof leaks, broken pipes, an air conditioning unit not working properly. Water and wood are the lifeblood of mold.
The bad news is mold thrives on a primary presence in South Florida: humidity.
“The one common theme to mold growth is moisture,” O’Connor said.
People as petri dishes
When patients come to Bieley, their homes, apartments or workplaces have already been diagnosed. The doctor then tests their urine for mycotoxins.
“What has been happening is they get sick in their home and then leave and feel better. This goes on for a while and then eventually they just get sick,” he said. “They have become a petri dish at that point and mold has predominately taken hold in their sinuses.”
Bieley says he treats his patients with a nasal atomizer, antifungal medicines and works to boost the immune system. The first treatment, though, is to remove the patient from the mold.
“It’s easier said than done,” he said. “You have your clothing and your life is in your residence.”
It’s also expensive. Some families end up having to pay their mortgage and their monthly rent while the house is being treated. Bleach is not the solution. Bieley says it simply changes the color of the mold from black to white.
According to homeadvisor.com, the average cost of mold repair is $2,159, but that takes into consideration minor fixes when the mold is caught early.
Miami attorney Ervin Gonzalez represents owners of homes where mold has possessed the residence like some evil spirit. “I would say the rule of thumb is that it is going to cost a third of the value of home if it’s extensive,” he said.
Insurance companies are aware of the monetary toll of mold in South Florida, Gonzalez said. “A lot of insurance companies have exclusions where they don’t cover mold or have significant limits for mold damage, and they will not cover the cost of remediation.”
Families caught in this bind end up getting sicker and sicker.
“It’s very common,” Gonzalez said. “People will complain of allergy or asthmalike systems, sore throats, runny eyes. A cold that doesn’t go away.”
Paola Iuspa-Abbott, who runs Top of Mind Public Relations, said she spent four weeks in a hotel after mold was found in her Pompano Beach condominium.
Iuspa-Abbott said her husband and 3-year-old daughter, Luna, suffered mysterious health problems. Then they discovered a stain on the wall just before Thanksgiving.
“Luna started having hives and we just couldn’t figure out what it was,” she said. “And every time my husband walked into the kitchen for the last two months he would start sneezing. He said it was a sick room.”
Symptoms of mold exposure:
- Constant headaches
- Nose bleeds
- Trouble breathing or asthma
- Coughing up blood or black phlegm
- Chronic sinus infections
How mold can make you sick
There are four common indoor molds. These molds can lead to variety of symptoms, including respiratory problems.
“Excessive exposure to mold-contaminated materials can cause adverse health effects in susceptible persons regardless of the type of mold or the extent of contamination,” the CDC stated in its 2006 report on the health effects following hurricanes and floods.
When it comes to mold, of special concern is Stachybotrys, also known as black mold. This is the strain mostly associated with poor air quality in water-damaged buildings.
But it doesn’t have to be Stachybotrys to emit mycotoxins. According to the National Center for Biotechnology Information, the mycotoxins can be spewed by any mold and can cause disease and death.