Toxic mold turns dream home into money pit

Two days before the Thomsens were to move into their custom dream home in east Carson City, the seller mentioned she found water leaking from the second floor to the family living room.

The family of six has since lost their savings and found themselves living a homeowner's nightmare.

"This has caused absolute utter destruction to our family," Joni Thomsen said.

One week after they were told of the dripping water, a plumber came to the house on Buzzy's Ranch Road. They followed the leak down through the bathroom floor to the living room below. Repair workers opened up the wall to find waste water had been leaking for years into the bellows of the living room wall, growing several types of mold in the moist environment.

The black mold inside was found to be the kind that can become airborne, causing health problems to humans who are exposed to it.

Apparently, a worker installing cable three years ago for Charter Communications unknowingly drilled a hole through a waste pipe, allowing sewage to seep out, Joni Thomsen said. The cable company assumed responsibility, the Thomsens said, and attempted to repair the damage, but the walls began seeping again shortly after.

A piece of damaged drywall was sent for testing and was found to contain toxic levels of mold. A structural engineer was called out and 14 feet across the back of the house was ripped out.

The family, meanwhile, was still waiting to move in, sleeping at Joni Thomsen's parents' small three-bedroom home. Their four children -- Josh, 24, Ashley, 16, Amber, 13, and TJ, 8 -- were sleeping on the floor.

Before the Thomsens signed papers on the house, they declined to have the home inspected. To save $300, they decided to trust the owner, who was a family friend and also the buyer and seller of the house. She was a real estate broker and told them she had just had an inspection when she refinanced the house a few months earlier.

They thought, how bad could the house be? It looked beautiful.

"How bad could something be? Well ... it could be really bad," Joni Thomsen said, standing outside the home Friday afternoon.

"We're losing $150,000 to save $300."

The Thomsens bought the five-bedroom home with a den for more than $400,000.

The family paid to replace the carpet, take out the windows and clean. They were finally given the OK to move into the home at the beginning of July after they were told the house was habitable.

One month later, the seller called the family and told them to evacuate immediately and take nothing with them. An air sample taken June 19 by the cable company had come back testing positive for high levels of toxins, she told them.

They left the house, their furniture, antiques and collectibles, bought one outfit each at Target, and rented a hotel room until their money ran out. Then, after leasing another house, they were forced to allow the Buzzy's Ranch home to go into foreclosure, not able to continue the mortgage payments. They are suing Charter Communications and the seller.

Since purchasing the house and living there for the month, Joni Thomsen has had several upper respiratory infections. Her young son had nose bleeds and her husband, who was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis four years ago, began having episodes for the first time.

"I'm so angry," said Todd Thomsen, who supports his family as a salesman for medical instruments. He has paid out of pocket at least $25,000 in the past five months, has lost his downpayment of $150,000 and has a year and a half to two years to wait before the lawsuit is all settled.

In Nevada, no state guidelines or regulations exist for mold health levels and no federal regulation addresses the issue. It's difficult for homeowners, renters or workers who work in a mold-infested building to take legal action and for courts to find fault if someone becomes sick from the toxins.

"We get a lot of calls from tenants who have to move out of living situations because owners aren't taking care of pipes," said Shelly Lighty with Immediate Environmental Recovery Solutions. "They don't know how to deal with it. It's difficult to get any kind of help for these people. And that's kind of sad, because what are they to do?"

Sean Abbott, a Ph.D. specializing in indoor fungal contamination, said mold research is a developing field. Part of the problem is that fungi are naturally occurring in the environment.

"It's hard to set any naturally occurring limit. There are so many variables," Abbott said. "You can't say 100 spores per cubic meter is bad and 109 is fine."

Certain people may be more susceptible to exposure than others. Different people react to different levels and scientific aspects of that are not entirely understood, Abbott said.

Abbott owns AKA MoldLab in Sparks, an analytical lab that takes in samples from inspectors and testers. They test materials for certain types of mold. He has seen a tremendous increase in public awareness in the past two to five years.

The most common types of molds are penicillium, aspergillus and stachybotrys. Stachybotrys gets the most attention as it is associated with toxic black mold and is particularly potent. But they all can produce micro toxins that can become airborne and reside in porous items like couches, carpet, drapes, clothing and beds.

Any leaks should be investigated, especially if they run down through the wall or underneath the house, Lighty said. Lighty's company takes air samples outside and inside for comparisons.

Mold in combination with a leaky sewage drain underneath homes present complex situations and are often found together, Lighty said.

"It's really important for anyone with any kind of water loss and moisture in a home to be sure and get it dried out by a professional company," she said.

One common area is behind a shower wall, if tile grout has not been property sealed. Water can seep through the grout or through small windows and into the wall structure behind. It's a perfect place to feed mold.

"All that stuff inside a wall is mold food," Lighty said.

Most of the health problems related to exposure to mold are solvable, Abbott said. Replacing sheet rock, joists and materials where mold is growing and anything exposed to the mold will generally stop the exposure.

"The main affects are quite short. While being exposed, they are suffering symptoms," Abbott said. "As soon as you remove the exposure, you should get fairly rapid onset of remission of symptoms. There are some reports of longer-term affects, but we really don't know for sure."

The Thomsens say they do have the option to pay for the entire back of the house to be removed and replaced, along with carpets, drapery and furniture. But Joni Thomsen said she isn't willing to put her children at more risk by moving back in while work is being done.


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