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[whitespace] Looking at Mold Flora Design: Workers have hammered into the Morrone Gardens senior housing complex in preparation for the removal of a pontentially harmful black mold found growing there seven months ago.

Photograph by George Sakkestad


Oldie Moldies

The Santa Clara Housing Authority outfits senior housing using chintzy contractors who don't do things right. The cost? Old people's lungs, that's all.

By Justin Berton

THE FIRST LETTER arrived in January and it told Barbara Ganz to take her flowers off the balcony. Ganz, age 81, lives in a tidy unit in the Morrone Gardens, a complex for senior citizens on Almaden Expressway near Branham Lane. The letter had been slipped under her door by the manager, and it said construction workers needed space to repair exterior sidings and balcony railings. "So, we all did what it said," Ganz recalls. "We moved our plants off the balcony."

Ganz, who asked Metro not to use her real name for fear of getting evicted, saw a few pickup trucks come and go in February, but then nothing more. She noticed some siding damage on the second-story unit across from hers; it looked like someone had punched a hammer through the wall a few times.

Then, in early March, Ganz got another letter, this time announcing a meeting to discuss the repairs. The meeting wasn't well attended. About 150 seniors live at Morrone Gardens and only 40 or so showed up--after all, who attends meetings to talk about construction work?

At the gathering, though, the residents learned the workers had come upon an unexpected problem when they removed the siding: mold.

The man who spoke to the residents was named Richard Warren, vice president of Property Management Inc. (PMI), the Housing Authority of Santa Clara County's property management arm. Morrone Gardens was built in 1995, with $2.6 million dollars (about a third of the total cost) coming from the Housing Authority. It's considered affordable housing for seniors, with rent running about $525 per month.

Warren told the seniors they weren't sure how much mold lurked beneath, and promised that PMI was doing everything it could. "If it takes flying in experts, we'll do it. If it means bringing in doctors, we'll do that, too." The residents left the meeting buzzing with curiosity, and the furry topic got a lot of play during card games in the Community Room the next morning.

April came and went and the residents heard nothing. Meanwhile, Ganz had noticed a green, dusty film growing on her windowsill. The maintenance guy suggested one part Clorox to 10 parts water to get it out. Ganz, who suffers from nasal allergies, dismissed the suggestion and rubbed out the green intruder with some elbow grease and Tilex. But then another batch blossomed in her bedroom. Finally, in May, after fungi researchers visited the building, another two-page letter arrived. "Dear Morrone Gardens Resident," it began. "The data showed degraded indoor air quality in certain units. The occupants of these units will be notified of the results of the air sampling and dust sampling. The species of the mold included various Aspergillus and Penicillium species."

The residents were told that beginning this summer the entire outdoor paneling would be removed and replaced--a gargantuan effort for any structure, much less a residential one--and that two apartments in the building carried "highly atypical" amounts of mold. The residents wondered if it would grow into their apartments, too.

Warren made good on his word and flew in a leading mold expert, Dr. Joseph Q. Jarvis, of Salt Lake City, who visited the building and gave the seniors a slide presentation on mold and health risks. This meeting, too, was poorly attended, Ganz recalls. "Only about 40 of us cared enough to show up, I guess."

The residents were told to go back to their rooms and check in with their doctors. Everything would be fine.

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Spore Values: Mushrooming mold claims nationwide have created a lawsuit factory.

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See No Evil

WALK INTO THE spiffy Morrone Gardens, past the automatic sliding glass doors, and immediately notice the shiny baby grand piano in the lobby. The teal carpets are meticulously lined with fresh vacuum stripes. The high ceilings give the place an air of regality. Nothing hints at the mold growing within its walls. As PMI's representative, Matthew Steinle, noted, "When you walk into Morrone Gardens, you see nothing, you smell nothing, you feel nothing."

Since the study of indoor air and mold is relatively new--beginning in the 1930s--there's much dispute among microbiologists and indoor air environmentalists as to how much mold, and what kind of mold, is harmful to humans.

In Morrone Gardens, the principal types of mold found were Aspergillus and Penicillium, two common species found indoors. Penicillium, as the name suggests, is known widely as the mold that grows on cheese and produces penicillin; it's the medicinal mold.

Aspergillus, however, is the darker mold, believed to be harmful. While most humans and animals are immune to disease caused by Aspergillus--known as aspergillosis--there are still a few types of Aspergillus that become airborne, land in lungs, and start to emit toxins into the bloodstream.

Just which Aspergillus, and how much, is a debate that continues to baffle fungi researchers. Yet all agree that a good defense to mold is a strong immune system, usually inherent in the young and the healthy.

That may pose a problem for immune systems old enough to qualify for senior housing. According to one report issued by the Fungal Research Trust, Aspergillus mold is "especially dangerous to older patients and asthmatics." In fact, allergic bronchopulmonary aspergillosis (ABPA) "is quite common in asthmatics; up to 20 percent of asthmatics might get this at some time during their lives." Symptoms include coughing and wheezing, and long term ABPA can cause permanent lung damage.

In May 1999, at the first ever International Conference on Indoor Health, in Denver, Colo., researchers Jeffrey Cooper and J. Michael Phillips issued a report that said, essentially, all buildings that contain five types of toxic molds--including three types of the Aspergillus species: flavus, fumigatus and versicolor--should be shut down.

"The detection of any toxigenic fungi indoors is considered unacceptable from a human health risk perspective," the pair of researchers concluded. "The confirmed presence requires urgent risk management decisions by building owners."

Morrone Gardens, according to an air quality report conducted by Air Quality Inc., does contain, in at least nine units, Aspergillus fumigatus and versicolor.

Yet while Cooper and Phillips' research may seem alarming to some, it isn't convincing to the doctors who are surveying Morrone Gardens.

Dr. Jarvis, who studied the air quality reports on behalf of the county, says just because certain types of Aspergillus live in the building, it isn't enough for him to suggest a closing. "I'm not aware of any data that suggests senior citizens are at more serious risk. I'm also not aware of any data that says they are less."

"The question here isn't so much which type of mold you find, it's rather if you find a different kind of mold indoors compared to outdoors." Compared to outdoors, only two apartments at Morrone Gardens showed "highly atypical" amounts of fungi.

Jarvis says neither the residents of those two apartments, nor any of the 10 residents he interviewed, showed symptoms of fungi infection.

"I'm looking at the big picture here," Jarvis says. "The forest, not the tree."

Nowhere to Hide

MICHELLE STUBBS moved into Morrone Gardens in 1998, and even though she wasn't the minimum age of 62, which is required, she got accepted because she suffers from reflex sympathetic dystrophy. Comparable in laymen's terms to multiple sclerosis, RSD attacks the nerves, lighting them on fire. Stubbs' body temperature oscillates from burning hot to freezing cold. She gobbles a dozen pills a day to keep the pain away, and even then, it's only temporary. In the middle of summer, she blasts her air conditioning to keep cool, and then cranks up the heater to thaw out.

Because moving around--even the friction of clothing on her skin--causes Stubbs discomfort, she stays in her bed between 10 and 15 hours a day. Before word spread that her apartment was one of the two with "highly atypical" amounts of mold, visitors dropped by regularly. "Now, people drop notes or call me, but no one comes by," laments Stubbs. "They're all afraid to come in here. They've heard all sorts of rumors; that I'm moving out; that they're closing down the apartment."

Stubbs was interviewed by Dr. Jacobs when he visited Morrone Gardens and she was shocked when he told her, by her recollection, "You'd be safer sleeping on your balcony than sleeping in your apartment." (Dr. Jarvis cited his conversation with Stubbs and all residents as doctor-client privilege and refused to comment specifically. After hearing Stubbs' comments, he offered, "I certainly did not recommend to anyone that they leave the building or sleep elsewhere.")

Stubbs says PMI managers told her to "be concerned, but don't get paranoid" about the situation, that, in time, the mold would be removed from her apartment. She's been told that it could take up to two years and that she should check in with her doctor regularly.

"I'm not so worried about my health right now," Stubbs says. "But what about five years from now? With the way my health is, my immune system is already down, and I don't need anything else on top of that. And, I'm paying rent for an apartment that might be harming me--or maybe it's not. We don't know. They can't tell by looking at me. They have to look inside my body and see what's going on. And we can't see that. What's going on inside me is what I want to know. And nobody is telling me."

Whiff of Trouble

BARBARA GANZ and the rest of the residents haven't received any letters recently. The construction work has stopped and the buzz about the mold has died down in the Community Room. "I haven't heard anyone say much about it lately," she says. "I guess everyone is willing to sit on their hands about it."

This week, Matthew Steinle, a representative at the Housing Authority of Santa Clara, told Metro that a lawsuit against the contractor, Branagh Inc., was in the works. "Anticipated litigation with the contractor and subcontractor is likely."

Steinle believes Branagh's workers misread the architect's plans and muffed the connection between the balconies and the structure. The miscue allowed water to intrude into the gaps and form the mold. Back in January, when the residents were told to remove their flowerpots, Branagh workers were attempting to fix the problem. When they ripped off the exterior wall, that's when the mold was found and work stopped. Since then, under the threat of litigation, work has been at a standstill.

Branagh Inc. has built for the county before, most recently on the Villa San Pedro complex, and Steinle says the work was acceptable. Of the 17 senior citizen projects put together by the Housing Authority, three of them are fitted with Weyerhauser siding, a brand that has suffered losses in lawsuits and is currently working out a settlement in a class action lawsuit. Plaintiffs argue Weyerhauser makes siding that buckles and bulges under slight water stress and allows for mold. Morrone Gardens is the only project with mold.

When Tom Branagh, president of the contracting group, was contacted by Metro, he said he hadn't heard of the mold problem. "They just told us to stop working. We found some dry rot, but mold? You'll have to ask them." Told about Steinle's belief that litigation was coming, Branagh was stunned. "Oh? I'm just kinda waiting to hear from them."

Meanwhile, Dr. Jarvis says he'll be back to Morrone Gardens to check on the residents. He says it's still too early to declare if the mold is responsible for health problems.

"But if there ever is a hint, or a whiff, of a health problem, we'll shift gears and be more aggressive."

In his letter to PMI, Dr. Jarvis recommend the county purchase special vacuums to clean up the apartments, but the residents say they haven't been notified.

As for Ganz, she says she'll continue to wait for the next letter.

"In their letters they say it's only two kinds of mold, but I heard there were others," she says. "And they don't say it's the bad kind, but we don't know. We just don't know what's in store for us in the future."

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From the July 12-18, 2001 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

Copyright © 2001 Metro Publishing Inc. Metroactive is affiliated with the Boulevards Network.

For more information about the San Jose/Silicon Valley area, visit sanjose.com.




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