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October 22, 2002 - Toxic mold breeds lawsuits

Lawsuits over toxic mold have been flooding courtrooms in some parts of the country. Now these complaints are starting to seep into Akron-area courts as well. In two suits recently filed in Summit and Stark counties, homeowners are accusing their insurance companies of not paying to correct water damage that led to mold problems.

``People are getting aware,'' said Cleveland attorney Edward Heben, who is representing both property owners. ``People are getting sick.''He called toxic mold ``the asbestos problem of the 2000s.''Finding mold inside a building isn't a new phenomenon. But in recent years, people have become increasingly concerned about possible health problems caused by certain toxic molds.The fungus most commonly implicated in toxic complaints is a greenish-black mold called stachybotrys, which grows on wood or paper. But other molds also are capable of releasing toxins called mycotoxins.

Toxic mold exposure is suspected in, but not scientifically linked to, rare health problems, such as memory loss or bleeding in the lungs of infants or young children, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. But any mold, not just toxic ones, can cause allergy or asthma symptoms in people with underlying health problems, particularly those with allergies, asthma or respiratory conditions, said Dr. Dorr G. Dearborn, a professor of pediatrics at Case Western Reserve University and Rainbow Babies and Children's Hospital in Cleveland. And people with suppressed immune systems, such as cancer patients undergoing chemotherapy, run the risk of developing fungal infections if exposed to mold.

John Barker says he knows the risks of mold exposure all too well. The 64-year-old Coventry Township man started having difficulties breathing about a year ago.``I was coughing and dizzy and getting headaches,'' he recalled. ``All my joints were aching. I could hardly walk. I could hardly breathe.'' In August 2000, Barker's basement flooded after a pipe burst.

Barker said the company that insures his home, Cincinnati Insurance Co., didn't respond to his claim until three months later and, even then, the insurance representative did nothing about the black-colored mold that had started to form. Still, Barker never suspected that his spacious house in the Portage Lakes area was making him sick until Internet research prompted him to hire an environmental inspector. The subsequent tests this May discovered unsafe levels of mold toxins throughout the house, said Barker, who immediately moved out of his 3,200-square-foot house into a 400-square-foot former garage on his property.

Earlier this month in Summit County Common Pleas Court, Barker filed a lawsuit against his insurance company, seeking actual damages of $500,000, as well as punitive damages and attorney fees.``The thing that makes me the most angry,'' Heben said, ``is he had to stay in that house from August 2000 to May 2002 with mold. They knew the dangers of mold. That's uncalled for, and not civilized.''

A case in Texas made national headlines last year when a woman was awarded $32 million after she sued her insurance company because it didn't cover mold damage claims.``It's an issue that's hotly contested in the courtroom,'' said Colleen Keenan, editor of the specialty publication Mealey's Litigation Report: Mold, ``and, at this point, it seems like it's up to the jury to decide how much damage mold really does.'' Nationwide, thousands of people recently have filed suits over toxic mold, Keenan said. The suits have been most common in Texas and California.

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