Sellers and prospective landlords must soon disclose the presence of mold in California homes and buildings under the first state law to address growing public fears about the substance.
Thousands of Los Angeles County residents call the Department of Health Services every year to report mold in their homes or offices. Hundreds more call the state.
But many health officials don't share the heightened anxiety about molds, noting that the fungi are--and always have been--everywhere.
"The level of public concern is out of proportion with the danger to public health," said Dr. Paul Simon, director of health assessment and epidemiology for the county department.
In high concentrations, mold can cause illness in some people, among them the elderly, infants and those with compromised immune systems, Simon said. Also, some people are highly allergic to mold.
"Usually the symptoms experienced are runny nose, sneezing, itchy eyes. It can trigger asthma symptoms," he said. "But it is uncommon to see severe illness."
Dr. Sandy McNeel, a research scientist for the state Department of Health Services, said there is no way to determine how many people have been sickened by mold because no agency tracks the numbers.
"Because we can't put an exact number on it doesn't mean it's not a problem," McNeel said. "It's a problem all around the state."
At times, it has proved extremely costly.
* In Santa Clarita, Saugus Union School District officials in 1999 spent more than $500,000 testing portable classrooms for toxic mold and chemicals in response to reports that a handful of students and teachers had been exposed to and sickened at school. None was found.
* In Placer County, Steve and Karen Porath on Valentine's Day 2000 asked firefighters to burn their home to the ground to destroy Stachybotrys mold, which they blamed for a variety of illnesses, including their 2-year-old son's inability to speak.
* In Burbank, Richard Arsenault and his family in March abandoned their rented home, cars and other possessions because of mold contamination. They spent several months living in a tent until finding an apartment that did not aggravate their mold-induced illnesses.
State Sen. Deborah Ortiz (D-Sacramento), author of the disclosure legislation, said she introduced the bill in response to a number of constituents who came to her with concerns about moldy conditions in their house and apartments.
"The hope was to try to work to find a framework to give people a remedy," she said. "The only remedy right now is litigation. But not everyone can afford that. Not every case would merit an attorney taking it on retainer."
The California Assn. of Realtors initially opposed the legislation but supported it in its final form. Signed by Gov. Gray Davis last month, the new law becomes effective Jan. 1.
In conforming with the law, the property seller's transfer disclosure statement--a requirement in real estate transactions since 1985--will now include mold. The association is also working with the state Department of Toxic Substance Control to include a chapter on toxic mold in its Environmental Hazards Handbook, which is provided to all buyers and sellers.
Robert J. Bailey, association president, said he expects to see mold mentioned more and more in disclosure statements. Sellers, agents and home inspectors will have to be diligent in following the law, he said.
In addition to disclosure, the law directs the state health department to set mold assessment, identification and remediation standards. It requires the department to adopt permissible mold exposure limits, if feasible, that avoid adverse health effects and report its findings by July 1, 2003.
Enforcement of mold standards and disclosure statements would fall to local agencies under the law.
Setting those standards will be "a considerable challenge," said McNeel of the state health department. "We don't have the information available to determine those levels," she said. "A concentration of mold that might have an adverse health effect on one person might not have an effect on another."