Erin Brockovich Crusades Against Mold
State lawmakers told of potential health dangers
Anastasia Hendrix / SF Chronicle 8mar01
Erin Brockovich testified before the state Senate committee on Health and Human Services about the problems she and her family received from mold in their Agoura Hills home.
Associated Press photo by
Sacramento -- In her hallmark miniskirt and stilettos, Erin Brockovich came to the Capitol yesterday -- not to talk about the crusade against PG&E that made her famous, but about her personal battle against the toxic molds ravaging her Southern California home.
The activist-turned-celebrity was invited to address the Senate committee on Health and Human Services by Sen. Deborah Ortiz (D-Sacramento), who heads the panel. Ortiz recently introduced a bill that would institute the first statewide policy regulating molds in the country.
"We need to start with the establishment of a standard or exposure limit for mold, and we don't have that standard in law now," said Ortiz, who was unable to attend yesterday's hearing because of a death in her family. "We have established measures for lead and asbestos exposure, and I think this (mold) is akin to those."
Brockovich told the panel that such legislation might have prevented her from buying the sprawling Agoura Hills home she and her family moved into in 1997. Two years later, she was constantly fatigued and suffered from a range of respiratory problems and sinus infections. Her 9-year-old daughter had severe coughing spells and watery eyes.
After stubbing her toe on a raised floorboard, she began asking the kinds of questions that led to the landmark lawsuit against PG&E and the major Hollywood movie that bears her name.
"I began to put two and two together," she said. "I have floors coming up. Why? The house smelled musty. Why? Could there be a water problem? And then I started thinking -- water, mold, what's going on? I'm sick."
Tests confirmed her suspicions, revealing construction flaws and high levels of several molds. Brockovich said blood tests revealed a severe reaction to two of the molds that showed up in the test results.
Repairs to the 5,200-square-foot home have cost her more than $600,000, and there is much work yet to be done. Though she insisted that toxic mold is not her new cause, she admitted there is a connection.
"I think it's such an irony -- the very reason I did Hinckley (Calif.) is (because) people were sick, people I believed in, people who had been lied to, people who had lost their health and their home . . . and the same thing is happening to me," Brockovich said, in an uncharacteristically soft voice.
More than 150 people attended yesterday's hearing, although only two of the 11 committee members were present.
Brockovich was one of 13 people to speak -- and her high-profile account is just one of the dozens of nightmares Ortiz said she has learned about while preparing the Toxic Mold Protection Act over the past year.
Tulare County Superior Court Judge Elisabeth Krant described how she experienced episodes of vertigo, difficulty concentrating and hair loss before a huge colony of toxic mold was found in her courtroom -- the largest reported finding in the state so far. More than 250 other courthouse employees have been affected or are on disability leave because of mold-related illnesses.
While doctors may not all agree on the health effects and state officials may tangle over what action to take, Krant said, "I assure you, all the victims know that they have been made sick by this stuff. Something needs to be done."
Her voice choked with emotion as she explained how her concerns were initially dismissed and how rumors circulated about her going through menopause and being "a hysterical female."
"It's not just the issue of physical disability," she said. "It's emotionally and mentally debilitating too."
Krant's comments echoed the sentiments of hundreds of Hunters Point residents who are suing the private company that owns the federally subsidized apartments in which they live, alleging that chronically leaking pipes and faulty plumbing have resulted in recurring mold and myriad health problems.
Helen Jackson, president of the All Hallows Gardens Residents Association, was unable to attend yesterday's hearing but said she was relieved that Ortiz was bringing the topic into the political arena.
"Everything and anything they can do helps," she said.
But the 2 1/2-hour hearing underscored that it is unclear what, if any, consensus on what to do can be reached.
One problem is that there are as many as 100,000 types of molds, said Sandy McNeel, a research scientist with the Department of Health Services.
And San Francisco allergist Abba Terr said that although many assume a connection between molds and illness, "the public health nuisance does not stand up to what we know about the biology of molds."
Yet the explosion of concern is impossible to ignore, said James Craner, a Nevada doctor who has seen over 1,000 patients suffering from symptoms related to mold exposure.
Craner said he believes modern building materials, particularly gypsum wallboard and other boarding not used commercially prior to 1960, create an ideal breeding ground for molds.
Several representatives from the construction, realty, insurance and apartment industries said they supported Ortiz's investigation, which would also create new real estate disclosure requirements and give local agencies more authority to address mold problems.
E-mail Anastasia Hendrix at firstname.lastname@example.org
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