Skip to comments.Scranton Family, Habitat for Humanity Lose Home, Hope To Toxic Mold
Posted on 07/26/2004 5:35:14 AM PDT by Born Conservative
For both the Wassel family and the local affiliate of Habitat for Humanity, the rehabilitated home at 925 Maple St. should have been the American dream.
Instead, William and Shelley Wassel say the modest, three-bedroom home in South Scranton became a toxic-mold nightmare they and their three children are still trying to recover from seven years later.
Habitat for Humanity of Lackawanna County views it much the same way, for very different reasons.
The nonprofit group, whose mission is to help low-income families achieve homeownership, says it did everything possible to help the Wassels: It made significant repairs to the Maple Street home; it spent thousands of dollars to assess and correct mold issues there, and it offered the family a new home.
Nothing satisfied the family, officials say.
Not so, say the Wassels. The real problem, they insist, was that the group was ill-prepared to deal with their crisis.
A former member of the Habitat board agrees.
"There was nothing purposeful to what happened. We had no idea there was mold in the house," says Dawn Brennan, the former board member who became the family's staunchest ally within the local Habitat organization.
"For the Wassels' part, they were just innocent victims in all this." The Wassels, who finally fled the house in 2002 after five years, taking only their clothes and their children's medications, believe Habitat let them down. In the end, they say, their children's health had been compromised by long-term mold exposure and the family was left with virtually nothing.
Acknowledging they have talked with lawyers but found no one willing to help them pursue legal action against Habitat, the Wassels say they agonized over whether to make their story public. They know, they say, it could embarrass both them and an organization they still believe in.
But the local Habitat's sale of the Maple Street home to a new owner late last year clinched their decision, they say. In June, Mr. and Mrs. Wassel started sending a detailed e-mail about their Habitat experience to media outlets, public officials and other Habitat affiliates.
"We're the mold family. ... It's not something you wanted everybody to know, but I was just fed up with the local Habitat," Mrs. Wassel says.
The organization, wary of the potential fallout from publicity about the Wassels, launched a counter-offensive. An e-mail sent last week from Habitat's Northeast Regional Support Center -- and forwarded to a Sunday Times editor -- advised affiliates not to respond to questions from the media or the public specifically related to the Wassels or the Scranton-based affiliate.
It may be a dispute without a resolution.
Local Habitat officials say they have tried to re-establish contact with the Wassels and set up a meeting to discuss their grievances. Gloria Tansits Wenze, Ph.D., president of Habitat's current board, says the Wassels have not responded.
"This is in a holding pattern until they talk to us. ... We do have compassion for the family," she says.
The Wassels, noting the local Habitat's interest in sorting out their differences coincided with their decision to go public, want no part of it.
"We tried for two years," Mrs. Wassel says, "and I don't trust them." DISCUSSIONS ... DECISIONS
The rehabilitation of 925 Maple was the sixth project undertaken by the local Habitat organization, which has put 26 partner families into homes since 1990.
As part of their agreement with the nonprofit organization, each Habitat family pays no interest on its mortgage but must contribute "sweat equity" by assisting with construction or rehabilitation of their home.
Habitat officials declined to take part in a full interview about the Wassel family.
Dr. Tansits Wenze, after the Habitat board's July 8 meeting, said she could speak only in general terms about the organization's relationship with the Wassels unless she talked with the family first. But she agreed to respond in writing on behalf of the board and executive director Robert "Ozzie" Quinn to specific issues raised by the Wassels.
Through all of its dealings with the Wassels, she says Habitat relied on experts to guide decisions, consistent with the mission and integrity of the organization.
"We had extensive, extensive discussions of what was in the best interests of the Wassels," says Dr. Tansits Wenze, a board member since 2001 and president since January. "We made the wisest decisions we could make at that time." Adds Mr. Quinn: "I feel I did everything physically and morally that a human being could do for that family." Joedy Isert, spokesman for Habitat for Humanity International in Americus, Ga., says each Habitat affiliate is an autonomous entity, and the parent organization prefers that affiliates handle cases like the Wassels' at the local level.
"From what I know of the case, they seem to be aware of the situation and are dealing with it appropriately," he says.
Mr. and Mrs. Wassel remember the 1997 spring day when they moved into their Habitat home. It was April 1 -- April Fools' Day. A day earlier, the worst snowstorm of the season had buried Scranton under 10 inches of snow.
"It was like someone was trying then to tell us something," says Mr. Wassel, 36, a repairman at Vac-Way Appliance & Service Inc. on Cedar Avenue.
Habitat purchased the small, one-story house from Citimae Inc. for $25,000 in January 1996. Dr. Tansits Wenze says Habitat's records do not reflect whether the vacant house was tested for mold, but adds, "We had no reason to believe there was a problem with the home." The Wassels, who'd applied to become a Habitat partner family in 1993, say the most obvious deficiency was standing water in the basement, which had a dirt floor. Habitat's construction manager assured them the project was doable.
Work on the house started March 23, 1996. A story the next day in The Sunday Times reported 40 volunteers turned out to help. The second paragraph also contained an ominously prescient line: "The odor of mildew was noticeable in the kitchen ... as long strips of wallpaper were torn from the walls." Habitat poured a concrete floor in the basement, but Mr. Wassel says the water problem persisted, even after they moved in. Habitat installed a sump pump and reluctantly agreed in 1998 to place rain gutters on the house, the Wassels say. The Wassels themselves later replaced an exterior basement door and built a retaining wall to divert runoff.
Water finally stopped coming into the basement, but the Wassels now had another, more pressing worry: Their children seemed to be incessantly, and often seriously, ill.
The Wassel children -- Billy, 16, Mathew, 15, and Cami, 13 -- have medical conditions their parents and their pediatrician concede are unrelated to the home at 925 Maple. All three are asthmatic, and Mathew and Cami have diabetes.
Dr. Tansits Wenze says the children were ill, and the family lived with mold, prior to partnering with Habitat. She cites a 1994 family selection committee report that notes the children "suffer from asthma due to the living situation in which they previously lived -- no central heating and lots of mold." Mrs. Wassel says her children had problems when the family lived in another house on Maple Street. The problems mostly disappeared, she says, when the family moved to an apartment on Pittston Avenue four years before moving into the Habitat house.
Mrs. Brennan, who took part in the initial interview with the Wassels at the residence where they lived before moving to Pittston Avenue, says she recollects a musty odor in the home but no visible mold.
By any measure, the Wassels say, the frequency and intensity of the children's illnesses increased dramatically after the family moved into the Habitat house, and have decreased -- though to a lesser degree -- since they moved out.
"After we moved in, it was constant sickness, but you know, we never considered it might be the house," says Mrs. Wassel, who turns 40 on Tuesday. "We just thought they were being hit with a ton of medical problems." She says there were infections, rashes and headaches; the children "were living on antibiotics." Their pediatrician, Dr. Anders Nelson, acknowledges his frustration in trying to keep the children healthy. The Chinchilla physician says the children were experiencing multiple recurring illnesses "really far in excess of what any child should have." "And it was all three of them," the doctor says.
TESTS CONFIRM MOLD
Dr. Nelson eventually asked the Wassels if they'd had the home tested for allergens. He argued the family needed to eliminate the house as a potential cause of the children's ailments.
"We were kind of in denial," Mr. Wassel says. "When he first suggested it, we sort of looked at him and said, 'No, no, that can't be it. It's silly.'" In November 2001, an inspection by Cocciardi and Associates Inc. of Mechanicsburg identified "the presence of visible molds in the basement and the recurrence of molds in the bathroom and kitchen areas," according to its report. An air sample collected in the hallway near the bathroom at the rear of the house found two types of fungi: amerospores and cladosporium.
On Dec. 10, 2001, at a cost to Habitat of $1,250, the company sanitized the house, including wiping visible mold areas in the basement and attic with a bleach solution.
It also collected another air sample, this time in a rear bedroom near the bathroom. Although the company's report describes the spore concentration as low, the air sample identified molds not found in the initial test: aspergillus/penicillium, curvularis and torula.
Other companies would later evaluate the house, including TechClean Industries of Charlotte, N.C., and Datom Products Inc. of Dunmore.
Hired by Habitat, TechClean confirmed the continued presence of mold in April 2002. The organization paid the company $7,080 to remediate the problem by applying a sealant to the affected areas.
Datom initially evaluated the home for Habitat in September 2002. Dr. Tansits Wenze says Datom estimated mold assessment and remediation would cost more than $18,000, which was judged prohibitive by Habitat.
"With each company contracted ... to assist in the mold remediation, each in succession suggested and requested more remediation than the previous company," she says.
In November 2002, the Wassels borrowed $3,500 to have Datom test the house on their behalf. In addition to molds identified in earlier tests, that evaluation found others, including stachybotrys in both airborne and surface samples.
"The samples collected clearly indicate a significant fungal problem in this house," Datom's report said, noting the allergens were "of a type capable of causing significant health effects." 'SOMETHING ON BREAD'
When the Wassels received a copy of the Cocciardi report in February 2002, they knew little about mold.
"We thought it was something you see on bread," Mrs. Wassel says.
Their re-education -- and a chain of events that would quickly unravel their lives -- began April 7, 2002. That day's Sunday Times carried a front-page story about the Gleason family of Moosic, who had lost their house and their health to mold. Among the molds found in the Gleason home was aspergillus/penicillium, one of the types identified in the Wassel home.
"Why didn't anybody tell us any of these were dangerous?" Mr. Wassel asks now. "It makes me mad that no one made us aware of the potential danger." As the Wassels read the Sunday paper, the phone rang. It was Mrs. Brennan, asking whether they had seen the Gleason story.
"I'm calling Ozzie right now," she said, referring to Mr. Quinn. "You are being exposed to the same things that made the people sick down there." Five days later, the Wassels left the Maple Street house. They never lived there again.
Mrs. Brennan says Habitat didn't ignore concerns about the Wassel children's health. But she believes no one in the organization initially realized the seriousness of the problem.
"It wasn't that Habitat wasn't doing some things," she says, specifically citing the work by Cocciardi. "But when that story came out, we all went to our computers and starting reading more about toxic mold." In the meantime, Mr. Wassel says the family, recognizing other parts of the house might be a problem, had basically settled into one room near the front of their home.
Dr. Tansits Wenze says Habitat had earlier suggested the family take up temporary quarters in a trailer on the property while it considered its options, but the family rejected the idea.
After the Gleason story appeared, and with Dr. Nelson advising the family to leave the house, Habitat agreed the Wassels should vacate. It offered to place them in a hotel, and the Wassels say they moved into Comfort Suites on April 12, 2002.
That same day, Dr. Tansits Wenze says, the Wassels and Habitat officials signed off on a handwritten agreement that said the organization "recognizes responsibility to re-house family if house is deemed uninhabitable." Mrs. Brennan recalls -- and Dr. Tansits Wenze agrees -- there was talk among Habitat officials around that time of razing the Maple Street home and replacing it with a new modular.
Mrs. Wassel says the family "would have been more than willing to accept that." But Dr. Tansits Wenze says Habitat's files do not reflect that the Wassels wanted the organization to pursue the modular home option.
"I don't know that they ever communicated that to us," she says. "Otherwise, we would have continued our exploration." Mrs. Brennan says she thought the situation was "moving along correctly," with Habitat following the lead of the doctors and moving the family out.
"It was at some point after that that things changed," she says. "It was a shock that the Wassels were effectively dropped from the program." 'TAKE IT OR LEAVE IT'
After three weeks in the hotel, the Wassels were notified Habitat would no longer pay for their lodging, they say. The family moved into a tiny apartment on the second floor of Mrs. Wassel's parents' home in the 700 block of Maple Street.
The Wassels say Habitat gave them two options: return to the Maple Street home, where TechClean had finished its remediation work, or build a new home in the Habitat subdivision on Meridian Avenue.
By this time, Mr. Wassel says, he and his wife were running everything past their children's doctors, who rejected both options.
In a letter to Mr. Quinn, Dr. Nelson said applying sealant to the mold -- rather than removing it -- would not eliminate the risk, and building on Meridian would expose the children to an active railway that could exacerbate their problems.
Dr. Tansits Wenze says the Wassels, in turning down the Meridian Avenue offer, told Habitat they did not wish to move into an "industrial area." But she says an environmental assessment of the Meridian site for Habitat in September 2000 found it complied with state air quality standards and noted there were no industrial sites nearby.
"It was basically to the point where they said, 'Take it or leave it,'" Mr. Wassel says of the two options offered to his family. "We were more concerned with our children's health, so we left it." Except for the clothing they'd taken to the hotel, all of the Wassels' belongings were still in the home. They say both Datom and their doctors advised against retrieving the items unless they were properly cleaned; even then there was no guarantee they would be mold-free.
"They said we'd be better off to leave the things there than take the chance," Mrs. Wassel said.
On Jan. 28, 2003, the Wassels say, Habitat padlocked the house. A few weeks later, a moving and storage company came and emptied it.
"Everything we accomplished -- it was just gone," Mr. Wassel says.
Mr. Quinn said the Wassels' belongings "were put in storage until December" and later "disposed of." He said some of the items were given "to people who wanted them." UNSIGNED MORTGAGE
The Wassels never signed a mortgage for the Maple Street home -- Habitat considered them tenants. That meant when the partnership fell apart, the family lost not only the home but the investments they made in it and the "sweat equity" they stopped tracking after 700 hours.
They say their original agreement with Habitat called for them to pay $40,000 for the property. That was later revised downward, and the family owed $22,500 as of June 1999, according a Habitat letter. Their monthly payments during the five years they lived there fluctuated between $152 and $183.
Dr. Tansits Wenze says all local Habitat families now hold the mortgages on their homes. She says a family can't move in until the closing is complete and they've signed off on a "punch list" during the final inspection.
But that wasn't the case when the Wassels moved into 925 Maple, and it wasn't the case in July 2002, when Habitat adopted its policy. At that time, it had seven families without signed mortgages, including one who had been waiting nine years to close on their home.
Mrs. Wassel says she had reservations about moving into the house in April 1997, mostly because it was unfinished and the water problem in the basement had not been resolved. By the time those were taken care of, Habitat was undergoing a leadership change, with Mr. Quinn coming aboard as executive director in January 2000.
Mr. Wassel says the family would ask about signing the mortgage every couple of months.
"One of the questions we always had was: Where's the paperwork? When are we going to sign?" he says. "And they'd said, 'Listen, our attorney works on a pro bono basis. He's backlogged. There's some red tape to be cleared up.'" In a letter related to a 2003 condemnation of the Maple Street property on file at City Hall, Mr. Quinn says the Wassels lived there as tenants because of "their refusal to close on the property." Both Mrs. Wassel and Mrs. Brennan say Mr. Quinn had made the same assertion during a conversation with an insurance adjuster who came to the house in early 2002. Mrs. Wassel says the adjuster asked why the homeowner's policy was in her and husband's names if they did not own the home.
"Mr. Quinn cut me off and said everything was not done when we moved in so we didn't want to sign the papers," she says.
Mrs. Brennan says she later questioned Mr. Quinn about the remark.
"He said he didn't know what else to tell the guy," she says. "He couldn't tell him it was our lawyers." Dr. Tansits Wenze says Habitat records indicate it made several attempts to close with the Wassels. Despite a punch list showing work "done" at the house, she says, board meeting minutes "referred repeatedly to more work completed and the desire to have the family close on the property." "We do not know," she says, "why the Wassel family did not respond to ... numerous attempts to close." Mrs. Brennan, who severed her ties with Habitat in July 2002 because she was being shut out of discussions about the Wassels, says the family did have concerns about unfinished work. But on the question of whether they refused to sign the mortgage, Mrs. Brennan is firm: "Absolutely untrue." LONG-TERM EFFECTS
With their immune systems weakened by long-term mold exposure, their doctors say the Wassel children face uncertain medical futures.
The three now take a total of 43 prescription medications daily, and 12 more on an as-needed basis. Those medicines fill a six-drawer plastic storage unit in a corner of the family's five-room apartment at Rear 726 Maple St.
The Wassels rely on medical assistance to pay for the medications and most, but not all, of the children's physician visits in Pennsylvania. Consultations with out-of-state specialists -- and the Wassels have seen several throughout the Northeast -- are paid for out of pocket.
Dr. Nelson, given written permission by the family to talk about their medical conditions, says the children suffer an exceptional gamut of health issues: severe asthma and allergies, recurring sinusitis and upper respiratory infections, irritable bowel syndrome, migraine headaches -- the list goes on and on.
He is not qualified to draw a cause-and-effect conclusion between the children's illnesses and the Habitat house, he says, but he has no doubt long-term mold exposure contributed to the severity of the problems.
"That kind of chronic grind to your immune system is going to cause some serious long-term consequences," he says.
Dr. John Santilli Jr. of Allergy Associates Inc., of Bridgeport, Conn., a recognized expert on mold-related illness who has treated the children, says their mold exposure made them susceptible to other, secondary conditions. He expects the effects to be long-term if not permanent -- a prognosis Dr. Nelson shares.
"I don't see them being very healthy people," Dr. Nelson says. "My gut sense is we are not going to see them get much better." INSULT TO INJURY
In 2003, the local Habitat placed the Maple Street property on the market, selling it in December for $54,000 to Martin Noll.
Dr. Tansits Wenze says Habitat made full disclosure of the potential for mold in the house. She says the buyer signed a release stating he had been informed mold was found on the premises "and that Habitat has removed the mold to (his) satisfaction." Mr. Noll says he knows about the Wassels' problems -- the family says it sent him a letter after learning about the sale -- but didn't want to discuss it further.
"I have had the house tested, and I'm satisfied with the results. I've lived here for seven months. ... I'm fine, and I believe the house is fine," he says.
The Wassels say the sale of the house was the last straw, an insult heaped upon injury. Since they launched their e-mail campaign, their story has been posted on at least two mold-related Web sites.
Despite their differences with the local Habitat, they say they still support the mission of the international organization. But they feel an obligation, they say, to make others -- including other Habitat affiliates -- aware of the dangers of mold.
"I never want to see anyone go through what my family went through, and what my children are still going through," Mrs. Wassel says.
"They can't give us back everything that's been taken away," she says of Habitat, "but we can try to stop it from happening to other people." dsingleton
Exactly right. I purposely leave the mold in our basement pretty much undisturbed beyond a little vacuuming now and then. I don't spray toxic chemicals all over it. Killing it off, I believe, might open the door to new growths than aren't so benign.
Glad your son is better, but we've had the reverse experience. One of my sons has asthma, but he developed it while we were living in a newer house with a finished, clean, dehumidified basement.
After we moved to the old house with the moldy basement, his asthma got better!
Your attitude is typical & I understand it but mold does make SOME people sick.
My husband & I had a weekend house that developed mold. Every night after sleeping in the house I would wake up with the most severe headache I had ever experienced, blinding in fact. Then I would have a upper respitory infection of some sort.
It took me about 6 months of spending an occasional night in the house & getting sick before I figured out what was wrong.
The mold was hidden in the walls & behind wallpaper so it was not obvious until the wall paper started peeling off.
I can't speak to the permanent damage that the children are said to suffer. My husband, who stayed every night in the house that I did, had no problems at all.
Consider yourselves lucky that you have not gone thru the problems this family has because for SOME of us, it is very real.
I don't know what kind of molds you have in Texas, but here in the humid northeast/mid-Atlantic area, pretty much all houses are susceptible to mold, as poster #20 notes. I believe most of the molds you find here are completely benign in the doses most people get.
Where you run into trouble with toxic molds, I suspect, is in these highly insulated, air-tight houses built since the oil crisis in the '70s (and in older houses remodeled to be "energy-efficient.")
Older houses that leak air like a sieve are healthier, if less energy-efficient.
I have two friends in disaster restoration - BOTH concede that a mold problem, when discovered, must be treated as though there is a fire in the house. It must be dealt with *quickly*. They are hired by insurance companies and go through all kinds of trainings as to the health effects of different molds - paid for by the insurance companies.
If mold were *not* a problem, do we think the insurance companies, the ones getting slammed financially, would have paid trainings on the ill effects of mold and how to remedy it? I don't think so. Not everyone gets sick from mold.
And yes, Pennsylvania is brutal for mold occurance. Not only because of climate, but because of georgraphy - at least out here in the western part of the state. There is little table-top property to build homes, and 9 times out of 10, there is a hill with offending gravity on one side of a house. This creates a water problem and possible mold problem. You can spray all the bleach water you want on mold, but if there continues to be a water problem, the mold will come back.
Did that mold come from peanuts??
Was Jimmy Carter working on the project?
There are many environmental factors that can cause problems. Is your summer home highly insulated? Vinyl sided? I.e., is there a lack of sufficient air flow? What about formaldehyde in the insulation, or in the carpeting or furnishings? Newer building products and materials, furnishings, and even household chemical cleaners, I suspect are probably more responsible for health problems than mold.
All of these things can cause health problems, particularly if their concentrations become high due to lack of fresh air exchange.
It's more likely all those drugs being given to them that are making them chronically ill.
You make the mistake of assuming that those insurance company policies are driven by hard science.
They are not. They are driven by junk science and its associated litigation industry.
Last year, mold ceased being covered by the typical homeowners insurance policy.
You don't hear any nightmare stories at all anymore. Mold....gone as quickly as it came.
Heheh. Fascinating how quickly that mold problem disappeared!
5 gallons of clorox, a scrub brush, and a couple of days of elbow grease and every member of my family suddenly was no longer sick.
No lawyers, no insurance and no unneccessary and outrageously expensive "mold remediation" needed.
Dr. Tansits Wenze says Habitat had earlier suggested the family take up temporary quarters in a trailer on the property while it considered its options, but the family rejected the idea.
They would not have anything to whine about if they had to get away from the mold.
mold - open the windows once in a while
We owned the house for 10 years with no problems. The A/C pans rusted thru & the leaks were hidden in the walls. By the time we discovered the problem it was severe. Just spraying some Clorox on the problem would not have solved it. Also the house was on Galveston Bay with high humidity all the time.
We had the mold tested & found we had at least 6 types of mold including toxic. We sold the house "as is" with a check from the insurance co. We considered tearing it down & building another but decided against it.
I repeat, SOME people are made VERY sick by the presence of mold. I could not spend ONE night in my house without getting sick. I shutter to think what would have happened to me if that had been my permanent residence.
Do not scoff at people who tell you mold makes them sick, just feel fortunate that you & yours aren't one of them. BTW if you ever try to sell your moldy house don't be surprized if you must take a loss.
Good to hear that. But I'm skeptical of killing off mold that doesn't seem to be causing any problems.
On the model of oral antibiotics killing off good intestinal flora --and opening the door to bad flora-- might killing off benign molds be a bad idea?
Also, mold will return unless dampness is permanently eliminated. This is a very expensive proposition, involving running dehumidifiers for 6-9 months of the year, depending on where you live.
I'd rather just leave the mold there rather than spend thousands on my electric bill. It's not making anybody in my house sick.
"The mold scare is junk science.
We live in a 111 year old house with plenty of "visible molds" in the ancient, unfinished basement.
None of the six in our family has been sick a day -- out of the eleven years we've lived in this gloriously moldy old house."
I agree, it's junk science. How the heck will anyone EVER prevent a "natural" occuring growth which inhabits the entire earth. Some people have serious sinus/allergy problems if you do it's not everybodies elses fault. These people should have made it known they were allergic to mold and given an alternative habitat home and screen a new family for allergies before moving them in. This latest mold sue craze is more litigation lawyers wet dreams since their asbestos meal ticket ran dry.
Heh. My house is worth well over double what I paid for it; and if anything, it was even moldier when I bought it, and scads of buyers got in a bidding war over it then.
People who value old houses are charmed by the basement with its hand-hewn beams and log pillars and aren't put off by a little mold.
And by the time I'm ready to sell, the mold scare fad will be long over.
I'm not scoffing at your health problems. I'm scoffing at the overhyped notion that mold is the big bad bugaboo that lawyers are making it out to be. And as I said earlier, correlation is not necessarily causation.
No good deed goes unpunished by lawyers. Filthy parasite class...
I agree that it is the trial lawyers who have made such a mess out of the mold problem. In the beginning they got huge settlements from the insurance co. That is pretty much over now. But mold is still here, making some of us extremely sick just like it always did.
Nah, just flood the basement with all the mercury all the other states are hysterical about.
Mercury used to be to kept mold and fungi from forming in certain products, like paint.
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