A Spreading Home Health Hazard

48, hours, mold, killers, stocky CBS

If you want to visit Cleo and Thomas Birrenbach's luxury New York City apartment, proper attire - gloves, mask and an anti-contamination suit - is required. Their once sparkling high-rise home is now contaminated and deemed "uninhabitable."

The only thing currently living here is mold, reports CBS News Correspondent Jim Axelrod. Toxic mold.

"There is Aspergillus versicolor, there is Stachybotrys - and Stachybotrys is really the most dangerous one," said Cleo Birrenbach. "Everything we have is here – everything, our clothes. But they are all contaminated."

Flooding from a drain pipe and a sewage pipe spawned the mold growth, forcing the Birrenbachs to leave their home of 20 years. They claim the mold not only ruined them financially, but also physically.

"My husband is constantly dealing with headaches, bleeding of the nose, bleeding of the ear and we are getting ill" said Cleo Birrenbach.

The Birrenbach's aren't alone. Hundreds of cases of mold are reported a year.

"I probably get two calls a week on mold studies," said industrial hygienist Ed Olmstead.

From New York's penthouses to the California hills, mold doesn't discriminate. Hollywood celebrities including Erin Brockovich and Ed McMahon have filed lawsuits claiming mold infiltrated their homes and even made them sick.

Dr. Dorr Dearborn has been studying the toxic mold Stachybotrys and mold-related symptoms since 1993. He says an infection with Stachybotrys "is like having a bad cold that doesn't go away."

Dearborn first recognized there might be a connection when a number of infants with rare pulmonary hemorrhaging were admitted to his Cleveland Hospital.

"There were young infants who, in the process of having trouble breathing, were then coughing blood," he said.

All of these inner city children had one thing in common: their homes all tested positive for Stachybotrys.

"The only thing we were seeing was a lot of water damage in the homes,'' said Dr. Dearborn.

Of the 47 infants he studied, 16 died. Dearborn is confident a direct link between Stachybotrys and the illness he found in Ohio exists. But the Centers for Disease Control refused to back up his findings.

"There is a negative health impact of living in a mold environment," Dearborn explained. "But the details as to what the health effects are and how much mold it takes - that is what we don't know."

Dr. Dearborn advises anyone living in a mold-infested environment to make sure it is cleaned correctly. If not, you may have to do what one California couple did: donate their house to the local fire department for training.

"The only specific treatment is to stop the exposure and get out," said Dearborn.

But despite the advice, the Birrenbach's will continue to fight to get their apartment properly cleaned up. That cleanup began a year and a half ago.

  • David Hancock

    David Hancock is a home page editor for CBSNews.com.

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