Scary tale: Nightmare on N. Berkshire

Ken and Heidi Vanderford's horror story began August 3, the day they moved into their new house off Angus Road. A sudden storm caused a river to run through their downstairs, thanks to a collapsed storm drain installed by the developer 30 years ago.

The flood was bad enough– their insurance didn't cover the damage because they weren't in a floodplain. Then they found out the house has a history of flooding. Repairing the storm drain could cost $500,000, but the city will pay only 75 percent to fix it because it's on private property. The repair requires the cooperation of adjoining property owners. So far, two have not signed onto the project.

Just when they thought the situation couldn't get any worse, an air quality test revealed a new menace growing in their home: toxic mold.

"It's a death trap," says Ken Vanderford.

His plight was the subject of The Hook's August 28 cover story. As with the rest of this tale, there are no easy answers. In fact, the whole topic is controversial.

Earlier this year, a Texas family won a $32 million judgment against Farmers Insurance because a jury decided the firm dragged its feet on fixing a small water leak and then in remediating the stachybotrys mold that spread through Melinda Ballard and Ron Allison's 22-room house, allegedly infecting them and their son.

In 2002, Rep. John Conyers introduced the Toxic Mold Safety and Protection Act to research, educate, and establish standards for removing mold.

"The problem is there are no standards set," says Larry Sambrook, director of Airflow Diagnostics Institute, and who tested the Vanderfords' house. "Mold is ubiquitous. We walk around in a cloud of mold we take with us."

Sambrook found a stachybotyis level of 2,933 per cubic meter in the master bedroom, and an aspergillius reading over 4,000 per cubic meter. What's considered safe? "The acceptable limits of stachybotris are zero," says Sambrook. And for aspergillius, "I want to keep the levels very low."

"There's no definition of high levels," says UVA's allergy expert Dr. Thomas Platts-Mills. "When you try to pin us down in the scientific community, we all turn to jelly."

Platts-Mills' colleague, Dr. Larry Borish, is a toxic mold skeptic. "Oh brother," he says. "There's no such thing."

He contends that to have a dose large enough to harm humans, "You'd have to swim in it."

Toxic mold has spawned a billion-dollar industry that's "out of control" and based on "really crappy science," says Borish. "What is true is that high levels are irritating to the respiratory tract."

As for the levels found in the Vanderford house, he declines to comment. "I don't want to give a medical opinion on people I haven't seen."

Sambrook advised the Vanderfords to see a doctor. Ken Vanderford says his wife is suffering from headaches and fatigue. As for him, "I'm always tired, so I can't tell."

Roy Crewz is the epidemiologist for the Thomas Jefferson Health District. "Some people are extremely sensitive to even low levels of stachybotris," he says, especially those with asthma and allergies. And he notes the problem of determining whether people are affected by mold alone– or other factors.

"I try to get people to eliminate the stachybotris by eliminating the water problem," he adds.

That takes Ken Vanderford back to the problem he's been trying to solve since August: how to get the storm drain repaired so that it doesn't keep flooding his house.

City director of planning Jim Tolbert says they're still working on getting neighbors to cooperate with funding for the new drain– and alternatives if they don't.

And does the city ever condemn properties for mold problems? "If we had a health inspector say it was uninhabitable," says Jerry Tomlin, building maintenance code official, "we'd send a notice to the owner to remove it. And if it's not done, we could condemn it as a health hazard."

That doesn't help Vanderford much, because he is the owner of the property, and he's just given the tenants in his duplex notice of eviction because he's worried about the health hazard for the couple's new baby. Air quality tests showed no stachybotris, but the aspergillius in their side of the house, he says, is "off the charts."

"The kind of mold on their side affects those with a weakened immune system– like their new baby," says Vanderford.

Cleaning up stachybotris can be an expensive process. "We've got a case now cleaning up a basement that costs $36,000," says Bill Monthaven, office manager at Servpro of Albemarle. Both sheetrock and insulation must be removed by workers wearing respirators and protective suits, and then the contaminated materials must be bagged up.

Because of the mold, the Vanderfords' mortgage company has put their loan in forebearance, which puts their payments on hold, and they've sealed off their downstairs where the mold levels are highest.

While experts may disagree how serious the problem is, Ken and Heidi Vanderford aren't taking any chances: They moved into a rental house over the weekend.

Ken and Heidi Vanderford's house of horrors