Toxic trouble at Henness Flats?
TRUCKEE ” On Labor Day weekend in 2008, Tracy Penner felt a scratch in the back of her throat, one of those incurable itches, like a feather on an earlobe.
Penner, a Truckee resident who practices in-home care, thought the scratch was just a side effect of eating fish she had caught and filleted herself. An experienced angler, Penner had cut the filets like she had a dozen times before. Except this time, she messed up. She accidentally allowed some of the smaller bones into the meat which, other than being a nuisance, did not ruin her dinner.
The mother of two figured she had a small fish bone lodged in her esophagus.
“It felt like an oversized popcorn kernel,” she explained, but she assumed a good night’s sleep might just solve the problem.
It didn’t. She woke up the next morning with a sore throat, and the popcorn kernel had grown into a golf ball. Penner, a mother of two, checked into the emergency room, where they prescribed what she already tried ” a half bagel and some Coke.
She left, hoping it would go away. Ten days later, still feeling the fish bone in the back of her throat, she returned to the emergency room. There, they gave her a numbing agent, but that didn’t solve the problem. Doctors, unsure of what was causing the itch, scheduled an endioscopy, where they could take pictures inside her throat.
“That’s when it all changed,” Penner said. “The pathologist found a lot of fungal organisms growing from my stomach through my throat.”
Penner believes the illness was triggered by a few months spent living at Henness Flats in Truckee, where residents, a mold expert and an attorney are convinced the living conditions have contributed to a number of sicknesses and possibly a death, something building managers refute.
In December, Truckee attorney Mary Marsh-Linde sat at her kitchen table and thumbed through piles of paperwork bound in manilla folders and rubber bands. Her home is where she spends a lot of her time, and why not. For one, it’s warm.
For another, it’s where she runs her law practice, what she calls, “The extension of my days as a hippy at Berkeley.”
With an excited dog yipping in the corner of her living room, she dropped a paper pile on the table with a thud, then another, then another, before saying in the voice of an overwhelmed mother, “There’s so much more.”
Tracy Penner’s files are just a small fraction of the paperwork inside Marsh-Linde’s folders. The collection started last spring when a baby died at Henness Flats, and continued over the summer when residents began to suspect the death was more than just an anomaly.
Another mother lost her baby just two weeks before the due date. One resident began to have seizures. Another began having chronic headaches and nose bleeds. Two unrelated high-school students checked into the emergency room with unusual u-shaped pains across their stomachs. Another high school student complained of stomach pain, and doctors found fungus-like growths on his stomach and throat.
According to the Tahoe Forest Hospital System, a list of emergency room diagnosis between March and October from residents at the housing complex runs two pages in length, and describes maladies ranging from nausea to stomach pain to nose bleeds to chronic fatigue.
In order to see if living conditions could be linked to health concerns, Marsh-Linde brought in expert Jack Goshow, who works on mold and other home contamination issues in Nevada County. Goshow found high levels of mold throughout the units, and little to no barriers between humid areas like crawl spaces and where tenants slept.
“These were certainly health hazards,” Goshow said. “They were filthy. We found toxic mold in three of the 11 units we tested, and found elevated airborne levels in seven.”
Those conditions led Goshow and Marsh-Linde to report their findings to the Nevada County Environmental Health Department, which decided against any large-scale clean-up because Environmental Health Director Wesley Nicks was advised that there were no alarming levels.
“We took this very seriously,” Nicks said. “We lined up experts at the state level to listen to these concerns, and again they came back and told us the levels they found would usually not be harmful.”
That’s what has Goshow and Marsh-Linde so upset. “It’s not about most people,” Goshow said. “It might not affect you and me. I was in the crawl space crawling around for two to three hours, but I’m healthy, and I eat right. I don’t have any diseases that compromise the immune system, but people who do could be impacted. … It might not affect everybody, and in most cases, it doesn’t.”
As Goshow hinted, many of the former or current Henness Flats residents who have complained about ongoing health defects have other, more serious ongoing health issues. One example was a resident who credits a recent pattern of seizures to living in the units, but admits her brother died of seizures when she was a child. Penner’s case is no exception.
And Clay McReynolds, speaking on behalf of the owners, Cambridge West Communities, said there is no evidence to prove that any of the illnesses were related to the living conditions at Henness Flats.
“Is there a problem?” McReynolds said. “The answer has been no. That is not to say that closes the book, but any new allegations will be investigated the way former ones were. We take the safety of our residents very seriously and that will continue to be the case.”
Last spring, Penner sat in the emergency room, unable to stop the nausea and breathing difficulties that had been plaguing her for weeks. But this time was different.
This was months before the fish bone, before the mold, but she could tell something was not right. Her breath stank. She was always tired. And now, she could barely get out of bed.
Then, her youngest son began wandering away from school, and teachers sent notes home telling her he couldn’t remember anything.
“That’s when I knew I had to move out of there,” she said. Penner did move out in April 2008, despite paying through June. “When I left to go to work for two or three days, I always felt immediately better. I began to wonder about where I lived.”
Before she had moved out, she ran into a neighbor after returning from work. Her neighbor, Cambria Smith, asked her if she had been feeling OK. It was a leading question.
“It turns out, Cambria had been sick, getting nosebleeds and having stomach problems too,” Penner said. “Cambria told me about formaldehyde.”
As they researched the toxic effect of formaldehyde, they learned two important facts:
1) They lived in pre-built units, which traditional use materials that leaked chemicals that could cause cancer or birth defects, although the property owners say that all materials passed state regulations; and 2) Formaldehyde poisoning causes symptoms exactly like they were experiencing.
For Smith, one of the first residents to move into Henness Flats in September 2006, it became a mission. She contacted state and local agencies, and even testified at an eviction trial for another resident that she felt the units were inhospitable. A Sierra Club representative working on formaldehyde poisoning cases in FEMA trailers used for Katrina victims supplied kits for air testing, and when the tests showed very high levels in Tracy Penner’s unit, they became alarmed.
“We did find a lower level in Henness units than in FEMA trailers,” said Becky Gillette, National Formaldehyde Campaign Director for Sierra Club in Eureka Springs, Ark.
“What we found was just an unusual amount of illness in a small population of people. Something was going on.”
Smith then took the issue to the Henness Flats neighborhood, holding a meeting she videotaped that showed a number of concerned residents. Shortly after, the building’s management sent a note to all the residents assuring them that they, and the Nevada County Environmental Health Department, had monitored independent tests done by the property owners. Those tests discovered unalarming levels, and they concluded there was not a widespread health concern.
The management company did send residents a question and answer sheet regarding reports of the toxic air.
On that sheet, they admitted that building materials could produce formaldehyde, but after testing 14 units, they only found low levels. They also provided tips residents could use to help ventilate their units.
They also noted the levels discovered by Sierra Club were “screening levels,” and said those tests found levels found in “most any single-family home throughout California and are well within levels acceptable to the Environmental Protection Agency and the California Air Resources Board.”
To Marsh-Linde, the fact that officials are denying any health issue with Henness Flats is unbearable. Spending thousands of her own dollars, she took on the pro-bono cases of two residents who had been evicted from Henness Flats and became homeless. Since then, Marsh-Linde has found very little traction in the courts or public health departments.
With Marsh-Linde’s ear in full attention, more residents stepped forward. They complained about strong smells of formaldehyde, a known carcinogen, and of toxic molds growing in crawl spaces, beneath the carpet and, in some cases, through the paint in the walls.
The homes, above average in size for public housing and which won national awards for design in 2007, were constructed in Boise, Idaho, in 2007, shipped in the fall and stored all winter in a plastic seal. According to professional mold investigator Jack Goshow, the stored homes became saturated with condensation and provided an ideal habitat for mold to flourish.
Yet in an independent survey of two dozen residents living in the units done by the Sierra Sun, all of them said they thought Henness Flats was a good place to live, and three-quarters of the residents said they would be extending their lease.
“I did extend my lease,” said Henness Flats resident Kelly Coire, who has lived there since September 2007, and said building management had helped her with any issues she had faced. “I feel that our community, being how it is set up with a lot of seasonal workers and housing and real estate pricing, affordable housing is extremely valuable to our community.”
Marsh-Linde said she recognized not all the residents were experiencing issues.
“It’s just in three of the buildings, from what I can tell,” said Marsh-Linde. “But even if it was one unit, should we not do anything about it? It’s pretty clear we have a problem that nobody wants to care about.”
Goshow, who spent years dodging threats during the asbestos-removal craze of the 80s, has spent hours and thousands of his company’s dollars looking into the units, testing the air samples, and providing data to Marsh-Linde and the Nevada County Environmental Health Department.
When describing what he has seen in these units, he said his job is not to hand out blame, but just to tell the residents what he found in their carpet, crawl spaces and air conditioner filters. Like Marsh-Linde, he is donating his time, and again like the attorney, he said he has not seen anything like this in his three decades of work.
“I don’t care how well these units were sealed,” Goshow explained, like he has to hundreds of homeowners, rich and poor, through the years. “They’re going to get wet. They had traveled so far and came here, where we get 400 inches of snow a year. When (Mary) explained the history of the property, just based on the symptoms, and she told me there were things sitting still all winter, I knew there could be toxic mold.”
His instincts proved correct. A dozen air quality tests ordered by Goshow and performed by an independent testing lab in Reno have proved that.
While some mold is normal in almost every kitchen floor and carpet sample, in the bedroom where one of the babies died, reports showed “extremely high levels” of mold, including penicillium, stachybochys and aspergillus, which can cause severe and invasive infections in respiratory symptoms, especially among babies.
Stachybochys (pron. sta-chew-bawk-us) has proven to cause brain damage in babies, according to a number of independent studies.
Autopsies performed by Nevada County showed that the baby died due to Sudden Infant Death Syndrome. Marsh-Linde said she has consulted with the baby’s family, who she said were torn on the issue of testing the baby further. She admits exhuming the baby could be a futile act and injure the family even more.
In fact, due to the immature science involving toxic molds, very little can be proven. Tests done by Cambridge West Communities, the building owners, showed only citrus mold, which is caused by old trash and rotting fruit, something the property management group said would have been caused by the tenants.
“In medicine, if it walks like a duck, looks like a duck and swims like a duck, we need to see about 40 years worth of ducks to determine if it really is a duck,” said Dr. Ed Heneveld, an emergency room physician at Tahoe Forest Health System in Truckee.
A 30-year veteran of medicine, Heneveld said the only word to describe the relationship between mold and negative health effects is “Maybe,” and compares the science of formaldehyde and mold poisoning to that of cigarette smoking in the 1950s, when those outside the tobacco industry were just beginning to detect a negative health pattern.
“It’s wishy-washy in a way, but I am a scientist. When I read these mold reports, and I look at the toxic effects of mold, these people are not crazy,” said Heneveld, who went as far as to write a doctor’s note telling one resident she needed to move out of her home. “They’re not trying to make up symptoms. They are not trying to make up stories. I have talked with some of the residents, and I encouraged those people to pursue those concerns.”
In June, health officials tested the units for formaldehyde poisoning and found high levels in some, nearly zero in others.
But the testing was in vain if the hope was to spur a large-scale response, said Heneveld, because there is no formal baseline for formaldehyde or mold, meaning even if they found “huge amounts,” there would be no requisite to respond.
“The reports said that the levels were high, but even that’s inaccurate to me,” Dr. Heneveld said. “There is no normal, so how can it be high?”
The Environmental Protection Agency offers guidelines, but nothing that would stand up in court. Take one formaldehyde exposure for example:
In Tracy Penner’s apartment, health officials found an average of 0.075 parts per million, and Sierra Club tests measured it at .177 ppm, both of which were hundreds of times more exposure than the EPA recommendations of .008.
The California Air Resources Board, which plans to elevate formaldehyde alerts in 2012, goes a step farther, stating in a report that formaldehyde has “no safe level of exposure.”
Mold regulations are even more vague. The EPA and OSHA have standards for work environments, but nothing for rental units. In 2001, California passed the Toxic Mold Protection Act, which is far less useful than its title sounds, but it does acknowledge that some mold can be toxic. The Act asked for the creation of an independent commission to investigate and set baselines. Yet, in 2005, the independent commission reached a dead end.
For one, the commission’s report said, they state’s budget crunch kept them from doing the necessary lab samples, and for another, it would be unethical to put human subjects into controlled mold experiments to see what effects toxic mold could cause.
In turn, no baseline was ever set, and weak language was written into the act mandating that building owners only disclose toxic mold issues to “unaffected parties.”
There are other problems that could lead officials to doubt that mold, or formaldehyde, is the cause of the maladies from which tenants are suffering. Many afflicted residents admitted to suffering from depression, which is consistent with the Environmental Protection Agency’s research in the 1970s that led to the term, “Sick Building Syndrome.”
This ailment, which can be identified through common symptoms found among people when they are in a building, supports dozens of theories that factors like humidity, other air contaminants like car exhaust that are not related to the building, poor lighting, temperature extremes and noise can cause both individual and group effects.
Another EPA study reported two-thirds of tenants complaining about air quality had cases of clinical depression or anxiety disorders, which doctors determined to be heightened by community gossip or news reports about pollutants like smog, formaldehyde, ozone depletion and asbestos.
Marsh-Linde acknowledges the difficulties in having to trust her clients are telling the truth. The pure number of similar stories and lack of appropriate reaction, she explains, has her believing in a cover up.
“We aren’t getting any other support, from doctors or the town or the health department,” she said. “Nobody seems to want to listen to these people, because they’re poor, and everyone wants to be proud that we’re finally building affordable housing.”
Town officials dismiss the criticism, citing the Nevada County health reports that showed little need for concern. The Town and County have both said, however, that if credible evidence exists to prove the units are uninhabitable, then they would react.
To Jack Goshow, the mold expert, that evidence exists. And Dr. Heneveld agrees that something isn’t right, but says the community must be careful to overreact to a problem that is not supported by science or case studies.
To explain, he gets technical for a minute. He says science rarely proves absolutes in mold cases, citing a 1993 case where, depending on the reports, children in Cleveland were thought to have died from “black mold poisoning,” but little was proven by the Center for Disease Control.
With only a handful of similar cases, the medical community cannot make the definitive leap that “A causes B,” Dr. Heneveld said.
Further complicating the matter in Truckee, the patients from Henness Flats are suffering from a variety of symptoms. Some are showing up at the emergency room with neurological symptoms, while others are complaining about respiratory symptoms.
Less than a mile away from Marsh-Linde’s home, an apartment sits vacant. Sharon Burton and her three sons moved out in December with the help of fellow residents Maggie Deto and her son, the high school student with similar fungal growths on his stomach. On moving day, as Sharon swept up the kitchen, her three sons carried a large storage dresser out to the lawn where a neighbor, Margaret Deto, parked a borrowed pick-up truck on the curb.
Sharon refused to take a stack of mattresses, a magazine cover and a few magnets on the refrigerator. But Sharon and Margaret see more than just that. They left their home ” now Sharon lives in and out of area hotels, and Maggie lives in a borrowed RV in a church parking lot.
Meanwhile, Tracy Penner has found a new home, but is worried about a $4,000 bill she received to pay for back rent. Cambria Smith has a new home, and through state services and a generous court decision, she has but a $200 bill to the Henness Flats managers. Sharon and Margaret were also sued for thousands after they left the units, but a recent court decision significantly cut what they owed ” still in the thousands of dollars, which includes attorney fees for those representing the builders and property managers.
All this puts Mary Marsh-Linde in a pickle, as she tries to bring inhability claims in eviction hearings. Simply put, she explains, the California Health and Safety Code and national health department statutes are strict on homeowners but lax on landlords.
With no illegal activities uncovered from Marsh-Linde’s investigation, and no law stating air quality standards for rental units regarding formaldehyde or mold, little can be done to recover money or time the residents say they lost due to illness.
“(The residents) need all the help they can get just to find a home, not to mention to make things right with their evictions,” Marsh-Linde said. “They will stay homeless until they find someone credible enough to vouch for them.”
Ultimately, whether there is a relationship between the findings of toxic mold and elevated formaldehyde levels at Henness Flats and the illnesses of former residents, or if the “Sick Building Syndrome” paranoia triggered symptoms that could be related to inhospitable air quality, the fear is enough to get a doctor’s recommendation.
“If you think your building is toxic, then you should move out,” Dr. Heneveld said. “I’m happy writing a note saying you should move out of your building. You’re living in stress. If you’re fearful, even if it’s not toxic, it’s going to be what you think about all the time.”
But to attorney Mary Marsh-Linde, the fight continues. She hopes to have an outside clinic study the fungal growths in Cambria Smith, Tracy Penner and the high school student, and if they come back as the same strain, it could lead to a tort case that could hold builders, property managers and even doctors accountable.
In the meantime, she just wants someone locally to listen and take the cases seriously.
“I talked with the toxicologists at UC Davis, and he told me that he didn’t care to know what caused the illnesses,” Marsh-Linde said. “He believes that the fact there’s an isolated population suffering from something the general population isn’t suffering from, then it shows the problem is with the building. That is also what I believe.”
The Sierra Sun spent more than five weeks interviewing nearly 40 residents, attorneys, town representatives, county officials, and air contaminant experts in hopes of finding out if Henness Flats has a widespread air quality problem.
While we found several cases of illnesses that were nearly identical, and hundreds of pages of evidence of mold and formaldehyde contamination, very few local medical or environmental health professionals are willing to say living conditions were the cause.
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