DISTINGUISHED epidemiologists Ed McMahon and Erin Brockovich have identified a new menace to America that the Department of Homeland Security has ignored, a fuzzy, slimy weapon of mass destruction that even now may be massing for attack on top of last week's eggplant parmesan.
"Her crusade against pollution became a Hollywood blockbuster," Dan Rather intoned on CBS's 48 Hours last year. "But now Erin Brockovich is fighting a threat in her own home."
It wasn't a dirty bomb, a terrorist cell or other attack.
Brockovich, the paralegal who inspired the Julia Roberts movie, believed that mold growing in her $1 million Los Angeles home gave her and her family headaches and other flu-like ailments.
Naturally, she sued.
So did Johnny Carson sidekick McMahon, who claimed that mold in his Beverly Hills manse sickened him and his wife and required the euthanizing of their dog, Muffin.
Brockovich settled with the builder of her house for an undisclosed amount. McMahon settled two months ago for $7.2 million.
Two more consumer victories? Maybe not.
Let's assume Brockovich, McMahon and their families were truly sick. There was no proof mold caused their problems.
Even if mold made them ill, it is debatable whether the builder and previous homeowner, in Brockovich's case, or an insurance company and cleaning contractor in McMahon's, were to blame. Even if they were - $7.2 million? For fungus?
California insurance customers are paying many millions of dollars to settle these and other dubious mold-related claims that started coming out of the woodwork in 2000.
Thanks largely to mold payouts, the cost of homeowner insurance in California rose between 15 percent and 20 percent last year vs. 8.8 percent for the nation, according to the Insurance Information Institute. In Texas, where mold hysteria hit even harder, premiums have risen by more than half since 2000.
Mold claims typically cost $30,000 or so vs. $3,000 or $4,000 for the average homeowners claim, the institute says.
Mold mania has not gripped Maryland yet. Fortunately, the administration of Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. has acted to keep it that way. Ehrlich's new insurance commissioner, Alfred W. Redmer Jr., reversed a ruling by his predecessor last week and ruled it was OK for Maryland insurers to exclude mold coverage from policies.
Redmer's decision was knocked as "anti-consumer," but that's true mainly if you're a consumer who likes subsidizing plaintiffs' lawyers or wants a lottery payoff for a common housekeeping challenge.
Dan Rather's 48 Hours show did a great job warning homeowners that "it seems there is no escape from the danger they can't even see." But it neglected to explain how the human race could evolve, invent the wheel and produce Who Wants to Be a Millionaire before it realized that mold insurance was one of life's necessities.
"A few years ago these claims were basically unheard of," says Robert P. Hartwig, chief economist at the Insurance Information Institute. "In 1999 you would have had to look pretty far and wide in the insurance industry to find somebody who had ever heard of mold as an insurance issue."
Mold is mentioned in the Old Testament's Leviticus, and Maryland Associate Insurance Commissioner Robert J. Becker brought a copy of the appropriate verses (Chapter 14) to a hearing on mold coverage last fall. "If we don't get answers from industry and interested parties, we may have to go to the Good Book," Becker told the assembly.
Mold fear is not based on pure fantasy. The Centers for Disease Control says indoor mold, which grows only in the presence of moisture, can cause allergic reactions and induce asthma in susceptible people; it discounts claims of pulmonary hemorrhage, memory loss and chronic fatigue. But pollen, perfume and peanuts cause allergies, too, and people don't submit property and casualty claims for them. The question before Redmer was whether Maryland should require insurers to pay millions of dollars for the mere presence of mold - which, after all, is largely preventable.
Maryland mold coverage is still available, but now homeowners have the option of excluding it from their policies and enjoying the savings.
If you're worried about mold, buy the coverage. If you don't have the coverage, don't let your house get wet. If your house gets wet, dry it out. If you get mold anyway, a cup of Clorox in a gallon of hot water is a good start.