A talk with investigative journalist Arnold Mann about mold, environmental illness, and MCS
Published: October 12, 2011
I was struck when I opened this book for the first time by how much San Antonio is in it. You really got into this story [of environmental illness] with this group of employees from the Southwest Airlines ticketing center.
I was writing for Time Magazine. I suggested to my editor we do something on Sick Building Syndrome, which was barely on the radar at the time. It started out just a simple story. And then we went looking for a building in which people were sick and we found that San Antonio Southwest reservations center. We went in looking for respiratory problems and fatigue and what we found was quite shocking. We found seizures. We found strokes. And there was death in there, too. It was pretty serious stuff.
What did they eventually link this to? Reading your book it seems there was a lot of things wrong with that building. It was almost set up for a disaster.
They had very high levels of mold and bacteria in the air-handling units in the HVAC system that was servicing all four quadrants of the building — they had 600 employees working three shifts. Mold-infested ceiling tiles, the carpeting and the insulation. One of the big problems that was found was that the building was under negative pressure, it wasn’t getting enough fresh air in. And when you opened the door, some of the employees said it was like being sucked in. When a building is under negative pressure there’s a tendency to have condensation form on the inside walls, which is just a recipe for mold growth. When they peeled off the carpeting from the inside walls, the employees reported the walls were just covered with black mold. They were also spraying pesticides inside the air-handling system and around the employees themselves while they were working. So there were several toxic situations going on there.
Is the first time you had engaged in a story on environmental illness like this?
That was my baptism. It was indeed. Followed by three covers in USA Weekend on mold in homes, mold in schools, and mold in apartments buildings. I guess you could say I was Mr. Mold for about three years.
And where did that lead you? I saw a number of San Antonians in your book.
I did run into Dr. Claudia Miller. In fact, I first quoted her in the Time story. It was Dr. Claudia Miller who first opened my eyes to the bigger picture. In other words: Yes, toxic mold is a problem today because we seal up our buildings and there’s no place for toxics to go. If it gets wet and moldy in there it’s going to concentrate itself. But this is much more than toxic mold. Dr. Miller opened my eyes to the large number of toxic exposures in our living spaces today. They can be volatile organic compounds in a sick building; they can be pesticides sprayed in a sick building; it could be sarin, that the soldiers experienced in the Gulf War. And they’re producing the same type of disease syndrome, which is brand new, an entirely new disease process whereby an initiating exposure causes a person to become sensitive to or intolerant to things that would ordinarily not bother them, like perfumes and gasoline fumes, you name it. They’d develop these multiple-system symptoms — and we all know about them — chronic fatigue, fibromyalgia, chronic digestive problems, cognitive and memory impairment. Millions of people have these problems. But they don’t necessarily make the connection between the symptoms and what’s triggering them in the environment.
> Email Greg Harman