Part 3A: She was homeless, so cops and Child Protective Services took her kids, then stachybotrys mold, the silent killer, sickened them on toxic Treasure Island
by Carol Harvey
Liz Washington’s hand covered her phone. Through her next muffled choke, she blurted, “I have bad coughing fits.”
Even laughing briefly touches off five minutes of chest-wrenching spasms.
“It started as a sore throat when I was working back in July.” It continues three months later.
“I’ve never had it (the cough) this long.”
Her doctor diagnosed temporary acute bronchitis, curable with meds and an inhaler.
Liz and Sandra, her 25-year-old daughter, reported that, over the 15 years since moving to Treasure Island, all five family members developed “the TI cough,” well-known among islanders – sinus congestion, runny nose, shortness of breath, wheezing, constant colds and chronic coughing spells, even full blown asthma.
Sandy’s older brother, Kenny, a non-smoker, suffered hacking coughs audible throughout the house. She worried he would “cough up a lung.”
Since moving to New York, “Kenny hasn’t coughed a bit,” reported Sandy.
What do you think caused it?
“I guess it would be the mold.”
Moldy Treasure Island buildings: Respiratory pandemic
Since 2000, when the family moved to the island, everyone has been plagued by mild to severe respiratory and gastrointestinal problems that they believe are caused by island pollution. These illnesses, however, have given Child Protective Services a pretext for repeatedly taking Liz’ children and placing them in foster care, accusing this devoted mother of dereliction in her child-rearing.
Liz and Sandy associate their breathing problems with 15 years of exposure to mold spores and invisible asbestos fibers riding Treasure Island’s high winds.
Some molds are not as benign as the green fuzz on bread and cheese. Mold plays an important environmental role in obtaining nutrition from the breakdown and decay of plant material. However, that decay can produce byproducts called mycotoxins, poisonous wastes dangerous to humans.
Mold can cause heart attacks and brain damage. Deaths have been attributed to black mold. Click this link for a list of negative health effects brought to humans courtesy of mold.
Sea level Bay moisture provides the perfect medium for black mold growth. A bus trip through the neighborhoods reveals smoky fungus patches coating most building facades.
Mold spores slip inside homes through windows, cracks and crevices or ride in on shoes, clothing and pets. Thick clumps of black mold and asbestos saturate insulation and envelop pipes inside homes the U.S. Navy constructed for Navy families on its Treasure Island base.
All materials listed here by the Centers for Disease Control are present in Treasure Island structures.
“When mold spores drop on places where there is excessive moisture, such as where leakage may have occurred in roofs, pipes, walls, plant pots, or where there has been flooding, they will grow. Many building materials provide suitable nutrients that encourage mold growth. Wet cellulose materials, including paper and paper products, cardboard, ceiling tiles, wood, and wood products, are particularly conducive for the growth of some molds. Other materials such as dust, paints, wallpaper, insulation materials, drywall, carpet, fabric, and upholstery, commonly support mold growth.”
The CDC warns specifically against the dangerous greenish black mold, Stachybotrys, which “can grow on material … such as fiberboard, gypsum board, paper, dust, and lint. Growth occurs when there is moisture from water damage, excessive humidity, water leaks, condensation, water infiltration, or flooding. Constant moisture is required for its growth.”
However, “All molds should be treated the same with respect to potential health risks and removal.”
Moldy elementary school
Dedicated moms reported breathing difficulties following exposure to mold and asbestos at Treasure Island elementary school where Liz’ middle children – her daughter and son – were enrolled until the 2005 closure. Liz recalled, “They shut the school saying it was mold and asbestos up in there. Before then, it didn’t even dawn on me. But my nose was hypersensitive. You could smell the mold. You could see it on the ceiling.”
Though residents speculate the school closed because of proximity to dangerous radiation and chemicals in the Navy’s former solid waste disposal area, Site 31, under the schoolyard, officials simply ignore the mold and asbestos health risk posed to families in that school. The Navy tosses responsibility back to island management, Treasure Island Development Authority (TIDA).
Four years ago, Sandy’s youngest brother was diagnosed with asthma accompanied by vomiting.
Asked if being born on the island was a factor, Sandy replied, “This is a former Naval base. Who knows what they were doing here?”
“What is it like for him?” I asked.
“He runs out of breath faster.” Most kids his age want to run around, ride bikes, play basketball. “I think it’s pretty sad. He shouldn’t have to worry about whether he’ll be out of breath,” she sighed.
Sandy noted that asthma attacks can be triggered by dust and mold blowing constantly throughout the island.
“How is it for you?” I asked.
“Hm-m.” she mused. “I sometimes have coughing fits, but not as much as Kenny.”
She described annoying dry and wet coughs lasting weeks to months.
“It lessens when I’m off the island. Like when I’m in San Francisco, I feel more active, good in general. Less tired. I can breathe better.”
Even on the short trip to San Francisco?
With one notable exception.
“Me and mom were walking along Market to the check cashing place between Seventh and Eighth “near that big movie theater that druggies frequent. There was this weird smell of smoke. I started coughing like crazy. It was a really bad (cough) because it lasted like a month or two.”
Were they tarring the street? Was it auto exhaust? A smoker passing?
“No. It smelled like a cross between bad weed smoke and a yucky chemical skunk kinda smell.”
Why did it trigger your cough for several months?
She thought a minute. “I would say it would have to do with being affected by the chemicals all the time (or) all that really yucky air whenever the pipes act up.”
On July 1, 2015, Liz and Sandy led me to a park two blocks southeast from their Avenue B townhouse. Across a swathe of greenish-brown drought stubble, San Francisco’s skyscrapers were blanketed in fog.
“I’m showing you a spot where the smell comes from,” said Liz.
We turned right from Avenue B and continued east to a left turn in the path across Ninth Street from the Starburst Barracks.
Sure enough, there it was – a grate in a grassy depression.
Liz noticed that at certain times when she passes this drain, a fetid stink rises from underground sewer pipes and hangs for days over the park’s northeast corner. “It’s been happening there frequently for at least 10 years,” said Liz.
When the drain smell appears, “Absolutely nothing is done. Nobody comes over here, investigates or fixes it.”
The stench rising above this drain tells Liz that her toilets are about to “get stuffed” and overflow. It’s a suspicious circular pattern. “Whenever the smell at the park happens, our toilets back up really bad, and whenever the toilets back up really bad, there is that smell at the park,” she said. “It’s all connected.”
On flushing, Liz’ three toilets “act up.” The contents either refuse to disappear down the pipe or get trapped in the bowl, causing malodorous brown water to flood Liz’ floors. This bacteria-laden fluid seeps through the ceilings and an upstairs bathroom vent into her kitchen and dining room. Then, dormant airborne spores sprout fuzzy mold on her dampened ceilings and walls.
Liz believes mold inhalation causes her children’s respiratory problems, and that drinking polluted water is the source of her two youngest sons’ acute gastrointestinal disease.
John Stewart, The Villages: Operation Mold Cleanup
Liz noted that, instead of accepting the responsibility to abate mold (and asbestos) according to state landlord-tenant habitability laws, The Villages levies boilerplate accusations that islanders are bad housekeepers.
On Aug. 27, 2014, Treasure Island residents received a letter from The John Stewart Co. property manager, Dan Stone, addressing mold issues in their units.
“Dear Treasure Island household: We are writing to inform you of … the results of the moisture evaluation of your unit recently conducted by The Villages at Treasure Island.”
(It is significant that the letter emphasized the survey was for “moisture,” not mold. Was the avoidance of the word “mold” a thinly veiled attempt to dodge liability?)
“All interior areas were inspected and were assigned a numerical value based on the observed conditions. The possible numerical values are:
“0 – No Action Needed
“1 – Tenant housekeeping needed
“2 – Minor maintenance required by The Villages
“3 – Maintenance required by The Villages
“The observed moisture condition of your unit is:
“1 – Tenant housekeeping needed. Please keep your unit according to terms set forth in the lease.”
“It’s like, ‘Sweetheart,’” said Liz, “’there’s been mold up in this place even before we moved here.’”
“I’m not the most perfect housekeeper in this world,” she told me. “I do go to work, and I do have kids. But to sit up there and put that in this letter? C’mon!”
San Francisco Department of Public Health
In 2012, about four years ago, after Liz’ youngest son was diagnosed with asthma, she consulted the Public Health nurse at the Island’s clinic. “She told me a lot of families on Treasure Island request (mold testing) for their kids because they all had asthma symptoms.”
The nurse arranged a visit from a San Francisco Department of Public Health employee. He verified mold presence.
‘Spray it with bleach, wipe it, and that should take care of it,’ he advised. Odd that a Health Department official would offer such recommendations.
Liz’ research revealed that spraying aerosolized poison onto mold spreads spores without permanently killing them.
“And, why would I use bleach when my son has asthma?” Liz asked.
“There have been times over the years that my toilet would mysteriously clog up, and even though there was nothing stuck in it, the water would just keep overflowing and overflowing.”
Liz believes these repeated toilet deluges through an upstairs bathroom vent provides the major moisture source for mold growth in her first floor kitchen and dining room. But, she also counted at least 10 floods in the downstairs bathroom. Maintenance replaced two toilets.
After Liz mops up the spillage herself, men appear and shut off the toilet valve.
“They bring a big old fan,” to dry out the walls and floor.
After they turn the water back on, everything is fine for a while.
Flooding happens often enough for moisture levels to rise. Then, inevitably, mold reappears in Liz’ house.
Sandy reported yellow spots dotting the upstairs bathroom ceiling and Liz’ and her two youngest sons’ bedroom ceilings. The caramel color differentiates this mold from dirt.
Liz phoned John Stewart’s Treasure Island property management and set a Thursday, March 5, 2015, appointment for a mold inspection. She wanted to be present when she wasn’t working.
Maintenance staffer Sarad arrived on the appointed day.
A mass of dark mold grew thick on wood in the wall space just inside a vent near the floor behind the front door. Screwing off the vent cover and placing her camera inside the wall, Liz photographed the mold.
During his maintenance visit, Sarad reached inside and scratched this fuzzy cluster. “We’ll clean and paint over this bit of mold.” Did he understand he was releasing spores which then traveled inside wall spaces to every room in the house?
On Monday, March 9, five days after the appointed date, Sashir, the maintenance supervisor, materialized while Liz was out. He tapped on the front door. Before Liz’ daughter Sandy could open it, Sashir inserted his master key and stepped in, committing illegal entry.
Sandy led him upstairs to inspect the yellow spots on the ceiling in the bathroom next to her room.
He said nonchalantly, “Oh, that’s yellow dirt, or oil. We’ll paint over it.”
“We can’t touch the ceiling,” laughed Sandy. “I don’t know how yellow dirt could get up there.”
She ushered Sashir downstairs into the living room to the mold spots that formed after the upstairs toilets overflowed into the lower rooms through a vent. This cluster grew in a corner near the entrance to the formal dining room low down on the wall at the baseboard. “It looked like a black fuzzy water stain,” roughly four inches square.
Villages maintenance cleans mold patches and covers them with paint. Before they arrive, Liz photographs everything and saves her documentation.
Mold returns with a vengeance
On Monday, Sept. 7, 2015, Liz shot two photos of mold regrowth in her upstairs bedroom flourishing on the wall at the baseboard.
Slathering mold with paint is standard John Stewart mold remediation. But, because mold grows inside townhouse crawl spaces, in every Treasure Island home where The Villages has addressed mold infestation, the fungus has returned with a vengeance. Click these links for the moldy horror stories of Liz’ Treasure Island neighbors Damian Ochoa, Trelease Miller, Princess Yarnway and Andrea McHenry.
More Treasure Island mold stories
Damian Ochoa’s mold story: http://sfbayview.com/2014/06/treasure-islands-mold-monster/
Trelease and Princess’ mold story: http://sfbayview.com/2014/09/treasure-island-flooded-with-water-mold-and-radiation/
Carol Harvey is a San Francisco political journalist specializing in human rights and civil rights. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.