Toxic Mold

August 6th, 2003

To the News Editor and Staff of 20/20:

I have just read the transcript of your report on Toxic Mold and, despite the fact that I am only marginally educated in this area, your reporting of these scientific issues appears to be both shallow and misleading to the public. In science reporting, the public depends upon the word of “experts” but ABC News has a history of producing sources who are sorely lacking in the credentials which are essential to the questions being analyzed. Conflicts of interest are also present and information about special interests not fully explained to your audience.

In the case of this particular report, you presented information by a microbiologist who stated that inhalation of fungal spores can create health problems. However, as this individual, Dr. Straus, was himself a claimant of damage from exposure to the Ballard home, his claims are rendered suspect. You do not cite any sources with qualifications in research concerning the gasses emitted by fungi which grow on mold spores that can be internalized much as other toxic chemicals in the environment. Why did you not seek out a toxicologist trained in this area to interview or find persons involved in primary research efforts in this field?

Instead, you cite sources on the other side of the issue who similarly lack qualifications to make the assertions made to your listeners. Dr. Gallen Marshall is an eminently qualified researcher whose biographical information provided at the University of Texas website states that his areas of specialization are in: “…diagnosis and treatment of atopic diseases in immunologically compromised individuals such as HIV+ and autoimmunity, documentation of immune compromise in chronic fatigue syndrome, and use of cytokines to treat allergic skin disease.” His list of research credits does not mention mold anywhere. As an allergist, Dr. Marshall is certainly qualified to comment upon mold allergy but ignores toxicological issues. He instead discusses psychiatric bases for patient’s symptoms when exposed to mold – certainly outside of his area of specialization. Did you also look into whether or not the University of Texas at Houston might have a conflict of interest in this area? They have real estate holdings and research/gift contracts with corporate entities as do many institutions today. That alone can limit the scope of research funded at any University (casting no aspersions upon Dr. Marshall’s research – just stating a fact of academic life). It does not rule out admitting those scientists into this debate but does require responsible journalists to make appropriate inquiries. I doubt you did so.

Any hypothesis of psychologically based illness in the majority of these mold cases is completely untested and affords the public with far less evidence for its existence than does toxicological evidence supporting an organic basis for illness. Mold is already known to cause numerous adverse health effects, even if not the full constellation claimed by victims. You do not see any scientists advocating that one ingest moldy food, inhale spores or continue to live with contamination after detection. Just why is that if the substance is truly benign or only dangerous to the “allergic” individual?

As to citing the “medical” opinions of Gordon Stewart of the Insurance Information Institute (“There is no such thing as killer mold.”), his title and concerns are clearly industry related and have no place in a medical discussion. The fact that claims of harm are suddenly skyrocketing are not proof that mold does no harm. The fact that mold has been around for “centuries” does not mean it is a harmless substance. The current jump in claims is simply a factor of increased public awareness of the dangers (many already established medically). As it effects the wealthy as well as the poor, you see a refusal of citizens from every walk of life to accept their odd symptoms along with that of other family members (and pets) in the face of medical ignorance and industry “greed” – to use a term used by Straus in another context.

Medical knowledge is powered by industry research dollars, certainly lacking in this area. Poor choices in construction practices and materials lead to mold-related home and office damage. A lack of research is again not evidence that a causal relationship between mold and illness does not exist. It certainly does not eradicate the correlational findings of the presence of mold and a wide array of serious ailments. Nor does it remove the facts that many structures have been condemned by health departments or ordered to undergo remediation. Did you bother to interview any public health officials who order such actions? Study the research on which they base such extreme and costly orders? Asbestos was used for decades before its effects became known but remediation is immediately ordered these days upon its detection.

ABC News has a history of inadequate reporting in “controversial” matters. Its reporters also evidence an irresponsible and non-objective manner in making their reports. Amusing remarks about the sufferings of persons enmeshed in these controversial proceedings is beyond the pale for any serious news agency. I will certainly not be supporting the ABC network with my consumer dollars in the future and can only hope you are not the model for any who aspire to careers in journalism. That field is among the most important in the nation to assist the public in safeguarding our democratic and economic goals as a country.

Categories: ABC News

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