In May 2002 I penned a commentary in this space titled "Toxic Mold Hysteria." It argued that health problems related to toxic mold were exaggerated by serpentine trial lawyers. Before writing that article, I read numerous articles and medical reports about the subject. The medical literature was rather sparse because, rightfully, household mold was not a high research priority.
Yet, nowhere could I find convincing evidence that the hazards justified all the ridiculous court judgments and settlements taking place. Severe reactions were limited to a tiny percentage of people with sensitive allergies to certain strains of mold, just as a few people can be devastated by otherwise harmless substances such as peanuts. Anyone with a speck of common sense could see that litigants were making mountains out of molehills.
Now, science has caught up with common sense.
In late May, the Institute of Medicine of the National Academies of Science published results of a 281-page study that is the most definitive look thus far at the toxic mold issue. A major conclusion was that the health hazards of household mold indeed have been exaggerated.
The study found that mold can contribute to some respiratory ailments, particularly for people with asthma, but uncovered no evidence at all to support lurid claims of memory loss, fatigue, seizures, fever, skin conditions and other horror stories perpetrated by the ambulance chasers and their clients in so many lawsuits.
Media BiasThis study was widely reported, but it was disheartening to see the spin put on the story by most of the news media. Of several accounts I read, the May 26 Chicago Tribune was the only one to get it right with a front-page headline and subhead that stated: "Mold tied to trouble breathing, little else; Study finds no link to many ailments."
A different twist was put on it by an Associated Press story headlined: "Mold Blamed for Breathing Problems, Panel Says." The Wall Street Journal also chose to emphasize the negative with an article titled: "Indoor Mold Linked to Problems Such as Asthma and Coughing."
Any editor worthy of the term knows that a headline trumps thousands of words of follow-up copy when it comes to forming lasting impressions. Moreover, the articles themselves displayed the usual journalistic tendency to sensationalize health-related news.
Summary is the essence of journalism. Nobody outside of the medical community cares to read the full 281-page study, so it's a reporter's job to pick out the most pertinent details and put them in their proper context. Most reporting of this story chose to emphasize mold's minor complicity in breathing ailments, while downplaying the study's larger impact in debunking toxic mold hysteria.
The Tribune quoted one of the researchers as saying: "The consequences of being exposed to toxic mold have largely been overstated." The other articles avoided that quote and gave top play instead to statements about mold's secondary connection to respiratory problems. They also made sure to quote participants reciting the standard boilerplate that still more research needs to be done.
More research is always welcome, of course. However, let's not miss a crucial point. We could invest the entire wealth of our nation studying toxic mold and never conclusively determine how much of a health hazard it represents.
That's because it is logically impossible to prove a negative. Nobody can ever certify to everyone's satisfaction that household mold does not cause severe toxic reactions. The Tribune article, for instance, noted that researchers haven't been able to sort out the effects of mold in combination with various other household agents. Moreover, according to the newspaper, "there are hundreds of thousands of different kinds of mold, each with its own characteristics and ability to produce different toxins under different conditions."
It would take virtually an infinite number of experiments to investigate the interaction of all those mold species with one another, as well as with other agents and conditions. Faced with such absurdity, science must give way to common sense. The onus should not be on medical researchers to prove mold is not extremely toxic, but placed on trial lawyers and their plaintiffs to contradict the Institute of Medicine study and prove that mold is as harmful as they claim it is.
Don't bet on it, though. Trial lawyers have little acquaintance with logic. They derive inspiration from P.T. Barnum's famous missive: "There's a sucker born every minute." And they know a whole bunch of them end up serving on juries - and more than a few preside from the bench.
Olsztynski at ISH North America
Jim Olsztynski is a scheduled speaker at this year's ISH North America trade show held Oct. 14-16 in Boston. He will present “The Future Of Manufacturing In America” Saturday, Oct. 16 at 9 a.m. To register for the show, visit www.ish-na.com.