Mold mushrooms
into a legal mess

Homes, as well as hotels,
have problems
with the fungus

By Tim Ruel

With black mold dripping from the ceiling and green mold growing in the storage room of her Mililani rental home, Jade Louie was convinced it was the source of her headaches, sneezing and coughing.

It was also pretty clear, to her, where the mold was coming from. Louie's roof was leaking, causing water damage to the ceiling. After a particularly heavy rain earlier this year, she feared the ceiling was going to burst, and complained to the city Department of Planning & Permitting. On Feb. 15, the city told the landlord and the rental agency that the leaky roof was in violation of the building code, city records show.

Louie had been behind on rent since October 1999, and was making up payments. Ten days after the city got involved, the rental firm gave Louie notice to move out. The ensuing legal battle underscores the point that Hilton Hawaiian Village is not alone in its mold troubles.

The landlord, Chih-Chen Chen, sued Louie in June, claiming the tenant owed $7,194 in unpaid rent for the 785-square-foot, two-bedroom home. Louie countersued last month, alleging that Chen provided an unsuitable residence for living, then evicted her in retaliation for complaining to the city. Louie is seeking more than $37,000 to compensate her for the cost of hiring consultants to examine the mold, and to cover the value of her personal property she says was ruined by mold. She wants to know if the mold is causing her symptoms. The case is headed to trial in October in state District Court.

Mold is everywhere, experts say. "I'll bet my office has mold in it," said Bruce Anderson, state health director.

Given the right environment, mold can mushroom into a legal mess.

Louie, who has found another residence, stopped making rental payments to the landlord in March. Concerned about her health, she began paying consultants to test the mold in the Mililani home, a bill that added up to more than $20,000.

White Environmental Consultants Inc. inspected the home in May. The firm noticed a musty smell, and saw mold on the ceilings and walls of the enclosed lanai and the living room. Further study revealed there were several species of mold in the house in varied amounts.

"I have had to start taking Flonase and Allegra in the last two weeks and it is only getting worse," Louie wrote her landlord in February.

An attorney for Louie declined comment.

Paul Dold, an attorney for Chen, said he can't comment on Louie's claims until his own environmental consultant issues a report on the mold in the home.

When asked why the rental company issued an eviction notice to Louie 10 days after the city got involved, Dold said, "I'm not aware of anything to tie the two dates together."

Mold raises concerns whether in homes, commercial buildings or hotels.

Hilton Hawaiian Village is still searching for the root causes of the mold that prompted the resort to close its 453-room Kalia Tower last month.

Hilton also found mold in a guest corridor of its 264-unit Lagoon Tower. As a temporary fix, Hilton plans to paint the affected Lagoon corridor ceilings with mold-killing chemicals, which will require the closure of nearby rooms.

Next door to Hilton in Waikiki, the Army's Hale Koa Hotel spent $5.5 million to remove mold from its Maile Tower seven years ago. A consultant said the tower had been built and designed improperly, and the Hale Koa reached a settlement with the design and construction teams.

The University of Hawaii has a mold problem at its School of Nursing at Webster Hall, where a chilly air-conditioning system prompts people to open windows, letting in moist air.

Controlling moisture is the key to controlling mold. Custodians are being trained to clean the mold while wearing protective clothing, and attempts are being made to adjust the air-conditioning system, said Roy Takekawa, director of the Environmental Health and Safety Office at UH.

Ken Beal, executive vice president of Kailua mold investigation firm MoldPro International, says he constantly comes across commercial buildings that have trouble with excess mold. It's in all types of buildings, including shopping centers, office buildings and hotels. "They're all fair game," Beal said. Typical causes of excess moisture are building design errors, poor housekeeping, bad plumbing and leaky window frames, he said.

It's not the cost of construction that makes the difference, according to building experts at engineering firm CH2M Hill in Orlando, Fla. To the contrary, expensive buildings tend to come with highly sophisticated heating, ventilating and air-conditioning systems that are prone to failure if managed improperly, according to CH2M Hill.

In Hawaii, state Health Director Anderson said he does not consider mold to be a public health problem because there is no widespread illness. "Mold is everywhere and in most cases causes no adverse health problems," Anderson said.

There are no laws that specifically govern mold, and lawmakers should not get involved until there is firmer scientific footing, Anderson said.

As such, it's not clear what will become of the Chen-Louie legal fight over the mold-infested rental home in Mililani. For now, the case is just another eviction dispute.

Star-Bulletin reporter Diana Leone contributed to this report.

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