It�s spring, and
flooding is again making headlines; though, the �sick building� and mold issues
inevitably following in flooding�s wake have become somewhat better
appreciated. But disturbingly highlighting the imperatives of such awareness,
recently published research has -- for the first time -- shown the high cost of
what the sickness that comes of �sick buildings� can mean, with the potential
for long-lasting disability now being a documented fact.
According to a
ground breaking Swedish study appearing in The International Archives of
Occupational and Environmental Health, 45 percent of so-called �Sick
Building Syndrome� (SBS) victims -- treated at hospital clinics -- no longer
have the capacity to work. Twenty percent of these sufferers are
receiving disability pensions, 25 percent are �on the sick-list.� Emphasizing
SBS�s devastating potential, the study warned that the possibility �of having
no work capabilities at follow up was significantly increased if the time from
(SBS) onset to first visit at the hospital clinic was more than one year. This
risk was also significantly higher if the patient at the first visit had five
or more symptoms.�
It�s unfortunate that knowledge of the serious nature of SBS
has not emerged sooner. But, as highlighted by the US Department of Veterans
Affairs during last Fall�s revelations upon Gulf War Illness, sometimes
political and economic considerations affect health policy, leading to a
serious health issue long being �denied� or �trivialized.�
�Sick Building Syndrome� -- more precisely termed
non-specific building-related illness -- is typically a product of breathing
indoor-air contaminated by mold and/or chemical toxins. Its symptoms can
include: mucus-membrane irritation, neurotoxic effects, respiratory symptoms,
skin symptoms, gastrointestinal complaints, and chemosensory changes. And while
the malady has been increasingly seen since the 1970�s, when energy concerns
led to the reduction of indoor ventilation by as much as two thirds, this study
is thought to be the first occasion when the problem has been demonstrated as a
chronic condition with environmental causes.
The study was performed by scientists at the Academic
Hospital of the University of Ume�, in Northern Sweden, and was based upon
locally derived data. But while differences in disability laws and culture may
exist between any two nations, as the study strongly observed: �symptoms
aggravated by environmental factors exist within this group of patients. The
results support that early and comprehensive measures for rehabilitation are
While SBS manifests itself in buildings with poor design,
construction, or ventilation, the majority of problems have been tied to
moisture buildup, with potentially devastating mold issues typically arising
from this. But even with the best of buildings, flooding means that areas such
as New Orleans saw an explosion of cases in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina.
Unfortunately, even problems more serious than SBS can occur
through mold, the US Environmental Protection Agency�s (EPA) website explicitly
warning that the inhalation of mycotoxins (toxins naturally occurring in some
species of molds) has been reported to cause maladies that include cancer. Illustrating
what this can mean, recent Swedish
headlines shocked the Scandinavian Peninsula with news of just such a
Str�mbackaskola, a high school in the Northern city of
Pite�, was the scene of the cancer cluster. In the worst affected area, about
40 percent of the employees have been stricken with the disease, with the local
paper headlining �The mold in the school is cancer causing,� a national headline reading �Mold
in school gives teachers cancer.�
Though the cancer cases began appearing years ago, and its
cause was earlier investigated, it was only recently that �toxic black mold,�
Stachybotrys, was found in the affected areas.
Perhaps even more disturbing, while some claim tragedies
like this are unforeseeable, others see them born of a misguided defense of
past mistakes, with indifference, and even occasional tactics of intimidation,
nurturing tragedy. No land is immune to the temptations of politics and
While an American, I live in Sweden, and have for the last 12
years. Perhaps because Sweden isn�t a large nation, Swedes social activism,
their relationship with their government, communities, and each other, is
considerably stronger than that I once knew. But, despite this . . .
In an article published this summer upon Sweden�s �sick
schools,� in Scandinavia�s largest
daily, Aftonbladet, I had
emphasized that mold can indeed cause maladies ranging from asthma to cancer. But
as early as 1997, Stockholm�s papers were already broaching questions of �sick
building� related cancers, questions which seem to have been ignored.
At that time,
Swedish toxicologist Tony Kronevi was widely quoted as warning of a potential
�cancer explosion� resulting from �sick buildings in Sweden.� He specifically
warned of problems with �sick schools,� urging that people take �this problem
It�s unfortunate that, despite such warnings, this past summer a Swedish government
report revealed that those at the national level had yet to take sick schools
�seriously.� Just months later, in December, news of the cancer cluster broke.
Was this an instance of political and economic
considerations affecting health policy, was a serious health threat long
�denied� or �trivialized�?
what some here have termed �indifference,� Swedish parliamentarian Jan Lindholm
(Green Party) observed that, for him, it�s �totally inconceivable that the
government shows no interest in finding out how over 20 people in a workplace
(Str�mbackaskola) came to be smitten by cancer.� He added, �this Government is
the landlord�s government.�
Last Fall I interviewed one of America�s leading authorities
on mold -- Dr. Dorr Dearborn, Chairman of the Department of Environmental
Health Sciences at Case Western Reserve University School of Medicine. Dearborn
came to national attention in 1997, The New York Times headlining
�Infants� Lung Bleeding Traced to Toxic Mold,� a revelation he was instrumental
in bringing forward. Though his findings and those of his equally courageous
colleague, Ruth Etzel, became the subject of considerable debate, the EPA�s
Children�s Health Initiative on Toxic Mold dutifully continues to warn: �A
cluster of cases of acute pulmonary hemorrhage/hemosiderosis was reported in
Cleveland, Ohio, where 27 infants from homes that suffered flood damage became
sick (nine deaths) with the illness starting in January 1993.�
In the interim since his and Dr. Etzel�s findings, animal
studies continue to provide ever added confirmation of their conclusions.
During the course of my interview with Dearborn, I asked
what had occurred that took the momentum from the �sick building� and mold
reforms which many then saw on the horizon. Emphasizing he could just speculate
upon what factors had earlier impacted America�s �mold debate,� Dearborn spoke
of �pressure from industrial sources -- insurance companies, etc -- to �back
off� this problem.�
In Sweden, people have spoken of the �gigantic costs�
addressing �sick buildings� would entail, and this has led many to rationalize
away inaction accordingly. Of course, the costs of the widespread illnesses and
property damage associated with �sick buildings� is thought to be even more
substantive, though, far less visible and borne mainly by individuals, not
business or government.
I won�t point out that discussion of isolated cancer cases
associated with sick buildings has barely begun here. Nor will I speculate upon
the fate of those living in places here like Herrg�rden, a large housing
complex in Sweden�s southern city of Malm��s Roseng�rd area, where -- contrary
to the Country�s �squeaky clean� image -- recent news stories revealed that
half of the apartments are mold infested.
An interview with a number of Roseng�rd�s healthcare workers
recently appeared in local media. The ongoing tragedy they described isn�t
Within the last twelve months, this nation of nine million
has had at least three major residential housing scandals, each involving large
numbers of families. And while roach infested slums have sadly now come to
Sweden, two of the three scandals involved upscale developments -- one was a
community of villas on the Country�s west coast, the other was waterside condos
The widespread failure to adequately enforce Sweden�s
excellent safe-housing laws is an �open secret.� Of course, in The States, the
phrase �managed debate� is used to describe the process through which better
regulation of �sick buildings� and mold is kept from becoming law.
Both circumstances have a cost, and public health has paid
dearly. Is Sweden�s mold-associated cancer unique, or rather, is it unique only
in that this instance of mold-associated cancer was so large that it could not
be rationalized away, dismissed and ignored?
In a November article of mine -- which was also published in
Aftonbladet -- I compared Sweden�s �sick building� scandal to that of
China�s melamine. Both scandals are the product of what have been described as
�open secrets,� but according to a 2003 Swedish survey, sick buildings are
sickening a vastly higher population percentage than melamine did.
While our globe is currently witnessing the havoc which lax
regulation and unconscionable behavior meant for the financial markets, is this
but one indicator of something �deeper�? America�s ongoing prescription drug
and food scandals, China�s melamine, and Sweden�s �sick building� scandal -- all
suggest that our �crisis� may be considerably broader than merely one of
History has long demonstrated the high price of blind and
ruthless ambition, a price which our world has perhaps only begun to realize it
is now paying. Quoting Swedish parliamentarian Jan Lindholm, �totally
inconceivable� well describes present circumstances.
We have a problem, a bad problem, and it has its causes. In
example, Kronevi told me of a Swedish book he participated in on building
issues, a book which might have started vigorous �sick building� debate years
ago. He also provided copies of correspondence highlighting how the text had
been effectively suppressed.
Of course, a passage from that book noted that a number of
Swedish cities, �have noticed an unusually high number of cancer cases
connected to SBS symptoms,� with other passages equally interesting. What is
also �interesting� are others who have described abuses of power, the efforts
to stifle critical voices.
In 2004, I interviewed a number of leading US scientific
figures, doing so while writing an expos� series on the drug industry. One
article, �Intimidation, Politics and Drug Industry Cripple U.S. Medicine,�
contained several interviews worth revisiting.
Kathleen Rest, executive director of the Union of Concerned
Scientists (UCS) -- whose membership is comprised of much of the cream of
America�s scientific community, including a number of Nobel laureates -- told
me of a �pattern,� a pattern of �politicizing or manipulating scientific
advisory boards.� She also noted the UCS had found �evidence and cases of
agencies manipulating or suppressing scientific analysis.�
Dr. David J. Graham, the courageous Associate Safety
Director of the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA), separately added that �intimidation
of scientists who threaten the status quo at FDA is routine.�
It was just this summer when a Swedish environmental
researcher -- who spoke only under condition of anonymity -- told me that
challenging the Swedish status quo on �sick building� issues was almost like
challenging the mafia. Other Swedes, from different perspectives, have spoken
similarly. Leif K�vestad -- a former environmental inspector who received a
personal award from the then Swedish Prime Minister, G�ran Persson -- is one of
Both K�vestad and the researcher indeed described efforts
aimed at intimidation, efforts sometimes undertaken by those pursuing
self-serving denials of Swedish indoor-environment problems.
On a local level, K�vestad spoke of how �community Health
Departments often cooperate with the community housing companies and their
consultants. Tenants which complain over sick buildings with health complaints
are threatened . . . the parties together act like a mafia against the
tenants.� And while speaking generally, he added he�s aware of this pattern at
some of Stockholm�s �sick buildings� and, as an ombudsman,
has just taken the question before the Environmental Court.
Such circumstances do not appear limited to Sweden.
An SBS victim myself, I have just filed a civil suit against
my landlord, Kopparstaden, a housing firm within the Swedish county of Dalarna.
In 2007, my community�s health department declared the apartment Kopparstaden
had recently rented me to be uninhabitable.
To this day, my health remains shattered -- I suffer a
particularly nasty form of SBS.
When I arrived here, as a newcomer to the community, the
local �Integration Authority� had offered me the flat. Though it had an unusual
odor from the first time I saw it, I was told the odor would �disappear� when I
used the plumbing.
When I asked to see other apartments, I was told by the Integration
Authority that the apartment was �fine,� that there were no others, and, if I
didn�t accept it, I wouldn�t be offered another and would likely not find any
apartment on my own. Given the circumstances, and that I had no reason to then
disbelieve the assurances I was given, I took the flat accordingly.
Later, laboratory analysis revealed �powerfully elevated�
mold levels and �unusually high levels� of chemical toxins -- such as
chloroform -- were in every breath I took. According to my physicians,
virtually all of my belongings must be disposed of because of contamination,
and my insurance policy -- as with most insurance policies today -- does not
cover this kind of claim. However, Kopparstaden�s only compensation offer for
my ruined property and shattered health was about a thousand dollars. I refused
It is difficult for me to reconcile the many instances I�ve
witnessed demonstrating Swedish society�s honesty and integrity with the
circumstances I describe.
While the US civil court system has awarded a number of
�sick building� and mold sufferers millions of dollars in damages, such things
do not exist in this country -- there are no punitive damages in this legal
system, court awards are �minimal.� And, despite such circumstances accentuating
the need for robust enforcement of safe housing laws, the opposite appears to
have occurred. But, this does well illustrate how the costs of �sick buildings�
-- though extremely substantive -- are today borne mainly by individual
victims, not the businesses which provide the properties, nor the governments
which allow them to continue doing so. Is today�s �crisis� far broader than
While many have called the widespread corruption and failure
of regulatory authorities an �open secret,� perhaps �national catastrophe� may well prove itself a far better term.
Study -- 45 percent Disabled
Seeks Truth About �Katrina Cough��
Warnings -- See �Mold Toxins (Mycotoxins)�
Study Linking Mold with Cancer and other maladies
New York Times -- �Infants� Lung Bleeding Traced to Toxic Mold�
�Children�s Health Initiative on Toxic Mold�
Edition -- �Did Mold Cause Ed McMahon�s Life-Threatening Cancer?�
Politics and Drug Industry Cripple U.S. Medicine�
Copyright � 2009 Ritt
Ritt Goldstein is
an American investigative political journalist presently based in Dalarna,
Sweden. His work has appeared in broadsheets such as Australia�s Sydney Morning
Herald, Spain�s El Mundo and Denmark�s Politiken, as well as with the Inter
Press Service (IPS), a global news agency.
This article first appeared in Common