Special Assignment: Mold at Fort Gordon? Part 1

News 12 at 6 o'clock / Wednesday, May 25, 2011

AUGUSTA, Ga.---It's a fact: mold grows everywhere. From inside to outside, there are tens of thousands of different species. But the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says it's also a fact that mold exposure can cause respiratory problems.

One military family living in housing on Fort Gordon believes mold made them sick and perhaps caused their six-month-old daughter to stop breathing.

When Kourtney Shelton and her family moved to Fort Gordon last October, they were excited and ready for a new journey in their lives, but they didn't expect what would come next. The family says within weeks they knew something was very wrong with the home they were paying more than a thousand dollars a month to live in.

"We had been there a few weeks and all of us were still just sick, with just respiratory symptoms," Kourtney said. "We just kind of thought it was the common cold we were passing back and forth. We had a two-year-old and a three-month-old at the time, and everyone was just miserable."

She never thought it could be the home that was causing problems. But one night when cooking dinner, Kourtney says she spotted something suspicious.

"All around the vents and all around the wall there were these little black spores everywhere," she told News 12. "We had no idea at the time how big the problem was or anything."

Kourtney and her husband took off the air conditioning vents and found something. "There were certain spots where it was black, and we just knew, we knew then we had a really big problem," Kourtney said.

The Sheltons believe it's mold.

"That was where the air duct was and it was just nasty," Kourtney said, describing pictures taken by the family. "The pictures we took from our home are just disgusting."

In those pictures, you can see paint peeling off the walls and water stains dripping from the breaker box. In a close up, you can see fuzz growing on the A/C vent. The family says the pictures show what was blowing straight into their home.

"It's really hard to look at these again," Kourtney said.

"It does have the shape and color and the look of mold," said Edwin Maner, owner of Duraclean Systems of North Augusta. Maner has been called in to clean mold out of homes for 21 years. We showed him the pictures. "It was some heavy mold in there. Without doing some testing, I wouldn't know for sure, but it looked like mold and some dust that had been painted over for several years," Maner said.

"Would you live in a house like that?" I asked him.

"No ma'am, I would not," Maner responded.

The Shelton family also found what appeared to be a dead animal in their air duct. "It looked like it was a dead mouse or rat," Maner said. "You could definitely see an ear, you could see a nose, a tail and feet...so it's very possible that it was a mouse, or rat."

In February, about four months after the family moved in, six-month old Evelyn stopped breathing. "That was by far the most scary and most traumatizing moment of my life," Kourney said. "I just felt so helpless. There's nothing like seeing your daughter like turning blue and just sitting there."

Dr. Gena Bonitatibus, from Augusta Allergy, specializes in allergic reactions and immunology and knows a lot about mold. "Mold is very, very complicated," she said. "There's allergy to molds, there are toxic reactions to molds, and there's also irritant reactions to molds.

"Mold is definitely a problem, even if you're not allergic to it."

Dr. Bonitatibus and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention both say it's possible someone could have negative reactions because of mold growing in their home. "If you go from a place that doesn't have mold to a place that has mold, you could have an immediate irritant effect or a toxin effect," Dr. Bonitatibus said.

After Evelyn stopped breathing, she was transported to the hospital--first Eisenhower, then MCGHealth. Doctors ran tests, and medical records show multiple doctors were not 100 percent sure what happened to her. At MCG, one doctor believed the episode was a common "breath holding spell."

One allergy specialist said allergies, like mold, are difficult to detect in constantly growing babies. Another allergist admits mold can cause chronic problems, but she couldn't pinpoint whether mold was the cause of Evelyn's hospital visit.

"It may take you months and sometimes up to years to develop a sensitivity," Dr. Bonitatibus said. "Just because you are around the mold doesn't mean that you are going to become allergic, but you could."

Dr. Bonitatibus, who did not treat Evelyn, says symptoms can range from common allergies like itchy nose, sneezing, cough and congestion to more serious effects like headaches, fatigue, shortness of breath and difficulty concentrating. And she says children can be more at risk. "The problem with children is that everything is smaller, so their little breathing tubes are smaller, their nasal passages are smaller, so even a little bit of swelling can lead to more obvious symptoms." Dr. Bonitatibus says if you find mold, the most important thing to do is act.

"I went and met with the housing manager and I said, 'We have a big problem here,'" Kourtney told News 12.

Like many military bases, Fort Gordon's on-post housing is contracted out to Balfour Beatty, a British construction company that builds and maintains homes like the Sheltons' for the U.S. Government. Balfour Beatty told News 12 they looked and found "no evidence of any mold, excessive moisture, or dampness." But they did spend $300 cleaning. So the question is, what is in the pictures taken by the Shelton family?

Balfour Beatty claims the Shelton's don't have mold, but a lot of rust. The Sheltons disagree and are taking legal action against Balfour Beatty.

This isn't Balfour Beatty's first complaint about mold. We've spoken to several people with various concerns. Just last November, 300 homes were demolished at Fort Bliss, Texas after concerns of mold, asbestos and lead in the homes there. There are also Facebook pages speaking out against Balfour Beatty, with titles like "Our Military Troops Deserve Better" and "Military Who Hate Balfour Beatty Communities."

In part two of this investigation, we'll look closer at the clean-up and talk more with both the Shelton family and Balfour Beatty.


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