By Alex Tresniowski
July 09, 2001 12:00 PM

For Valentine’s Day, Steve and Karen Porath both got some-thing they really wanted: the chance to see their dream house burn to the ground. They stood serenely on the front lawn of their rolling five-acre spread in Foresthill, Calif., and watched as flames devoured their three-bedroom ranch-style home, destroying family photos, stuffed animals, even their son’s baby book. “It was a relief,” says Karen, 34, of the controlled fire the couple arranged in February. “That house almost killed our child.”

The scourge that invaded their home and prompted the burning was something straight out of The X-Files: Stachybotrys chartarum, better known as black mold. A toxic fungus that feeds on moisture and thrives in damp areas, black mold can cause rashes, sore throats and severe respiratory ailments. Claims of mold infestation are on the rise, particularly in states hit by heavy rains, such as Texas. And while no national statistics exist, mold out-breaks in flood-prone areas are “a major public health problem,” believes Frederick Herman, a California immunologist who has treated hundreds of patients, including the Poraths, suffering from mold-related illnesses. “When people find out a major contaminant has been living in their home, they feel violated.”

The Poraths’ mold encounter was more like a nightmare—and, they believe, one of the reasons their older son, Mitchell, now 2, was diagnosed with delayed developmental disorder. Steve, a building contractor, and Karen, a former financial coordinator for an AIDS research center, married in 1997 and began searching for a home near Auburn, where Steve, 35, was raised. They found a house just northeast of the city that had been repossessed by the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs and seemed in fine shape. A bid of $120,000 won them the house.

In May 1999, a month after moving in, Karen gave birth to Mitchell, who was declared healthy. But two days after he was brought home, he became violently ill. “He started thrashing like he was in pain,” says Karen. The infant developed a severe rash, constant infections and high fevers, which baffled his doctors. Gaunt and dehydrated, Mitchell wouldn’t crawl or smile and often vomited up to 70 times a day. When the Poraths, who developed respiratory infections themselves, noticed that Mitchell slept more soundly at his grandmother’s nearby home, they had their house tested for contaminants in April 2000. Two weeks later they learned there were high levels of black mold in the house, including in Mitchell’s bedroom. “After that,” says Karen, “we never went back.” At the time, Mitchell was 1 year old and weighed only 10 lbs.

Further inspection revealed that faulty pipes were spewing sewage beneath the home, which, coupled with poor ventilation, created a perfect breeding ground for bacteria and black mold (Stacbybotrys tends to grow on surfaces that absorb water, like carpets and drywall). The Poraths believe the property’s managing agents knew about the contamination, but David Piersall, the U.S. Veterans Affairs officer who oversaw the sale, insists “we were not aware of any mold.” And Mike Lyon, a broker with the Sacramento Realtors who handled the sale, also denies any knowledge of the mold problem.

There was more bad news for the Poraths: Getting rid of the mold would cost $85,000 and would not be covered by their home insurance. Unable to save their belongings, they enlisted 40 volunteer firefighters to burn down the house, sold the five acres for $149,000 and moved into a two-bedroom apartment in Auburn. Karen, who was pregnant with second son Blake for six months while living in the infested house, says he is healthier than Mitchell but blames his chronic respiratory infections on the black mold. Mitchell, now 21 lbs., still speaks only four words. (Karen quit her job to care for him.) “You can’t say for sure that the Stacbybotrys toxin caused his developmental problems,” says Dr. Herman. “But we know that high levels of exposure can produce neurological disorders.”

The best way to block the spread of mold is to promptly fix leaking pipes and ventilate damp areas (small traces of mold can be cleaned with bleach and water). Such measures, however, won’t help the Poraths, who are planning a lawsuit against their Realtors even as they struggle to put their lives back together. “If Steve and I make it through this, we’ll have the strongest marriage ever,” says Karen. “This has just been hell.”

Alex Tresniowski

Emily Bazar in Auburn, Ron Arias in Los Angeles and Vickie Bane in Littleton, Colo.