January 10, 2011



(830) 444-0523


Original 1926 photo from "The Black Pirate," stolen in Dec. 2010 burglary.



Items dating back to the early 1900s and valued at more than $10,000 (USD) were stolen from the museum’s collections during a late night burglary over the New Year’s holiday.

Original one-of-a-kind photographic prints, negatives and slides, autographs, promotional materials for Fairbanks’ films, the star’s handwritten correspondence, vintage newspapers and magazines, and other rare silent film memorabilia were stolen from the archives.

Fortunately intruders did not gain access to the museum’s most valuable artifacts, which are housed separately in a secure storage facility off-site. However, the crooks did manage to make off with a goodly portion of the museum’s photo, video, and periodicals collections. These are the items most frequently requested by the public, media, filmmakers, other libraries, museums and galleries for reproductions, research and exhibition loans.

Items stolen include five archival binder boxes containing photographic prints, negatives and slides; two large archival albums containing film posters, playbills, programs, vintage theater tickets and other rare film memorabilia; two archival boxes containing newspapers, magazines and film periodicals nearly a century old, as well as copies of films by Fairbanks and other silent cinema stars on VHS tape and DVD from the museum’s circulation library.

The most valuable artifact the burglars got away with was (ironically) an original brass urn dating to approximately 1923, a set piece for the film The Thief of Bagdad. This urn has been a centerpiece of exhibits since the museum acquired it from a Los Angeles movie prop house in 2005. The object stands appx. 2 feet tall and features ornate lifting handles in the shape of two cobra snakes on each side. The rare prop urn was in the process of having a broken handle repaired at the time of the burglary; normally it would have been stored offsite.

1924 prop urn used in "The Thief of Bagdad"


The burglary took place at the domicile of museum curator Keri Leigh, who was out of town over the holidays. Leigh co-founded the small private museum in 1998 and for many years housed the collections inside her family residence. A lifelong silent film enthusiast, Leigh always enjoyed sharing her rare film memorabilia collection with other Fairbanks fans, filmmakers, researchers, students, and historians, welcoming visitors from all around the globe.

“We never really worried too terribly much about break-ins or petty theft because as a private museum, we’re not readily accessible to the general public. Our tours are by appointment only. We don’t have a location that people can just walk into off the street. ” Leigh explains. “So we avoided a lot of would-be thieves casing the place for valuables with that added layer of security.”

While the museum’s policy limits admittance and access to the collections only to those with a bona fide research or scholarly need, curator Leigh says “actually, we’ve never denied admittance to anyone over the years,” a decision she does not regret even in light of the burglary. “The whole point is to share the collections with people.”

“Silent film fans respect the historical value of these artifacts,” she stresses. “They would never want to deprive future generations of the chance to see and learn about Douglas Fairbanks. They’ve always treated the museum and the home with great care when they come to visit us. They are as upset as we are about this theft, because these collections rightfully belong to the people – to Doug’s fans; to history.”

The most distressing aspect of the theft, according to Leigh, is that “the people who stole these artifacts were probably unaware of their cultural value and importance. They probably just thought they were robbing a well-stocked private residence, maybe looking to make a quick buck by selling the contents. They likely had no idea they had stolen property belonging to a museum.” Leigh shook her head in sad disbelief. “It would not surprise me at all if they didn’t even know who Douglas Fairbanks was.”

Such a burglary is not at all uncommon: according to the Art Loss Register, 54 percent of art thefts occur in domestic dwellings. However, the next three highest areas of theft occur in museums and galleries (12 percent each) and in churches (10 percent.) For this reason, institutions housing valuables have set up organizations to combat and prevent art thefts. These include the Univeristy of Cambridge’s Illicit Antiquities Research Centre, which monitors and reports on the international trade of stolen antiquities, and MuseumSecurity.Org, which has a mailing list that provides regular reports on stolen museum items.

Other major law enforcement agencies have their own databases of stolen artwork, including the Interpol database of stolen art. The U.S. State Department’s Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs is also devoted to International Cultural Property Protection.

The problem has become so prevalent that in 1991 the art and insurance communities jointly began the Art Loss Register in an attempt to fight art thefts around the globe. The register allows major auctioneers, collectors and art buyers to check their catalogues to determine whether a valuable piece is stolen property. The ALR lists about 1,200 new items each month and has a total of more than 120,000 stolen paintings, sculptures, furnishings and other valuable artifacts on file.

A rare image of Fairbanks with his custom Cadillac, circa 1928. This photograph, along with hundreds of others, was stolen in the Dec. 2010 burglary.


In the early morning hours of December 30th, museum curator Leigh was awakened in her hotel room miles away by a phone call from her neighbors. They had witnessed the bandits driving away in the middle of the night and alerted police.

When a panicked Leigh returned home, she discovered that the front door lock had been cracked. Her home surveillance cameras were of no use, either — electrical lines to the house were cut before the looters entered. Inside, she found a ransacked mess of her personal possessions strewn about the floor; all drawers, closets, and cabinets were picked through by the criminals. Everything of value in the home had been taken.

Leigh (who is also a renowned musician, recording artist, writer, and radio personality) lost an invaluable collection of rare tapes, photographs, concert posters and music memorabilia documenting her 25 year music career in the heist. Leigh has previously authored biographies of Douglas Fairbanks and blues guitarist Stevie Ray Vaughan, her late friend and musical mentor.

Items taken from the home include Leigh’s original onstage costumes; many were handmade custom designs given to her by fans and friends through the years. She also lost master tapes for her band’s studio albums, a treasured 1940s Stella acoustic guitar, as well as her collection of her band’s live recordings, radio interviews and broadcasts, demo tapes, notes, song lyrics, notes, research and chapters for a book she was writing at the time of the break-in. While the actual cash or replacement value for these items exceeds $20,000, Leigh says their practical and sentimental value is incalculable: “You just can’t put a price tag on things like that.”

“”They took the deepest part of me – my music.” She says. “Songs I wrote, recorded, mixed and produced. They took my demo tapes and a 20-year archive of recorded performances of the band in concert, in the studio and on the radio. That’s a lifetime of work – my whole heart and soul – was in there. And they took it all. I could write an album’s worth of blues songs about how I feel right now, but don’t even have a guitar left to write them on.”

Hundreds of CDs, DVDs, 45 and 78 rpm records were stolen from Leigh’s sizable music collection. Designer clothing items were also pilfered; medicines and nutritional supplements nicked from her kitchen pantry. (“Seriously — what kind of burglars steal your vitamins?” Leigh mused.) The peckish prowlers also helped themselves to food items in her pantry. To make matters worse for Leigh personally, the burglars found her spare sets of keys and copped two cars. Until the stolen property is recovered and returned, Leigh is without even the basic necessities of daily life. “They totally cleaned me out,” she says.

“About the only thing they didn’t take were my books,” Leigh sighed. “I guess they weren’t very literary burglars.”

So far, no arrests have been made in the case.


Leigh’s friends, family, fans, and Fairbanks museum supporters have organized an online community watch effort to catch the crooks. They scour web auction and classified sites such as Craigslist looking out for her stage clothing, guitars, master tapes, personal effects, and museum artifacts to emerge. (Many of Leigh’s stolen stage costumes can be seen in the photo galleries of her band’s Official MySpace and in her music videos on YouTube.)

Music and film memorabilia dealers, auctioneers, other museums, and the general public are being urged to keep their eyes peeled for these items and to report any suspected stolen property to their local police or the FBI. Leigh has also retained a private investigator to help track down her stolen property and locate the thieves.

“These things nearly always wind up on eBay sooner or later.” Leigh says. “Art thieves routinely approach museums, galleries and memorabilia dealers trying to sell stolen goods. With the eyes of the public watching them, they are far less likely to succeed. Most art thieves are caught by one person who recognizes a piece of cultural property offered for sale as stolen and reports back to the rightful owner.”

Perhaps the only consolation for Leigh is that most of the items stolen from her home are unique and one-of-a-kind, and thus easily identifiable. “For the most part, these are not the typical sorts of items that can be sold off to pawn shops, such as TVs, computers, stereo equipment and electronics.” She explained. “It would take a very sophisticated fence operation that deals in stolen art and cultural property to handle them on the black market. I rather doubt these thieves are that clever or that connected.”

The museum is offering a 90-day “no questions asked” amnesty period for the safe return of the property. Should the burglars — or anyone currently in possession of the stolen items — return them to the museum, the band’s management, or to Leigh personally before March 30, 2011, they will not face criminal prosecution.

“The most important thing is getting the items returned promptly,” Leigh says. “The museum is scheduled to re-open in May 2011, and I can only pray we will have this substantial part of our collections back in time for that. Otherwise, our ability to present exhibits and fulfill research requests will be greatly diminished. To say the least.”

An alert and vigilant public will play a crucial role in recovering both Leigh’s own musical treasures and the Fairbanks Museum artifacts taken from her home.”Working together, I hope and pray that we can catch the thieves and get these rare items returned to the museum, so that the public may continue to have access to them for hundreds of years to come.” Leigh says. “This collection was intended to survive well past my earthly lifetime. I built it for the education, enjoyment and cultural enrichment of future generations. To think that all that time, effort and expense was in vain absolutely breaks my heart.”

Signed Fairbanks photographic print, circa 1920. Stolen.


Anyone with information about the burglary or reports of artifacts from the museum’s collections being offered for sale is encouraged to contact the museum immediately via email or phone at (830) 444-0523. Tips leading to an arrest and/or return of museum property may also qualify for a cash reward.

As the inventory of stolen property contains hundreds of items and is too extensive to include here, 100 images and descriptions of artifacts taken in the Dec. 30th burglary are sampled below. Please take a few moments to familiarize yourself with them.

Many more of the stolen photographs, posters, and museum artifacts can be seen in the 2005 documentary film Douglas Fairbanks: The Great Swashbuckler. You can watch this film on the museum’s official YouTube Channel.

If you spot the same or similar item(s) being offered for sale and suspect these may be museum property, please contact the museum to confirm provenance via catalog/accession numbers and identifying tags/marks on the object(s) right away. Time is of the essence in reclaiming these historic museum artifacts before they are lost forever.

Samples of property/objects stolen from the museum’s collections:



The Douglas Fairbanks Museum recently provided research materials to the History Channel for an upcoming  documentary about the use of language in film.

Vintage news articles from the museum’s newspaper and magazine archives were requested by the network specifically pertaining to the 1916 Douglas Fairbanks comedy, The Habit of Happiness – reportedly the first Hollywood film to contain a curse word. And this was in the silent days before spoken dialogue!

Although there are no swear words in the printed title cards, Fairbanks reportedly swore up a blue streak in one particular scene, sparking a nationwide lip-reading movie controversy.



From the 1917 book "Laugh and Live" by Douglas Fairbanks. Original in the museum's library.



Fairbanks fans may already be familiar with the story of Sunny Wiggins, the film’s central character. He’s convinced that laughter can cure any ailment and to prove his point, he conducts an experiment: find the saddest, sickest characters on earth and heal them with happiness. He decides to test his theory on a group of street-hardened “bums” at the local homeless shelter.

Douglas Fairbanks (always a stickler for authenticity) decided to make the scene as realistic as possible, hiring actual direlects from skid row instead of professional actors.

Things didn’t quite work out as planned, however; despite Doug’s many attempts to crack them up with his best gags, the men weren’t at all amused. At wits’ end, Fairbanks thus began to tell some extremely ribald and off-color stories – only this got the sad sacks to elicit a genuine chuckle before finally erupting into all-out belly laughs.

When the film was initially released by Triangle Pictures in 1916, complaints from deaf lip-readers who could grasp the flurry of Fairbanks’ profanities caused the offending scenes to be re-shot and distributed anew to theatres.

“It’s a hilarious story,” museum curator Keri Leigh says, “and I always enjoy telling it to our visitors. Although I still maintain that no one could tell the story better than Doug himself.”

Fairbanks did write his own version of the now-infamous event in an article called “Combining Play With Work,” which originally appeared in the American Magazine for July 1917.

A complete reprint of the 1917 article appears in the book Douglas Fairbanks: In His Own Words, a literary collection of Fairbanks’ writings published by the museum in 2006.


Leigh says that consulting with the producers on this documentary film was “a wonderful opportunity for the museum to further our mission of educating a younger generation about who Douglas Fairbanks was. We want kids especially to learn of his importance to the history and development of the cinematic arts.”

The educational documentary, which is geared towards school-age children, will be broadcast in early 2011. Stay tuned to the museum’s blog for further announcements as the air date nears.

Dominick Fairbanks, grandson of Douglas Fairbanks Jr., great-grandson of Fairbanks Sr.

LONDON — A £75 million ($120 million) movie based on Baroness Orczy’s classic “The Scarlet Pimpernel” is front and center of seriously ambitious production plans for Fairbanks Productions, the U.K.’s newest and big-talking filmmaking banner on the block.

Dominick Fairbanks, the great grandson and grandson of Hollywood legends Douglas Fairbanks and Douglas Fairbanks Jr., plans to bring his famous Hollywood family name into the 21st century with his production banner upstart.

His team for the launch includes cult British writer and director Michael Armstrong, who takes the role of head of creative development, and executive producer James Black.

On hand at an extravagant old school launch for the next generation of Fairbanks’ royalty at a private function held here in the famous Dorchester Grill in the central London hotel, the third generation Fairbanks unveiled his team and plans.

The company aims to launch a slate of productions in early 2011 but Black told The Hollywood Reporter a remake of “The Scarlet Pimpernel,” starring upcoming Brit actor Neil Jackson, whose big screen credits include a turn in “Quantum Of Solace,” is front and center.

“We want to try and do to the story of “The Scarlet Pimpernel” what Guy Ritchie did to ‘Sherlock Holmes’ [for Warner Bros],” said Black.

Plans are to shoot the picture sometime in the latter half of next year, “somewhere in Eastern Europe,” according to Black, with a host of “high profile cameos” in the movie.

But the production banner is not all about big-budget dreams.

Black, Fairbanks and Armstrong are all committed to the family dynasty’s commitment to nurturing and creating talent behind the camera for the future.

The upstart banner has already committed to make “Kill The Dead,” an original script from award-winning short filmmaker Shaune Harrison, its first fully-financed picture.

Harrison’s script, which he will direct, is set in the near future and details a reality TV show where contestants kill people recently brought back to life for that purpose.

With a budget of a moderate £5 million ($8 million), “Kill the Dead” will set out the company’s stall for supporting fresh talent and storytelling. Harrison said he has just delivered the second draft of “Dead” to Fairbanks and hopes to make it next year. Harrison’s day job is as a prosthetic make up artist of repute whose credits include “Captain America” and the “Harry Potter” movies.

The company has backing from a “tapestry of high-networth individuals,” according to Black and also has commercial relationships with U.S. bank Metro Bank, whose Anthony Thompson was on hand to talk up the proposed launch of the U.K.’s latest retail banking enterprise and HSBC.

Fairbanks Productions has also engaged U.K. legal eagles Harbottle and Lewis to add gravitas to the ambitions.

Douglas Fairbanks starred in a myriad Hollywood productions and was one of the founders of United Artists in 1919. His son, Fairbanks Jr., a decorated soldier on both sides of the Atlantic after serving in PT boats and gunboats in WW2 followed in his father’s footsteps carving out a successful career in movies also.

From The Hollywood Reporter

If you’re already shopping for the perfect Christmas gifts for the silent movie fan on your list, The Douglas Fairbanks Museum is  offering a great holiday special in our online gift shop.

Right now, you can take 15% off all orders of $60 or more if you use the code word “HALLOWS” at checkout.

Whatever you’re looking for: t-shirts, hats, clothes for baby and pets, tote bags, accessories, coffee mugs, clocks, wall calendars, posters and photographic prints from the museum’s archives, you’ll find it all in our virtual gift shop.

Hurry, this great deal won’t last long! Sale ends Oct. 13th, 2010.

Doug Fairbanks' Santa Monica beach house


The 1922 house has ocean views and is nestled in Santa Monica’s ritzy Gold Coast area.


The former Santa Monica beach house of silent film star Douglas Fairbanks Sr. has sold for $6,862,000.

In an area that became known as the Gold Coast after Hollywood stars and industry giants built homes there in the 1920s, the neighborhood included such titans as MGM head Irving Thalberg and his actress-wife, Norma Shearer, oilman J. Paul Getty and comic actor Harold Lloyd. The street where Fairbanks’ home sits was nicknamed Rolls-Royce Row.

The ocean-view Mediterranean, built in 1922, has formal living and dining rooms, three bedrooms, 3 1/2 bathrooms and 3,817 square feet of living space. A wide brick terrace extends the living area off the back of the house and steps down to the swimming pool and spa, which are flanked by lawns lined with mature trees. There is a paddle tennis or sports court and a fire pit.

The property previously sold in 1994 for $1,815,000, according to public records. It came on the market less than a year ago at $7.9 million.

The hit “The Mark of Zorro” (1920) established Fairbanks as a swashbuckling leading man. His natural athleticism was put to use in films such as “Robin Hood” (1922) and “The Thief of Bagdad” (1924).

Jeffrey Hyland of Hilton & Hyland, Beverly Hills, had the listing. Chad Rogers of the same office represented the buyer.


Story by Lauren Beale, The Los Angeles Times.

Copyright © 2010, The Los Angeles Times

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On May 23, 1883, a ray of Colorado sunshine was born in Denver. He grew up to become our swashbuckling hero of the silent silver screen and everyone’s favorite all-American boy!


Happy Birthday, Mr. Fairbanks…and *thank you* for all the smiles you’ve given the world.:)

Douglas Fairbanks as D'Artagnan from "The Three Musketeers" as featured on the cover of Motion Picture Magazine, September 1921. From the collections of the Douglas Fairbanks Museum.
Douglas Fairbanks as D’Artagnan from “The Three Musketeers” as featured on the cover of Motion Picture Magazine, September 1921. From the collections of the Douglas Fairbanks Museum.

Mold: The Whole Picture, Part 4: Effect of Mold on Schools, Homes, & Human Beings

by Ellen McCrady
Ellen Ruth McCrady, publisher of Abbey Publications and editor of the Abbey Newsletter, Alkaline Paper Advocate, and The Mold Reporter passed away on March 5, 2008.


When Pasteur demonstrated in the late 1800s that bacteria caused disease, it took a long while for the public to get a clear idea of what bacteria were and how they did what they did. In the 1930s, many people thought you could catch conjunctivitis by looking at someone who had an infected eye, and even today most people do not know the best way to avoid infections in general.

Still, most people agree on the basics: You catch an infection from other people, because a germ invades your body through broken skin, the digestive system, or lungs. If it makes you very sick, you go to a doctor, who will diagnose you and maybe take a blood sample to confirm his diagnosis. Then he will treat you with drugs or a shot of antibiotics and other therapeutic measures. He may have to operate. You go to bed, and if you do not die, you will get well, though you may carry scars (smallpox) or be otherwise disabled (polio).

When people are made sick by mold, it’s a whole new ball game. You do not catch mold spores from other people the way you do germs. You catch them from buildings, or the materials you work with. The longer or more intense your exposure, the sicker you get. What makes you sick is usually not the organisms themselves, but the airborne toxins and allergens they produce. You may become so sick that you have to go to bed, but your doctor will probably not know how to diagnose you and you may look healthy to your friends. Even if you do get diagnosed, your medical insurance will probably not cover your treatment expenses. If you lose your job and your health, and sue the landlord to get the money for medical expenses and loss of income, chances are very small that you will win in court, because it is virtually impossible to prove to a jury that your health was damaged because of mold in the building. Juries need the equivalent of a smoking gun, and so far, there is no foolproof way to connect a moldy building with a sick person.

Even after you think you have recovered, you have not gained immunity, as you do after you have had chickenpox or measles; in fact, you may be more vulnerable to future exposures than you were to start with, just as you would be after exposure to other common toxins, such as lead.

(Gary Frost, in a recent letter about his own experience with mold, concluded by saying, “Mold is certainly smart. It is stunning to realize how opportunistic ‘primitive’ organisms are and how they maximize any benefits from change in their environments. These organisms don’t need evolution…. They are responsive enough as is.”)

Besides the responsiveness, or adaptation to different conditions that Gary mentions, they mutate with relative ease, and they associate with other microorganisms in proportions that change as the conditions change—i.e., as a location grows moister, the proportion of Stachybotrys species will increase, and so on. So it is hard to tell what you are dealing with.

In the tropics, the situation is even more serious. J. David Miller, in his excellent paper, “Fungi as Contaminants in Indoor Air,” says,

In the cold climate of Canada, very few people encounter someone who dies from a fungal disease. This is not the case in tropical countries where diseases caused by fungi are common. There are a number of invariably fatal systemic infections as well as skin and nail mycoses and lung infections. Diseases caused by ingestion of fungal toxins [i.e., eating spoiled food] are leading causes of death in tropical and subtropical countries, especially liver cancer induced by the ingestion of aflatoxins, esophageal cancer caused by some Fusarium toxins and deaths caused indirectly by the excessive consumption of immune system depressors such as the trichothecenes (1).

Reports of Mold-Infested Schools and Homes

Papers given at conferences may give statistics on moldy homes and schools as part of a larger picture, but somehow personal and newspaper reports of individual schools and homes are better at showing how mold can affect peoples’ lives.

In a suburb of Dallas about six years ago, according to a 1997 report in the Fort Worth Star Telegram, health officials were puzzled by the illness of a suburban woman, who had suffered from flulike symptoms for two weeks after she moved into a condominium. A regional industrial hygienist with the health department was quoted as saying that “the neighbors found her crawling around on her hands and knees complaining of earthquakes.” Health officials investigated her case and found that her illness was caused by fungus in the air-conditioning ducts of her condo. The industrial hygienist was quoted as saying, “She was totaled. Her system was overwhelmed. She was in the hospital for 60 days before they got her cleaned out.”

The news report goes on to say that public knowledge of fungi does not reach far beyond mushrooms, athlete’s foot and yeast infections, despite its deadly potential. Michael Rinaldi, a mycologist at Audie Murphy Veterans Affairs Hospital in San Antonio, is quoted as saying that in the last 10 years mycology, the study of fungus, has become one of the most critical in all of medicine.

Susceptibility to fungus varies, it says. Infants, the aged, asthma patients who are being treated with steroids, and people with weakened immune systems are most susceptible. (The author failed to mention one other important group: women. In some occupations they are several times more likely to be affected than men.)

CNN Interactive, a website, had a story in November 1997 on a post-flood case of Stachybotrys growth in West Bloomfield, Michigan. The 14-month-old granddaughter had developed breathing problems, and the grandmother was getting headaches and often felt ill, especially when she was in the basement. These troubles came after the spring rains that flooded the basement, bringing on the growth of Stachybotrys, visible only as a small round black circle on the wall.

Dr. George Riegel of Healthy Homes commented on this incident, saying that few people who clean up after a flood do a professional job and contain the area (with tape and plastic sheeting), with the result that the mold spreads to other parts of the house. To remove it safely, he said, would cost that family close to $10,000. He also said that most black molds are not Stachybotrys. Stachybotrys grows only on wood and paper products, and can be found in only about 2 to 5 percent of American homes.

The grandmother said the news was rather unnerving. “I am ready to move, but where am I going? This is my home. I can’t afford to just pack up and leave.”

Hill Elementary School in Austin, Texas, was closed down at the beginning of March and students assigned to other schools when mold (a lot of Penicillium and a small amount of Stachybotrys) was found in the outer rooms in the main building. Further investigation revealed that the annex buildings and portables also had mold.

As usual, in cases like this in which a thorough investigation is done, several conditions were found to have contributed to the overgrowth: a spring in the crawl space beneath the building after rains (not a big problem); poor ventilation (air pressure higher outside the building than inside—a big problem, because this draws in contaminated moisture); condensation from cool roof beams, which dripped into the school walls (since the moisture barrier at that interface no longer was able to stop it); skylights (always potential sources of water troubles); and (as in most schools), outer walls lined on the inside with moisture-impermeable chalkboards, bulletin boards and cabinetry, all of which tend to trap the moisture within the walls.

Since the demolition is not complete yet, more pockets of mold and decay may come to light. The outlying buildings (annex and portables) have been found to have mold contamination too. The school board has authorized the schools superintendent to spend a million dollars to correct the problem. No one can be sure that the building will be ready for the fall semester, four months away.

The children were getting sick and parents were complaining last fall, months before the condition of the school was recognized as a problem.

The local paper ran a letter to the editor recently from someone who has been through this kind of crisis before. It says, in part:

Stachybotrys was found in a Bryan school building in 1996. I know because I was the principal. I requested environmental studies be conducted by a biologic hazards company. Instead, the district hired an industrial company unfamiliar with mold problems. Two environmental specialists reviewed the findings and found dangerously high levels of Stachybotrys as well as other molds. My health deteriorated, and I was granted disability retirement by the medical board of the Texas Teacher Retirement System because of the effects of toxic exposure to Stachybotrys.

My heart goes out to the staff and students who are still in the Bryan building.

A story about mold contamination of hospitals was sent to the Aspergillus discussion list. It was from a subscriber in Finland, replying in sympathy to someone who had observed water damage to ceilings in five hospitals she had been in. The Finnish subscriber said, “In my country too we have many mold-contaminated hospitals (at least 3 central hospitals), unfortunately.


“One of my friends has been diagnosed with occupational allergic alveolitis; she had been working in a mold-contaminated library, which was closed later and the staff was moved to another building. She complained that she got bad symptoms whenever she was in her central hospital. All the staff, even doctors, denied mold problems and said she was wrong. Now 3 wards of this hospital have been closed for mold reparation!!!”

[To find information about Aspergillus diseases, the Aspergillus web site, e-mail group moderators, the e-mail archive, FAQs and e-mail list commands, go to http://www.aspergillus.man.ac.uk/listinfo.htm].

Another subscriber to the aspergillus mail list, Danitza Shanahan, contributed the following story to the list March 9. She saw it on page 24 of the Arizona Republic for March 5:

New Home Becomes a Horror

Mold Endangers Children’s Health
A Mother’s Dream
by Beverly Ford

When Michelle Harless finally scraped up the money for her first house, she thought she was prepared for the rigors of home ownership. But within months, her Glendale dream home became her worst nightmare. The stuff of that nightmare: mold fed by a leaky pipe.

Four months after moving into the three-bedroom house, Harless’s 7-year-old son, Thomas Fuller, who suffers from cystic fibrosis, had to be hospitalized. Two months later, he was hospitalized again. Doctors said Thomas had lost 33 percent of his lung function because of a common but sometimes toxic mold, called aspergillus.

“When it came back aspergillus we were blown away,” said Harless, 26. Her 2-year-old son, James Hatley, wasn’t immune, either. He lost his appetite, developed red, cracked skin and began coughing and sniffling. Doctors thought he was suffering from seizures. Harless knew otherwise: It was aspergillus mold.

Then, she said, things went from bad to worse. Harless’s insurance company told her that her policy didn’t cover mold infestation. “I thought I did everything right,” she said, “I had a home inspection. I had homeowners insurance, I had a home warranty. But it’s a nightmare.”

For weeks, Harless tried to convince the company that the mold was caused by a leaky pipe, which was covered under her policy. But the company stood firm. And despite her son’s health problems, the company refused to reimburse the family for moving into an apartment, she said, or to pay to clean up the mold that had by now permeated the home.

“I felt trapped,” Harless said. “Mold affects healthy people, but for my son it was a life-and-death matter.”

The insurance carrier, Century National Insurance Co., declined to comment on Harless’s claims. It was only when an insurance adjuster put up the money that Harless and her family were able to move into a nearby apartment. Soon, both children’s health improved, although Thomas’s lungs remain permanently damaged, she said. Harless and her husband continue to make payments on the $91,000 home while they wait to see whether their insurance company will pay for repairs. The firm has sent inspectors to examine the home and recently offered to work out a settlement.

A case similar to Michele Harless’s, only worse, was reported in USA Weekend for Dec. 3-5, 1999. It starts out this way:

“It started with a series of leaks. Within a year, Melinda Ballard’s 11,500-square-foot Texas dream home was quarantined; her 3-year-old son, Rees, was on daily medication to treat scarred, asthmatic lungs; her husband, Ron Allison, had lost his memory along with his job; and the family was living out of suitcases and locked in a seemingly endless battle with their insurance company. The problem? Household mold [Stachybotrys].”

This family is not poor: the house sits on a 72-acre estate in Dripping Springs, west of Austin. She is described as an heiress. But now she has to put on a HEPA mask in order to enter the house, which she does once a week to check the air conditioning. The men who are cutting out the moldy timbers have to wear moon suits. David Straus, a mold expert with the Texas Tech University Health Sciences Center, spent just 30 minutes inside the house, but was throwing up hours afterward, and now has severe hearing loss in one ear from the mold. The family suffered from headaches, dizziness and fatigue, then respiratory and sinus problems, in addition to profusely bloody runny noses and coughed-up blood.

The family is suing their insurance company (Farmers Insurance) for $100 million, and the County District Attorney has initiated a grand jury investigation to consider criminal charges against the company.

Given the Usual Course of Events, What Options Do We Have?

If you suspect your building has a mild or moderate mold problem, try to identify its source or sources so you can avoid them, or do something about them, or direct the attention of technical people to them. If you have been affected, your own reactions may be the best indicator available. Take notes on the date, area, presence of moisture (especially after a rain), any apparent mold growth, and effect on you. Forget about setting out petri dishes or measuring the humidity of the air.

Early recognition of a mold problem, and identification of its cause and remedy, can keep the mold from getting a head start if you have done your homework, provided the financing and approval for assessment and remediation can be found. The above instances show that residents and staff in a moldy building have no good options left if the mold gets a head start. This situation may eventually change when buildings are built and maintained to prevent moisture accumulation, when doctors learn to recognize the effect of mold exposure, when lawmakers require insurance companies to cover people affected by a mold disaster, and when mycologists are able to make an airtight causal connection between the presence of indoor mold and the health of people who inhabit the same space. Any change from the present situation will be an improvement. At present, though, rich and poor alike have only one good option: preparedness.

1. Maintain a list, compiled from references if possible, of all the experts you may one day have to call on (an informed doctor, a consultant who can assess the mold problem and advise on cleanup, someone who is knowledgeable about construction of houses and management of HVAC systems, etc.). The nearest one may be in another town.

2. Gather information: Buy books on the topic, visit informative websites, talk with informed people, get friendly with the building engineer and competent local service people who specialize in duct and carpet cleaning, join organizations that have mold prevention and recovery on their agendas, e.g. C.U.R.E. (Citizens United for Responsible Environmentalism, Inc., an international nonprofit education and research organization based in California, focusing on educating doctors and the public about mold diseases and toxicoses—tel. 408/268-4085, fax 408/476-8552).

One book that everyone should have access to has just appeared in print: Guidelines on Assessment and Remediation of Fungi in Indoor Environments, available on the Internet at http://www.ci.nyc.ny.us/html/doh/html/epi/moldrpt1.html (2) Future revisions to it will be posted there too. For more information, contact the New York City Department of Health at 212/788-4290. An expert panel was convened in 1993, originally to develop policies for medical and environmental evaluation and intervention in cases of Stachybotrys atra [chartarum] contamination. This revised guideline covers all fungi.

3. Follow developments in research and make contacts. Go to a mold conference now and then, or read in the professional literature on current research, to be sure your information is up to date. This will also make people more willing to talk to you; you can put yourself on a grapevine if you have recent news to swap. (As far as I know, there are no extension or college courses on coping with mold, except perhaps in the historical preservation field.)

4. Study real situations. Even if there is no leak to be found, water can enter a building through porous building materials, including concrete. It may enter as water vapor and condense and collect in hidden places. There are many esoteric ways for water to enter a house and feed mold. They are hard to understand without some kind of hands-on experience or a good teacher or a couple of really good books. So study is unavoidable.

5. If you have to leave your home or job despite everything, it helps to be on good terms with family members and friends who might be able to put you up in an emergency. A good savings account may be more use to you than medical insurance.

Picking Up the Pieces

If the mold problem is not too bad, or if the source of the problem is on neighboring property rather than inside your house, you could do as several C.U.R.E. members have done: install freestanding HEPA air filters in the office or bedroom, or even in every room in the house. Central HEPA filter units, with their own fan and air supply, can be installed as part of the central air conditioner. They work best if you have a good air return system. A good air filter large enough to handle a small or average bedroom can be had for $150-190. It will not work, however, if you set it on a deep carpet full of dust. This will just blow the dust up into the air. Set it on a stool or chair.

If you get really sick from mold, the first thing to do is to avoid further exposure (i.e., leave home or take extended leave from your job). Then ask your friendly local mycologist to recommend a good doctor. Or find an Internet list of doctors who can treat mold, and be prepared to travel, because there may not be one in your town. There are medicines nowadays that are effective against a fairly broad range of mold species.


1. Atmospheric Environment Vol. 26A, No. 12, pp. 2163-2172, 1992.

2. Guidelines on Assessment and Remediation of Fungi in Indoor Environments, available on the Internet at http://www.ci.nyc.ny.us/html/doh/html/epi/moldrpt1.html. the printed version, 14 pp. long, is issued by the New York City Dept. of Health, Environmental & Occupational Disease Prevention, 125 Worth St. c/n 34C, New York, NY 10013. It is intended for use by building engineers and management, but is available for general distribution to anyone concerned about fungal contamination, such as environmental consultants, health professionals, or the general public.

Mold Websites & Listservs Related to Health

  • aspergillus-on@mail-list.com (A listserv for people diagnosed with Aspergillus infections. A minor source of usable information; mainly serves as a support group.)
  • http://www.aspergillus.man.ac.uk/ (A technical website which offers an impressive variety of information, including the full text of a large number of medical papers. Registration is needed if you want to have access to all sections.)
  • http://www.chem.umd.edu/organic/jarvis.html (Analysis of 4 toxins, esp. tricothecenes, a kind of toxin produced by many species of mold)
  • http://isiaq.org/ (International Society for Indoor Air Quality. Good on buildings and air handling, but not on mold itself, or on health.)