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Special Investigation: Military families say dangerous mold is taking over their homes

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Posted at 11:14 AM, Nov 21, 2011
and last updated 2012-04-09 18:28:22-04

It’s hard for Shelley Federico to describe the last six weeks of her life after the Marine wife says she discovered mold contaminating her off-base military home.

“It makes me sick to my stomach to tell you the truth,” says Shelley. “You would think we are sending our men and women to fight for our country, you would think that we should at least be able to live in a home we feel safe and secure in.”

Shelley first moved into a home at Norwich Manor in October of 2010.

The Norfolk complex, originally built by the Navy, is now owned and operated by Lincoln Military Housing.

Soon after moving in, Shelley noticed water problems in her master bedroom and bathroom.

“There was water on the floor, there was water in the bottom of the window, the laminate has started to turn purple and this smell was coming out of my bathroom,” says Shelley.

Starting in December of 2010, she called Lincoln 8 times to report the water damage.

But nothing their workers did seemed to fix the problem.

Shelley has asthma and she started getting sick constantly.

“It started out as just a cold, as the months progressed, got to be massive sinus infections, ear infections, and upper respiratory infections.  I’m on a nebulizer just to be able to breathe,” says Shelly.

Then finally, on October 12th of this year, Shelley says Lincoln Military made a decision that changed everything for her family.

Contractors for the company cut open her bedroom wall.

“I got dizzy, the smell, the smell. I will never forget the smell. It was the most pungent smell I ever experienced. It was rancid, just awful,” says Shelly.

She says she immediately started vomiting, with her eyes swelling shut.

After seeing her violent reaction after three hours of exposure, she says Lincoln finally told her to leave the home.

“Kinda started to weave the puzzle pieces together. You could see where it was going. I just kinda made the correlation that this was what was making me sick,” says Shelly.

She contacted Lincoln Military Housing managers requesting her home be tested for mold.

But they told her an inspection wasn't necessary.

She fought Lincoln for days and finally brought in her own mold inspector. The report showed four types of mold were found in high levels around Shelley’s home.

The two emphasized: stachybotrys and chaetomium.

According to recent scientific research, these mold spores can cause respiratory problems, sinus infections, skin lesions, eye sensitivity, digestive issues and even neurological problems like depression and chronic fatigue. These were all the symptoms from which Shelley suffered.

So at her own expense, she hired a certified mold remediation company.

They told her when Lincoln opened up the wall without sealing off her bedroom, mold spores traveled throughout the house, contaminating everything.

“The hardest thing was having to tell my child that her everything is gone. How do you explain that to a child?” asks a tearful Shelley.

On Halloween morning, men wearing respirators and hazmat suits went into Shelley’s home trying to inventory all of her possessions.

After Shelley’s story spread through the neighborhood, other Navy families started coming forward, telling NewsChannel 3 their stories and showing us their moldy bathrooms and leaking windows.

Sabrina Baxter has similar water damage in her home. She has made two complaints within two years.

Lincoln recently replaced her window and she documented the work.

“They were black and moldy, all down my window and they saw this. They said it was dust,” says Baxter.

So Sabrina got her own mold test and results came back elevated with chaetomium as well.

The worst part for the Baxter's was watching their son's health deteriorate.

The two-year-old has been having horrible diarrhea since Lincoln did the work two weeks ago.

“It hurts. It hurts that we pay all this money and we live like this,” says Baxter.

NewsChannel 3 tried to talk to the Lincoln,but they denied our requests for an on-camera interview.

Their public relations company sent a statement instead:

"The inspection showed water stains from the leak but no signs of mold contamination and certainly no reason to believe that mold testing was warranted. We respect all of our residents' opinions, but we strongly deny that Lincoln did anything improper or acted in a fashion that was not in full compliance with the law."

Michael Pinto is a leading mold remediation expert. He wrote the first textbook on mold.

NewsChannel 3 sent him each family's tests and in his opinion, Lincoln did violate professional mold industry standards of care in the Federico's case.

“When they opened up that wall without engineering controls, without specific work practices clearly made this situation much, much worse,” says Pinto.

And for the families living in these homes for years, Pinto says the science is clear.

“Mold and damp environments do indeed cause serious illnesses,” says Pinto.

We went to the Navy to see what oversight, if any, they had.

They told us Lincoln has complete control over day-to-day operations at housing complexes and they hold all legal liability.

But the Navy retains the right for inspections.

After hearing about these allegations, senior military officials visited the Federico's home last Tuesday.

Their report showed that there was no mold visible in the home.

We then shared the photos and mold tests from both families with the Navy.

The next day, the Navy took action and started investigating the families’ complaints.

But Shelley already moved her family out of Lincoln housing and now plans on taking her case to court.

“I just hope there is a lesson to be learned here that you don’t mess with the military and their families. Have some respect for those people over there fighting for your freedom,” says Shelley.

Before our investigation aired, other military families already emailed us. They say they moved out of Lincoln Military Housing because of mold.

One woman wrote:

We had to move the mold was so bad. My children were getting sick. I had 3 medical letters documenting that the mold was the problem and their solution was to spot clean the mold! They told me to just spray it with bleach.

Another wrote:

We moved out two months ago due to mold in our HVAC system, and Lincoln is sweeping it under the rug.  We had to get rid of the mattress and my entire living room set as well as wipe down all of our belongings with an antimicrobial agent.  I have been concerned about mold since the summer of 2010.

This investigation is far from over.

We’ve been receiving a steady stream of emails and phone calls from other families who have stated that they also have been having similar problems.

If you have a mold issue, send an email to desk@wtkr.com