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TROUBLESHOOTERS IN-DEPTH INVESTIGATION: Pekin woman fights lung infection doctors say is from mold in her apartment

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PEKIN (HOI) -- When Sue Watson and her late husband were looking to downsize, they knew what city they wanted to stay in.

"It's a pretty nice area up here and we didn't want to be around a bunch of apartments on top of one another."

They waited 6 years to get in to Park Ridge Estates in Pekin, which is part of the Housing Authority.

She has lived there for 12 years now and said there haven't been any issues until recently.

"My doctors found it. I was having a lot of pain and I get pneumonia all the time. They did a CT scan and they found it," said Sue Watson, who is fighting a fungal infection in the lung.

The "it" she's referring to is what her doctor calls a serious fungal/mold (aspergillosis) lung infection.

A doctors note she received in August 2020 stated in part..."This was caused by exposure to mold/fungus in the environment where she lives."

Watson said, "I about died. I was like what? He said well, we'll see what we can do."

The letter went on to say..."It is imperative for her to avoid mold and second hand smoke in order to heal from her infection."

"We pretty much just have each other. My dad passed away a few years ago," said Tammy Niklewicz, Sue's daughter.

Niklewicz said this infection is on top of other health issues her mom has, like severe COPD and Chronic Respiratory Failure.

"It's hard because she's always in pain. Trying to see her walk from the car just to get in the house is hard. She can hardly make it. She can hardly breathe," said Niklewicz.

Despite the August note, Pekin Housing Authority didn't bring in a crew to test for mold until November, three months later.

The report is dated November 11th, 2020.

It shows the level of aspergillus in Sue's unit was 100, outside the unit was a count of 660.

The report said this indicated there is not a presence of an independent source of mold indoors.

Basidiospores and myxomycetes were higher inside.

Watson feels she knows where the mold is coming from.

"I called the place that came and checked for mold and they said they can get rid of it, but they have to know what's on the other side of that wall between me and the neighbors...They don't let them in. I don't know why they didn't check there in the first place. They know it's not moldy here."

Pipes in her bathroom were replaced a few years ago, but Watson said they didn't touch the drywall.

Since the mold report she has received two more doctors letters.

An infectious disease doctor wrote, "she is being treated for pulmonary aspergillosis that is acquired through inhalation of mold spores."

A doctor with the Illinois Lung and Critical Care Institute wrote, "It is important that the aspergillus in her apartment complex be treated and removed."

The Troubleshooters asked OSF Healthcare for interviews with these doctors, but our request was denied.

"I cry about it. It's been hard. I'm in a lot of pain," said Watson.

So how does someone develop an aspergillus infection in the lung?

According to the CDC most people breathe in the spores every day without getting sick.

Those with a weakened immune system are at a higher risk of having an issue.

There are 180 types of aspergillus and less than 40 can cause infections in humans.

"If I don't get rid of it it's going to take me. There's no way out. They hope they can just get it to shrink because I guess once it's in there I don't know if they can ever get it out," said Watson.

Watson has called number after number and never gets an answer to her problem.

Her daughter Tammy feels both she and her mom are getting the run around from the Pekin Housing Authority.

"He tries to be very compassionate, but then when I ask what are we going to do about it he never has an answer," said Sue's daughter Tammy.

It's been silence for months.

"It's a life, it's somebodies health. You don't know how long somebody has to live," said Sue's daughter Tammy.

The Troubleshooters received a statement from Pekin Housing Authority Executive Director Dennis Green:

It is the policy and practice of the housing authority to recognize and clean mold growth when it is found. It has also been the recommendation of the health department that “If you can see it, clean it up”.

In response to your inquiry regarding our actions at a specific address, housing authority staff performed an initial visual inspection of the unit and found no indication of mold growth or leaks that might promote mold growth. Due to continued complaints by the tenant, an environmental consulting firm was hired to assess the situation. Indoor and outdoor air samples were collected by an industrial hygienist and submitted to an independent lab for analysis. The lab results, industrial hygienist’s report and recommendations were forwarded to the housing authority. The lab report revealed a low enough level of aspergillus inside compared to outside air that the hygienist did not see the need for further investigation. In fact, the level outdoors was 6 times the level recorded indoors.

There are no standards for mold levels in the State of Illinois as confirmed with the local health department with reference to the Illinois Department of Public Health.

Since Aspergillus exists everywhere, the environmental consultant explained it this way “ For the occupant to breathe it in, the mold spores would have to be in the air which means they would be picked up by the air sample. If we were able to bring the spore count down to a level of zero, it would no longer be zero as soon as the occupant opened the door”.

The United States Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) provides detailed information regarding Aspergillus.

Here's a statement the Troubleshooters received from the Illinois Department of Public Health regarding mold:

IDPH does not have the authority to enforce codes that define and protect indoor air quality. We can provide information and recommendations for addressing mold, but we cannot require a landlord to implement the recommendations that we provide. We often refer citizens back to an enforcement entity within their local government, such as a Department of Building and Zoning, for assistance since some mold problems may result from building code violations. 

A reaction to mold depends on how much a person is exposed to, the general health and age of a person and the person’s sensitivities or allergies. The same amount of mold may cause health effects in one person, but not in another. There are no standards or guidelines to judge “acceptable” levels of mold.

The Tazewell County Health Department sent the following:

“Tazewell County has a human habitation ordinance, but we do not specifically address mold as we do not have a certified mold inspector. Therefore, we do not address the organic growth as "mold" or call it "mold" we investigate the source or cause usually related to excess moisture.  This may be something like a leaky roof, improper venting, in adequate insulation etc. If a violation is found, then that must be repaired.  Also, the state of Illinois does not have a limit set on mold. Meaning if an inspection is done in the home there is no threshold/limit.”

Jessica Cook

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