| Since the movie
bearing her name appeared, everyone knows who Erin Brockovich is:
the working mother who traced illnesses in a small California town
to groundwater contaminated by Pacific Gas and Electric.
the case was settled for hundreds of millions of dollars, Brockovich
got a big promotion, and now divides her time between her job and
She lives in a million-dollar home near Los Angeles,
with her third husband, Eric Ellis, and the youngest of her 3 children
– 11 year-old Beth.
Brockovich says it’s the house she always
wanted. The bonus she got from winning the lawsuit made her dream
possible. But then it turned into a nightmare, 48 Hours Correspondent
Susan Spencer reports.
For months, touring her home required a hazmat
suit. The house was filled with slimy black mold called Stachybotrys.
Few experts dispute that it can cause allergic
reactions. According to industrial hygienist Joe Spurgeon, it can
cause a runny nose, runny eyes, headaches, sinus congestion, cough,
fatigue, and neurological problems.
Brockovich knows the symptoms well: she suffered
with them for more than a year.
“I could not function,” she says.
“It was like this hanger-onner kinda flu. Achy, night sweats,
headache. And I had been on antibiotics month after month.”
She says her whole family suffered from it.
She finally identified the cause when a contractor
she hired to fix leaks put her in touch with attorney Alex Robertson,
who specializes in toxic mold cases. He says business is booming.
“Mold needs a couple of things to grow,”
he says. “It needs water, it needs cellulose. Everything we
build our homes out of almost is cellulose-based.” Brockovich
is suing the builder of her house, subcontractors and the former
owner, claming faulty construction caused water leaks that led to
She says she sees the irony of position: “I
do a major toxic case, I get a bonus for that toxic case, and I
bought a toxic home,” she says with a laugh.
The mold is so toxic that parts of the house were
sealed off. But se vowed the mold would not force her out. Instead,
crews eliminated the mold, one room at a time. The price was roughly
“I’m gonna fight my way through it
to the very end,” she says.
Steve and Karen Porath of Forresthill, California,
took even more drastic action with their house. To get rid of their
mold problem, they had their house torched, giving it to local firemen
for a training exercise. The Poraths had no money for expensive
repairs, and, of course, no prospective buyers.
The same mold bedeviling the Poraths and Brockovich
forced the Ballards to evacuate their 22-room, 11,000- square foot
mansion in Austin, Texas.
Melinda Ballard blames the mold for her son Reese’s
asthma and learning disabilities, and for her husband Ron’s
memory loss. Eventually Ron quit his job as an investment banker.
He sought out mold specialist Dr. Eckherdt Johanning, who gave him
a devastating diagnosis: brain damage.
Ron’s condition is a major part of the Ballards’
landmark lawsuit against their insurance company – Farmers.
They blame the company for the mold that has wrecked their home,
saying, in effect, that the company refused to raise up enough money
fast enough to fix water leaks.
They also hold the company responsible for the
family’s physical and neurological problems.
“For the rest of our lives, we will have
to worry about Ronny and Reese and their medical conditions,”
But the Centers for Disease Control and the Environmental
Protection Agency say that some of the most extreme health risks
of mold, such as brain damage and memory loss, have not yet been
During the trial, the judge cited that lack of
scientific evidence to deliver a major blow to the Ballard case:
He refused to admit any testimony that mold causes brain damage-in
effect wiping out the family’s medical claims. Brockovich
says science just hasn’t caught up with reality.
The jury agreed, and ruled in favor of the Ballards
in every category. The total award: $32 million. Farmers’
Insurance is appealing, but for now Ron and Melinda are savoring
their win. Melinda testified in support of a new California law,
which treats mold as a public health hazard.