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CA Mushrooms

Book Review

Carpet Monsters and Killer Spores:
A Natural History of Toxic Mold

By Nicholas P. Money
Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press, 2004
200 pages; 10 color illustrations, 10 halftones & line illustrations; $24.95 (hard cover)
ISBN 0195172272

When first we met Nik Money, mycologist at Miami University (the one in Ohio), he was closeted in a backyard shed writing Mr. Bloomfield's Orchard, accompanied by visions of Michelle Pfeiffer. Apparently, he found life in a shed to his liking, as he returned to it, "a couple of years older, definitely not wiser" and now accompanied by visions of Nicole Kidman, to write about the killer mold crisis (or is it?). His account is lively and liberally spiced with his often irreverent humor.

Carpet Monsters & Killer Spores

Stachybotrys chartarum - "stachybotrys" for those who prefer the simpler common names-is the most infamous of the black molds, responsible for production of dark scuzz on all manner of surfaces around our homes. It produces toxic spores that have been blamed for human illness and death, and its presence in American homes has prompted thousands of lawsuits against insurance companies and more than one multimillion-dollar settlement, much to the dismay of insurers and delight of attorneys. Seemingly, we have a crisis on our hands or, more accurately, on our walls. But is there really a serious health threat, or is much ado being made about nothing, or at least about not very much? Answering that question is the central focus of Money's new book.

The story has three main parts, two of them closely related and the third not so closely. First, Money introduces us to the biology of stachybotrys, explains how it can affect human physiology and how this has been learned largely through experimentation on other animals, and reviews cases of human suffering in which stachybotrys has been implicated. Here he does an excellent job of providing an objective assessment of the threat that stachybotrys can pose to us.

The second part centers on the legal and legislative fallout from the discovery of molds in homes and the creation of a new industry-mold remediation consultation. Here we learn that even the rich and famous can be targets of these foul fungi: Ed McMahon of Tonight Show fame was forced to evacuate to a $23,000-a-month rental house while his Beverly Hills domicile was "remediated," although the cleanup came too late for his unfortunate dog Muffin, who was put to sleep with a severe respiratory illness. Eventual settlement: $7 million. So, what role does our scientific understanding play in these settlements and in the legal decisions that courts render in cases involving harm by molds? I'll not spill the beans.

The third part does not fit comfortably into the flow of the rest of the book. The final chapter, "A Plague upon Your House," switches from stachybotrys to the molds that cause dry rot of the wooden parts of houses. The emphasis here is on the biology of the fungi, and I found the chapter quite interesting reading, even if it did not mesh terribly well with the stachybotrys story.

Money targeted Carpet Monsters for three groups of potential readers, hoping that: (1) those who are interested in the safety of their homes will find the book helpful in understanding the science behind the hysteria; (2) those in the legal profession or insurance industry will find some useful quotes for supporting arguments on either side of a case; and (3) other scientists will use the book to further their knowledge of the fungi. To these groups I would add a fourth and fifth: (4) realtors who have to deal with issues of disclosure during real property transactions; and (5) anyone interested in how science is used, misused, or not used by our legal, legislative, and economic institutions.

The observations that Money makes are applicable to many issues beyond the realm of toxic molds, from endangered species protection to funding for space exploration. An interesting, enjoyable, and informative read.

— Review by Steve Trudell, Seattle, WA
— Originally published in The Mycophile 46:2, 2005

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