U.S. Navy Cmdr. Christopher van Avery was in the first Gulf War, and he later served nine straight years of sea duty on four warships in spots including the Middle East and Horn of Africa before landing a shore assignment in Honolulu.
But one of the biggest fights he waged was with a housing management company here over mold in his Navy-provided dwelling that he believes is making people sick.
Over 16 months, Forest City Residential Management or one of its contractors was in his house at Pearl City Peninsula at least nine times for mold, flooding and ventilation problems, van Avery said.
One of his three sons, 10-year-old Crispin, had a history of mild allergies that "significantly worsened" while the family was in the home, according to a Naval Health Clinic Hawaii doctor.
The red-headed, freckle-faced boy is on five prescription medicines, and his mother, Kellie, said she has sinus problems when she never had them before.
"The quickest way to cure a headache or runny nose is just to leave the house," she said.
Cmdr. van Avery, 42, repeatedly asked to be moved out of the older housing. Forest City offered other—but similarly older—homes in the same neighborhood, he said.
The mold concerns were bad enough that six families—most of them experienced officers like van Avery—were listed as witnesses in another family’s request for an Inspector General investigation.
FACTS ON FUNGI
What is mold allergy?
» Mold and mildew are fungi. The "seeds," called spores, are spread by the wind outdoors and by air indoors. Some spores are released in dry, windy weather. Others are released when humidity is high. Inhaling the spores can cause allergic reactions in some people.
What are the symptoms?
» The symptoms of mold allergy are similar to the symptoms of other allergies, such as sneezing, itching, nasal discharge, congestion and dry, scaling skin. Mold spores also can cause asthma and other serious illnesses.
What molds cause allergic reactions?
» Alternaria, Cladosporium (Hormodendrum), Aspergillus, Penicillium, Helmin thosporium, Epicoccum, Fusarium, Mucor, Rhizopus and Aureobasidium (Pullularia) are the major culprits.
What can be done?
» Use central air-conditioning with a HEPA or high-efficiency particulate air filter attachment; quickly repair any plumbing leaks; remove bathroom carpeting where moisture is a concern; clean garbage pails frequently; and throw away or recycle old books, newspapers, clothing or bedding.
Source: Asthma and Allergy Foundation of America
Forest City Military Communities is renovating and rebuilding about half of the Navy and Marine Corps’ 6,564 housing units in 36 neighborhoods on Oahu and Kauai, the company said. It also manages all the housing.
According to van Avery, about 40 homes at Pearl City Peninsula are of the same older vintage as his residence.
The mold complaints are the latest over a widespread and well-known infestation in hot-weather Hawaii that a state Health Department official said is relatively harmless to most.
"The majority of molds really do not affect people that much, but it depends. It has to be identified by a lab, but I think the thought that all mold is bad is not correct," said Russell Takata, program manager for the Health Department’s indoor and radiological health branch.
Mold growth has resulted in costly mitigation, however.
Hilton Hawaiian Village in 2002 closed down rooms and later said it was spending $55 million to fix mold problems in Kalia Tower, which cost $95 million to build.
Greg Raap, director of property management for Forest City, said in an e-mail that it "has been working diligently to respond to concerns regarding these (Pearl City Peninsula) homes. We are moving as quickly and thoroughly as possible to ensure all affected families are taken care of."
Van Avery said Forest City’s tactic has been "to deny and delay."
His family finally made it to the top of the waiting list for newer housing unrelated to the mold concerns, and they are moving out of Pearl City Peninsula, but he’s concerned about newer families moving in.
"If we haven’t done something about it and it’s not resolved, the contractor is just going to move another family in there—and you are going to have family after family getting sick," van Avery said.
The single-family and duplex homes about a block from the waterfront were built in the late 1960s and early 1970s, and were later renovated and retrofitted in the 1990s by the Navy with central air-conditioning systems, officials said.
The retrofit of formerly breezy and open-air houses with air-conditioning is at the heart of the problem, several of the families said, because the systems leaked condensation into walls, onto carpets—and even onto their beds as they slept—creating a mold-conducive environment.
"Our vents would drip when it was hot or humid outside," said Shelly Bohner, whose family moved out of the Pearl City Peninsula housing in April 2009. Her husband is a lieutenant commander in the Navy.
Condensate on one occasion dripped on her forehead from an overhead vent as she slept, she said.
"If you opened the covers on those vents, it was mold as far as you can see," Bohner said. "(Condensate) would drip into the walls, onto the floor, and onto the bed."
She had allergy and other health problems, she said, but made a "miraculous recovery within 15 days" after the family requested relocation and moved out.
Melody Dickson, whose husband, Brien, is a commander and submariner working for the U.S. Pacific Fleet submarine force, said her family moved out of Pearl City Peninsula last October.
She filed an Inspector General complaint in March as an informal family coordinator for the mold problems, which she said have been ongoing in the older section of homes.
The van Averys and the Bohner family are listed among six "witnesses." The filing says the homes’ air-conditioning systems don’t have proper insulation or vapor barriers, and that leads to moisture condensation and mold.
A December report by the company Moldlab found that the van Avery’s yellow stucco-exterior, four-bedroom house had "abundant" Cladosporium, Aspergillus, Chaetomium and other mold growth in a vent register, closet and the kitchen.
According to the Asthma and Allergy Foundation of America, Cladosporium and Aspergillus are among a few dozen molds that can cause allergic reactions.
On Oct. 13, 2009, Dr. Rachel Newton-Weaver with Naval Health Clinic Hawaii said in a letter on the van Averys’ behalf that 10-year-old Crispin van Avery’s "mild allergies" had "significantly worsened" in the past year, and she recommended the family be moved into newer military housing to control his symptoms.
Tom Carter, vice president of Forest City Residential Management, wrote to van Avery the next month offering a choice of two other homes. Van Avery said those homes were older homes similar to the home he was living in and in the same neighborhood.
A doctor at Straub Clinic & Hospital in November said in a letter that the "poor ventilation system" at home could be a trigger for the boy’s allergy symptoms.
On Dec. 31, Forest City attorney Theresa Morelli noted three requests by the van Averys since 2009 for newer housing.
But a home free of mold and other allergens was not something the landlord could provide because mold in varying quantities exists in every building, she said in correspondence.
She also said the family had a duty to eliminate allergens including dogs, cats, pet dander and dust mites. Morelli said the company was denying the family’s latest request for a recently or newly constructed home.
Van Avery said the only pets the family had were goldfish for about six months.
Forest City maintenance workers have been helpful and "they come promptly and they do what they can to fix the problem, but they can’t go beyond the basics," van Avery said.
The company eventually hired a contractor to clean out the vents and coat the interior of the airways with a mold inhibitor, but the mold eventually came back, he said.
Kellie van Avery said the air-conditioning unit clogged up and then flooded the living room carpet seven times.
The mold concerns were referred to an Army office that deals with such problems and Forest City’s Raap said the company is working with the office "to come to a resolution that satisfies all parties."
The company said it couldn’t comment on individual cases because of privacy concerns.
Van Avery said he could have rented on the private housing market, but he would not have been able to get a similarly sized house in the area with his allotted housing allowance.
Now he wants Forest City to address the air-conditioning and mold issues in a more comprehensive way.
"We don’t want Forest City to just keep moving people in and out of those houses until they figure out what the problems are—and fix them," he said.