Home is where the heart is. But what if it’s also slowly but surely making you sick? That nightmarish scenario happens more often than people realize.
There is often a definitive link between a person’s home and a person’s health, with many factors influencing the degree and substance of the effect, according to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.
How a home is designed, constructed, and maintained directly affects the quality of the air and water in the house, and the chemicals and potential molds it harbors. Structural and safety features—or their absence—can also contribute to everything from an increased risk for injuries to asthma—and even cancer.
Here are three stories that give new meaning to the word “homesick,” as well as advice on what to do if you find yourself in a similar scenario.
1. ‘My leaky roof made me sick’
When Colorado resident Jennifer Pillari joined the rest of the world in lockdown in March 2020, she found that her health took a dive—and it wasn’t due to COVID-19.
“I began to collect an inexplicable range of health symptoms: joint pain, frequent urination, rashes, brain fog, panic attacks, digestive issues, and insomnia,” Pillari says. “My hands were actually stuck like claws, and I couldn’t make fists. I ultimately had to take the doorknob off between my house and garage so I wouldn’t become a prisoner in my own home. I was initially misdiagnosed … with a variety of autoimmune diseases: multiple sclerosis, rheumatoid arthritis, gout, Hashimoto’s thyroiditis.”
But no treatments were making her better, so her doctor ordered another test. This time, the mycotoxin test “showed extremely elevated levels of Ochratoxin A, a toxic secondary metabolite produced by Aspergillus mold.”
But she had dismissed the possibility of mold caused by water damage because she’d been told her home received a top-to-bottom remodel right before she purchased it.
After finding herself bedridden with a kidney infection some months later, she finally discovered that a slow roof leak had caused the mold buildup.
“Since I have left the environment, my symptoms have resolved, I am 90% better most days, unless I am re-exposed to mold or other water-damaged building toxins,” she says.
Pillari is currently in litigation with the parties responsible for maintaining the roof of the home.
2. ‘My home gave my baby asthma and cost us thousands’
For almost a decade, Liz Sweeney lived in a rental in Idaho with her husband and their child.
Initially, they dismissed their nascent health issues.
“My husband always had bad allergies, so we thought the progression of allergies to asthma was because of his family’s history of ‘bad lungs,’” Sweeney says. “When my daughter was born and had to use an inhaler from the time she was a baby, we thought she also inherited bad lungs. She would sneeze and cough uncontrollably at home—but we discovered she was much more comfortable at school.”
They were already using mold inhibitors in their bathrooms because they didn’t have vents, and they added air filters in their bedrooms. But nothing seemed to help. Soon, she says they were spending $300 every six weeks on asthma medication.
“I mentioned my concern about the possibility of black mold to our landlord. She said she’d look into it, but never did,” Sweeney says. Eventually, they decided they had to move.
“Within a month of living in our new home, just two miles away, all the medical issues disappeared,” Sweeney says. “Zero asthma attacks. Sneezing and coughing fits vanished. We haven’t bought inhalers since—so we’re saving about $2,600 a year. It’s been eight years, and I wonder how the family that moved in after us is faring.”
Now, she wishes they’d moved earlier. As for recouping the thousands of dollars they spent on medication and treatment, Sweeney decided to move on.
“We didn’t have proof until after we moved that it was the house that caused the issues—so we didn’t have any recourse,” Sweeney says.
3. ‘Poor indoor air quality sickened my entire family’
When Matthew Sanchez moved into a new home in Florida with his family, they immediately noticed something wrong.
“My family and I experienced a variety of health issues, including respiratory problems, headaches, and skin irritation,” Sanchez says. “We didn’t discover the source of our health problems until we had our home tested for indoor air quality. Mold, volatile organic compounds, and other pollutants were found in high concentrations. We took immediate action to address these issues, including mold remediation, ventilation improvements, and the replacement of some of our household products with nontoxic alternatives.”
It was difficult, time-consuming, and costly. But he says they now prioritize testing and maintenance of the house to prevent future problems.
What to do if you suspect your home is making you sick
In the three scenarios above, mold and unhealthy air quality were responsible for making the home inhabitants sick. Indoor mold is a big problem for many homeowners.
“Mold spores are everywhere, but it becomes a problem when there is excess moisture. A bathroom or kitchen without proper ventilation can lead to moisture buildup,” says Anderson Franco, a San Francisco–based lawyer who has represented tenants, landlords, and insurance companies in homesick lawsuits.
If you are moving into a new home, or suspect that your existing home is making you sick, you should take action sooner rather than later.
“The most important step in resolving the issue is identifying where and why the mold exists,” Franco says. “If the ventilation is inconsistent with building code requirements, then the landlord or builder could be held liable. However, if the tenant or homeowner never runs the fan or opens the window, then the excess moisture buildup can be tenant-made.”
If you’re not at fault for the presence of mold, you can consider taking legal action.
Tony Abate, chief technical officer at AtmosAir Solutions, agrees that home health often comes down to air quality.
“The heating and air-conditioning system in your home is a priority because the most overlooked toxins in a home can often be found in the air,” he says. “Your HVAC can be a collector of molds and bacteria and lead to the spread of things that cause illness and allergy symptoms.”
Abate recommends servicing the HVAC system once or twice a year to prevent mold, dust, and bacteria from building up. You should also change your HVAC filter every three months or so.
If you find mold in your home, are the removal/remediation efforts covered?
Steve Wilson, director of technical underwriting at Hippo, a home insurance group, says homeowners insurance covers mold on a case-by-case basis.
“Mold coverage is one of the more complex categories of your homeowners insurance policy. Not only is mold difficult to remove, but the root cause is hard to track down—and that’s something you need to know if you want to file a claim,” Wilson says.
Before signing any policy, Wilson recommends researching the types of mold growth covered by your insurer.
Mold caused by neglect, or from damage that caused it before you purchased your home, will never be covered, “so make sure to conduct a thorough inspection of your new home before buying,” Wilson says.
If you do find mold, remediation costs around $3,000 but depends on the size and scope of the issue.