- The Baehr family began experiencing serious health problems, later traced to toxic mold in their Austin, Texas, home.
- Mold clean-up and health treatments have taken a financial toll, as the Baehrs' insurance didn't cover the damage.
- Recent weather events like Hurricane Ida and the Texas deep freeze could lead to an increase in mold-related cases.
Kristina Baehr seemingly had it all: a successful career as a lawyer and an adorable family with newborn twins. Together, they lived in a beautiful house that she considered her "forever" home. But a mysterious and insidious foe was slowly undermining her health, her career, her marriage and her family.
The 9-year-old home of the unsuspecting Baehrs of Austin, Texas, became infested by a common American enemy: toxic mold. The mycotoxins produced by the mold caused health issues that were difficult to diagnose.
"I felt like I had been hit by a truck," said Kristina Baehr. "I started getting migraines that I didn't understand. I felt drunk in the middle of the day. I felt dizzy and lost. I'm losing and forgetting things."
Across the United States, thousands of people struggle with mold growth in their homes. It is often hidden behind walls, buried under flooring or lurking in air ducts. Though the exact number of cases are hard to come by, mold has been identified in all types of residences from military and public housing to dormitories at colleges across the country. Social media groups devoted to mold exposure have attracted tens of thousands of people, who discuss the ways mold has disrupted their lives.
It took several years for the Baehrs to figure out what was causing Kristina's symptoms. But now she hopes to use the knowledge she's gained to help others in similar situations.
Initially, Evan Baehr chalked up his wife's complaints to the struggles that come along with balancing a demanding career with parenting four children.
"I wasn't super sympathetic, " Evan Baehr admitted. "I said 'Hey, we run hard, we have careers, we have young kids at home. Just deal with it,' which is not a great response."
But then the children started getting sick, too. Their oldest son, Cooper, developed a sinus problem. Seven-year-old Madeleine complained of frequent headaches, stomach problems and severe anxiety and behavioral issues. Her youngest son, Scott, was showing signs of developmental disabilities that became so severe teachers questioned whether he might have a serious disorder on the autism spectrum.
"[Scott] was melting down for at least an hour a day, every day. And they just couldn't calm him down, and I thought something's going on," said Kristina Baehr.
A hunt for answers
Then, Kristina Baehr fainted and doctors found a benign tumor. "I was breaking, I was physically breaking down," she said. "I became committed to getting better."
Desperate for answers, Kristina Baehr quit her job as a partner at a law firm to focus on the family's health. After almost three years of tests and visits to various doctors, she discovered the entire family had off-the-chart levels of mycotoxins, which is produced by certain types of mold and fungi.
"Scott's mycotoxin score was just through the roof. The limit is supposed to be eight. He was at 108," she said.
The Baehrs hired construction and mold experts to go through their home and investigate their living space. The experts concluded a faulty roof repair and improper construction allowed in moisture, and a poorly installed heating, ventilation and air conditioning system exacerbated the problem. It was a perfect environment for microbial growth.
"The entire time the Baehrs lived here, there was a small leak causing water to drip into the wall of their... daughter Madeleine's room, which nobody could see," said Joshua Rachal, CEO of Texas Mold Exposure, which worked with the Baehr family.
The Baehrs were living, breathing and consuming mold, he said. It was growing behind walls and blowing through the air ducts. Mold was even discovered on fruit in a bowl in the kitchen and in their drinking water.
"Looking back at all of our health symptoms, there was an elephant in the room that was the source that explains all these different manifestations of strange health things," said Evan Baehr.
Health issues can linger after exposure
In 2007, the U.S. Department of Energy Office of Scientific and Technical Information reported that 4.64 million cases of asthma in the U.S. are due to dampness and mold exposure. Other studies have found that chronic mold exposure can have a wide-ranging impact on multiple organ systems, including the respiratory and nervous system, as well as on cardiovascular and reproductive health.
Researchers also note there is strong evidence that early life exposure to damp environments, molds and mycotoxins during infancy and childhood can cause developmental delays, reduced cognitive function and immune dysfunction. Children who live in damp houses during infancy or early childhood have double the risk of a condition developing adenoid hypertrophy, an enlargement of tissue that often leads to ear, nose and throat issues.
In fact, the health battles can last long after someone leaves a moldy environment.
"Chronic exposure can lead to a long-term sensitization particularly in sensitive individuals," said Jamie Lichtenstein, a biologist and professor who studies mold at Emerson College.
Kristina Baehr said she still develops a severe full body rash with even the smallest amount of exposure, but her biggest worry is how mold exposure will affect the long-term health of her children.
Her son Scott, for example, continues to struggle with significant developmental delays. "He might not ever be the same. Because this is how he grew into the world. He was in my room, in that house. And I nursed him in that house."
'It's all gone'
And that house, Kristina Baehr said, was slowly killing them. The family abandoned it and everything inside to escape the mold. All of their clothing, toys and personal belongings — even the family Bible — are a total loss. They also remain on a strict regimen of medications and therapies to detoxify their bodies.
On the financial side, the mold nightmare has wiped out the family's savings, Evan Baehr said. He estimated they've spent more than a million dollars on demolition, repair and reconstruction, along with relocation costs, medical copays and out-of-pocket treatment expenses.
"You've done everything that you can to prepare to take care of your family financially — and then suddenly a year later, and it's all gone," said he Baehr.
The family has filed litigation against the companies that designed and constructed their home as they look to recoup their losses. Kristina said it's been a long and arduous legal process, but she believes it will be worth it.
"I'm going to go to the ends of the earth and back to get recovery so that our kids can be safe going forward and so that we can rebuild their lives and have the resources to provide for their medical care," Kristina Baehr said.
Mold is not something that is typically covered by homeowners insurance, according to the Insurance Information Institute, which considers the problem a "home maintenance issue."
There are exceptions if the mold growth is the result of a covered peril, such as a fire, hurricane or other similar event. Experts anticipated a spike in mold cases following the widespread flooding from Hurricane Ida and its remnants — or from broken pipes from the crippling winter storm in Texas last February.
"We might expect that with increased flooding due to climate change, that there could be increased cases of water damage to homes and mold growth," said Lichtenstein, the Emerson College mold expert.
The whole experience has left Kristina Baehr with a new mission to help others trying to recover from mold exposure. She recently established a new law practice, Just Well Law, to offer the kind of representation she said she couldn't find for her own family.
"Lots of families like us have experienced this problem all across the United States, and we want to help people recover from the people who made them sick," she said.