Investigation: Child's illness possibly related to mold in apartment

FOX 46 is working to get results for a mother who says her child’s health has been seriously affected by hazardous conditions found in her north Charlotte apartment.

Jessica Smith's 1-year old son tested positive for some of the highest levels of mycotoxins that a laboratory has ever seen, just months after a FOX 46 Charlotte investigation uncovered mold and water damage in Smith's apartment. Mycotoxins come from mold.

FOX 46 Charlotte’s investigation into Northcross Townhomes, where Smith and her 1-year-old son Lynden Mitchell live, sparked a federal investigation by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. HUD conducted an inspection at Northcross, and the complex didn't pass.

“[My child] is the way that he is because of that house and I know it,” Smith said.

RELATED: Mom claims landlord will not fix mold problem

FOX 46 Charlotte requested a copy of HUD’s inspection report but it has not been provided.

Little Lynden Mitchell was born with a wide range of health issues that affect his immune system. Mitchell is prone to respiratory infections, which prompted one of his doctors with Carolinas HealthCare System to write a letter requesting the apartment to be “tested for mold” and if found, “removed promptly.”

Smith asked FOX 46 Charlotte to investigate why, according to her, management had not fixed water damage issues at the apartment. She sent videos of water pouring from her ceiling in a number of different areas and photos of what appeared to be mold on the walls.

In a recording sent from Smith, Northcross property manager, Charmon Durham, said there was “no mold found.” When Smith later complained about what appeared to be mold on the walls and types of testing, Durham said, “You don’t live in the walls, you live in the actual apartment.”

Smith’s apartment was tested by Page Inspections Plus Inc. on Oct. 23, 2017, and “moderate” levels of the mold cladosporium were found – a common cause of hypersensitivity pneumonitis.

Six different types of molds were found during that test in the apartment, ranging from rare to moderate levels. However, the tests were done after maintenance said it treated the mold with bleach.

Bleach does not completely kill mold when it’s located on drywall or wood.

Fast-forward to May and mold is, once again, back in the apartment. Page Inspections found “very heavy” levels of cladosporium and “moderate” levels of acremonium.

This prompted FOX 46 Charlotte to reach out to Great Plains Laboratories, which tests for mycotoxins in the body produced from mold.

Smith’s son tested off the charts for mycotoxins: Roridin E and Verracarin A. He also tested highly positive for Ochratoxin A.

“There’s little doubt in my mind that these chemicals that he has are coming from the water damage to the house,” Great Plains’ Dr. William Shaw said. “It’s just extremely serious. If it were my child, I’d want them out today.”

Dr. Shaw said out of roughly 10,000 people that his lab has tested for mycotoxins, Mitchell’s case is one of the most severe he’s ever seen.

“The ones that were elevated are among the most toxic types of mold…associated with environmental damage, with areas that have gotten wet and were not cleaned up adequately or in time. This individual has very severe exposure to these mycotoxins, which are harmful to the brain, harmful to the development, harmful to the immune system, harmful to the gastrointestinal tract. So, they’re very toxic chemicals to all the body’s symptoms and this individual has a really serious amount that, unless it is treated, is very likely to have a negative impact on him growing up. This is one of the worst-case scenarios when a child is exposed to these because you’re not only making him sick, you’re impairing his development as a human being.”

Dr. Shaw said Northcross needs to understand how serious this case is.

“The best thing they can do is get this stuff cleaned up as fast as possible because, of course, this can result in legal action,” Dr. Shaw said. “Toxic to your liver, toxic to your immune system, toxic to your brain, toxic to your lungs. So all of these functions in your body can be harmed by exposure to these. As a matter of fact, they’re so toxic that some countries even use them as weapons, as war weapons, they’re so toxic.”

Smith also tested highly positive for Ochratoxin A, which can come from “water-damaged buildings,” but she did not test positive for the other mycotoxins that her son did.

“Young children frequently go through a process of development where certain proteins and enzymes don’t become active until the child is older,” Dr. Shaw said. “That could be one factor.”

FOX 46 Charlotte reached out to North Cross Townhomes, F&W Management -- which runs Northcross-- and its attorney, Janelle Lyons, with Cranfill Sumner & Hartzog.

Northcross’ manager, Charmon Durham, called 911 on FOX 46 Charlotte when we showed up to ask questions, but CMPD said we had every right to be at Northcross as we were a guest of Smith.

Lyons sent FOX 46 Charlotte this statement prior to the apartment testing positive for mold, again, on May 1 and the results arriving on May 4:

Northcross Townhomes community provides housing to individuals and families living below the poverty line with the assistance of HUD subsidies. It is our goal to allocate resources so we may continue to provide affordable housing resources within the Charlotte community where the demand for affordable housing vastly overwhelms the available supply.

However, as you may know from reading about congressional cuts to HUD programs over the last decade, we (as well as many other landlords offering these services around the country) face significant challenges in continuing to provide these free and low cost housing options for Charlotte residents. Thus we often find ourselves under tremendous pressure in working to do the right thing, triaging complaints as they arise, allocating resources and working to do the best we can with limited resources.

We work closely with HUD to ensure that our facilities meet HUD requirements as well as local residential ordinances. Over and above meeting requirements, our staff members are personally invested in the community. Our property manager has faithfully served these residents for over thirteen years. She cares very much and often goes above and beyond her formal duties by providing counsel and support to residents facing difficult situations in their personal lives, with the goal of helping their families thrive. With regard to maintenance, all residents of our community are informed that if they have a maintenance concern, they are supposed to notify property management. Once notified, property management will have our maintenance technicians or a maintenance contractor address the issue to keep the property habitable and in compliance with HUD standards, as well as NC and local Mecklenburg county residential housing requirements.

With regard to resident Jessica Smith who has been prominent in your coverage, we addressed the tenant’s complaints by placing her in a hotel while we had the unit repeatedly air tested for mold by certified indoor air quality technicians/certified site assessors with environmental services, we removed sheetrock from within the unit the tenant believed was affected, replaced said sheetrock and painted. It must be emphasized, again, that all samples collected were determined to be within acceptable levels set by the federal government.

In November, 2017 we then had our corporate representative speak with Jessica and express to her that if she had further issues that were not resolved to her satisfaction by on-site staff, she could contact the corporate representative.

Despite Northcross failing a federal inspection, a HUD spokesperson said it has “every expectation that [Northcross] will address and resolve tenant’s concerns.”

Smith isn’t the only person at Northcross who has had issues with water damage and/or mold.

Current tenant Caleisha Steele, and former tenant, Alexis Nelms, both reached out to FOX 46 Charlotte with concerns about suspected mold and water damage. Steele said her kitchen ceiling caved in from upstairs water leaks.

RELATED: Investigation: Townhouse complex fails inspection, could lose $700,000 in funding

FOX 46 Charlotte also received a City of Charlotte Code Enforcement document, through the Freedom of Information Act, from Oct. 26, 2015 that cites Smith’s neighboring apartment as having a ceiling with “water leaking through," which Northcross remedied as required by law. 

Smith wonders why the federal government allows Northcross to continue housing families in need.

“Why is it that y’all are willing to spend so much money to have people living in places that should be condemned?” Smith asked.

Northcross receives $698,000 from HUD each year.