By Jan Hefler
Inquirer Staff Writer
After a honeymoon in Mexico, Danielle and David Beety returned to their dream home, a $407,000 yellow stucco on a cul-de-sac in Gloucester County. Their future seemed golden.
"We were on cloud nine," said Danielle Beety, a first-grade teacher who also coached high school field hockey. "Everything was going completely great," added David Beety, a mortgage loan originator.
That lasted two weeks.
Suddenly, Danielle Beety was stricken with severe throat pain and developed flulike symptoms. Her baffled doctors ordered myriad tests. Three times they admitted her to Thomas Jefferson University Hospital in Philadelphia. She required two operations to remove a 5-centimeter abscess inside her neck.
"It was like living a live episode of House," David Beety said, referring to the Fox TV show in which the eccentric Dr. House diagnoses mystery illnesses. Each time Danielle Beety returned to their home on Shira Court in Paradise Homes in West Deptford, her fever returned. Her neck would stiffen with such pain she would cry out when she moved.
Their house emerged as a suspect when they received an urgent phone call from an environmental engineer who did air and wipe testing in their leaky basement.
Michael Stocknoff, owner of A&M Engineering Services in Cherry Hill, reported that he had found elevated levels of mold and gram-negative bacteria - a resistant group of superbugs that can cause respiratory and other ailments. He said they should grab their dog and move out immediately. Doctors seconded the advice.
That was nearly a year ago. The couple moved in with Danielle Beety's parents, leaving all their belongings behind. Her health quickly improved, but now the couple struggle to pay mounting bills and to replace their possessions.
Last week, the Beetys received notice from PHH Mortgage/Charles Schwab that foreclosure on their vacant house would begin next month. David Beety said that could jeopardize his license and job, under new regulations on lenders, plunging them into deeper debt.
Paradise Realty Group L.L.C., the Lakewood, N.J., builder, disputes that the house caused the illness. The company has built seven other homes on the court and says it has received no other complaints.
Chin S. Yang, an internationally known microbiologist with Prestige EnviroMicrobiology laboratory in Voorhees, sees a link between the housing boom and an uptick in environmental-health issues similar to what the Beetys described.
Though he has not examined their house, Yang said he had been involved in numerous "sick building syndrome" and similar cases across the country in which he found toxic bacteria and mold to be a trigger of health problems, including homes contaminated as a result of Hurricane Katrina.
"When the housing market was hot, everyone was in a rush to finish a house and go on to the next," Yang said. Workmanship suffered, he said, and construction defects allowed moisture to creep inside and create a petri dish for mold and bacteria.
"By the time the homeowner finds out, the house may have been leaking for months," Yang said.
Susceptible people, including those with compromised immune systems, breathe bacteria, mold, and the endotoxins the bacteria give off and may develop flulike symptoms, infections, and other problems, he said. Other occupants may not be affected.
Yang said the Beetys' story was one of the more horrific he had heard because of the operations and was relatively rare.
The Environmental Protection Agency says indoor pollution may be as much as 100 times more contaminated than outdoor air. There is increasing awareness of the issue, the EPA says, but no federal standards have been established.
The federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention advise the public to contact local health departments for help. In New Jersey, the local, county, and state health bureaucracies point to one another as the responsible party and insist their role is limited to providing information.
Deborah Sellitto, Gloucester County spokeswoman, said the Health Department did not inspect private residences. Homeowners should hire a private inspector and correct the problem, she said.
John Tiffany, a prominent Hopewell, N.J., industrial hygienist, said home inspectors had begun routinely checking for mold only about five years ago. The key is to correct the problem early and completely. In the worst cases, he said, including foreclosures, demolition may be required because of hidden and pervasive mold and bacteria growth.
West Deptford Administrator Eric Campo said he was surprised to learn of the condition of the Beety home. The town never received any complaints, he said, and once a certificate of occupancy is issued, the matter becomes "a private property issue" between builder and homeowner. Campo also said the county Health Department handled the town's health concerns.
Mark Hallahan, the town's building subcode official, who is responsible for making sure new construction on Shira Court is sound, did not return requests for comment.
David Beety said he had noticed wet walls and puddles in their unfinished basement soon after they moved into the house in the summer of 2008. He alerted Paradise Homes.
Over the next few months, he said, the front yard was dug up six times - twice to fix a broken sewer pipe, three times to repair broken water lines, and once to mend a crack in the foundation. He said that the developer also had tried to clean surface mold with bleach, but that it had recurred and spread.
Finally, David Beety said, the developer promised to buy back the house. But when that did not happen, the couple sued in August, citing Paradise and unknown John Does for breach of contract and fraud.
David Beety said he did not know where to turn. His homeowners' insurance company denied claims, saying the leaks were caused by groundwater; the building inspector told him that the town could not help; and his mortgage company threatened foreclosure, he said.
The lawsuit seeks unspecified compensatory damages and cites poor workmanship, evidenced by numerous cracks in the walls and other signs. It also says Paradise failed to "eliminate a hazardous condition," the persistent water infiltration, that led to Danielle Beety's medical problems.
"We take the charges very seriously," said Joshua Rothenberg, the developer and owner of Paradise Homes. He builds mostly in central New Jersey and has been in business 10 years, he said.
Rothenberg plans to dispute in court that the house caused Danielle Beety's illness. "We feel some of the charges are unfounded," he said.
Eighteen homes were planned in the subdivision, just off Parkville Station Road, but only eight have been built. Neighbors said they knew nothing of the house at the end of the court, and so far had not had wet basements or health issues.
"This was kept quiet," said Daniel J. Abate Sr., who was stunned to hear about the house next to his. He planned to check with the town inspector to make sure his home does not have similar issues.
Danielle Beety, 28, a jogger, collegiate field hockey star, and multisport high school athlete, said she had never suffered from any serious health problems or allergies before. When she became sick, doctors diagnosed bronchitis, various respiratory illnesses, and then the abscess.
"I didn't know what was wrong with me," said Danielle Beety, noting a persistent rash also appeared on her face.
Ted Passon, director of Pure Earth Environmental Lab in Pennsauken, said that wipe samples from her basement showed three million colony-forming units of gram-negative bacteria per square inch, which he said greatly exceeded safety guidelines. Airborne bacteria and mold counts also were elevated, he said.
After reviewing Passon's report, doctors recommended Danielle Beety stay out of the house.
The Beetys left everything behind, as the environmental engineer advised. Danielle Beety was heartsick about giving up her wedding pictures, her childhood mementos, and other possessions, but she did not want to risk another bout of illness.
A day and a half after Danielle Beety left, her rash disappeared. Her hospitalizations ended, though she has lingering asthma and respiratory problems.
Now four months pregnant and living in a Mantua townhouse, Danielle Beety wants to put this chapter behind her and is looking to the future again.
But she shook her head at the memory of their ordeal. "We thought we were doing everything right. We went to college, bought a house, and were just coming back from our honeymoon," she said. "And then this just hit us. We lost everything."
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Tags: newlyweds, house, mold, bacteria
Location: Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, United States (load item map)
Marked as: approved
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