Sick House, Suffering Family

By Jonathan Mummolo
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, February 1, 2009

The migraines began three months after Wendy Meng moved into her new Loudoun County house. They lasted for hours, forcing her to sleep in her closet because she was so sensitive to light. Then her heart rate started spiking.

Before long, her 8-year-old daughter, Emma, started having headaches, feeling dizzy and suffering nosebleeds. Wendy's husband, Paul, a runner on the track team in college, was short of breath after climbing the stairs. A raft of tests by doctors came back negative. The Mengs were chronically ill, and they had no idea why.

But over the next year, they noticed a pattern: The more they were out of the house, the better they felt. After doing some detective work, they discovered that the source of their pain was the place they called home.

Shoddy construction and unmended leaks had let moisture in, allowing toxin-producing mold to grow and spread through the three-story house, the Mengs said. A Loudoun jury recently awarded the family $4.75 million, among the largest awards in a mold case in Virginia.

Jurors said the home's builder, the Drees Co., was negligent and violated the Virginia Consumer Protection Act. They said the company was responsible for the couple's health problems but not those of Emma, their youngest daughter.

In court, the company denied that the way it assembled the house led to the mold, said it was not responsible for cleaning it up and did not think that the mold made the Mengs sick.

Barbara Drees Jones, vice president of marketing for Kentucky-based Drees, declined to comment on the case because attorneys for Drees are going back to court Friday to ask the judge to set aside the verdict. Kurt C. Rommel, an attorney for Drees, said it would be inappropriate to comment until the judge enters a decision on the jury verdict.

Wendy Meng said their new home sat on the premier lot in the neighborhood, on half an acre, with a pretty pond behind it. She and her husband loved the wrought iron staircase, Brazilian cherry flooring, high ceilings and three fireplaces.

"We were so excited. This was my dream house," she said. "I used to come down in the morning and pinch myself. It was so beautiful."

Before moving into their new 5,900-square-foot house in the Tall Cedar Estates subdivision in November 2005, the Mengs said, they asked the Drees company to fix a few problems, including leaky windows in the basement.

Drees told the Mengs that the windows had been fixed, but puddles in the basement persisted after the family moved into its $900,000 home in the Chantilly area of Loudoun, the Mengs said. They later learned that Drees had not allowed the house's frame to dry before installing drywall, creating the perfect conditions for mold to thrive all over the house, the Mengs said.

In February 2006, the migraines began. "We were very scared. I was in bed 95 percent of the time," said Wendy Meng, 37. "All we ever wanted was to be able to have a home."

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