Wednesday night NewsCenter 16 broke the story of a Mishawaka apartment complex with high levels of mold.
Our investigation began in January, originally featuring an elderly tenant who had been battling an array of illnesses.
In the weeks since, NewsCenter 16 has talked with half-a-dozen other residents in the same building, with a very similar story to share.
It was Jan. 2010 when Zola Blivin, 72, moved into her Kensard Manor Apartment. One floor up, Matt Rael, his fiancé and their two children leased a unit in Oct. 2011.
"We thought it was the perfect environment actually,” Rael recalled.
Within days, both households shared one very similar problem.
"I started getting weak, very weak,” Blivin said.
"I actually broke out in a huge rash and my throat started hurting,” Rael added.
What hurt more, both tenants say, was management's unwillingness to help.
In search for answers, NewsCenter 16 and Osceola-based Mold Finders tested the Rael’s apartment for just that, mold.
Almost miraculously, within an hour of arriving, management decided to show its face via a man who introduced himself as David Kozak, co-owner of Kensard Manor and more than dozen other rental properties in Northern Indiana and Southwest Michigan.
"Can I help you,” Rael asked Kozak. “Can I help you,” Kozak condescendingly replied.
The encounter was by no means planned. Nevertheless, we followed Kozak as he examined dirty air vents in the master bedroom with his cell phone camera in hand.
"Do you want to explain the mold on that duct for me? You can go ahead and take a picture of that too,” Rael riffled-off.
After two minutes of close assessment, Kozak walked into the unit’s second bedroom where he tried shutting the door in Rael’s face.
"All right this is just getting awkward, can you just please leave man,” Rael said to Kozak who displayed a stoic look on his face.
The tense interaction then shifted into the hallway where Kozak balked at the one question we wanted answered.
"Why does it take until now sir? We've had residents complaining about this for months and it takes a news crew to show up for this to happen,” NewsCenter 16’s Kevin Lewis asked Kozak who turned and walked away.
Although Kozak wouldn't comment on the matter, our test results did.
"It was bad, it was very bad,” Johnson said with lab paperwork in hand.
Our first test had analyzed the trim along the sliding glass door inside the Rael family’s living room. Based-on a strip test, certified microbiologists at SanAir Technologies Laboratory in Virginia found 2,000 spores / cm sq. of Ulocladium species, a water-based mold known to be a major allergen.
According to the St. Joseph County Health Department, a safe indoor spore count should be equal to current outdoor conditions. On the February day we conducted our test, the atmospheric spore count was zero.
Test two involved an air sample, which experts say should be taken inside a sealed home. However, because the Rael's were packing-up boxes, their windows had been kept open all afternoon. That in turn allowed fresh winter air to dilute the apartment's true mold count. Even so, our test still found 2,193 spores / cm sq., primarily of Aspergillus/Penicillium, a major catalyst behind numerous allergic reactions.
Our final sample came from a thick chunk of black insulation, ripped directly from the furnace cover inside the Rael’s utility room.
"That is probably the biggest thing that jumped out at me when I got this back from the laboratory,” Johnson remarked.
After all, our results found 10,000 spores / cm sq. of Cladosporium species, a type of mold with the capability of causing Asthma, Mycosis, Hay Fever and Pulmonary Emphysema.
"10,000 spores, that is huge,” Johnson exclaimed.
Despite our findings, Kensard Manor management, which had its own tests performed, sent NewsCenter 16 an email denouncing our results. The sender, who didn’t give their name wrote, “Absolutely no level of toxic mold was found.” That’s a statement Johnson adamantly refutes.
"Nobody’s going to pull 10,000 spores off a furnace and tell you that it passed, I don't care who it is,” Johnson said.
NewsCenter 16 obtained Kensard Manor's independent test results from health department officials. Although management said it found no mold, the tests it conducted, but wouldn’t share with us, identified 1,930 spores of fungi inside the Rael’s apartment.
In pursuit of validity, NewsCenter 16 drove to Chesterton where Kensard Manor's parent company, MS Sandpiper Apartments LLC is based. We wanted to ask why company leaders had lied to us about their mold findings, while showing no desire to fix the issue. However, the blinds were shut, every door was locked; we went home without an answer.
"Now it's not my opinion anymore or your opinion or the tenant's opinion. This is factual; this is what they're dealing with. We try to keep everybody's opinion out of it and try to keep everything factual and that's what we have here, facts,” Johnson concluded.
Facts that will hopefully help clear the air, when for so long, it seemed nothing else would.
"There’s just no excuse for it. You can't consider this suitable, not for anybody, not with that stuff all over. It's kind of ridiculous it's just ridiculous,” Matt Rael’s father Leo said.
In the two weeks since conducting our tests, Zola Blivin and the Rael family have both moved-out of their units at Kensard Manor.
Blivin is now planning to file a lawsuit against the complex, while the Rael family struggles to pay mounting medical bills, this time because of their infant son’s latest bout with bronchitis.
UPDATE: After turning-over our test results to the St. Joseph County Health Department, mold examiners inspected three different units at Kensard Manor. According to its analysis, all mold hot spots exposed in this story, have since been properly remediated.
If you'd like to read our complete lab results, including the sample that came back negative, click on the document attached to this story.
In the case you'd like to learn more about fungi and/or how to properly remediate it, just click on the Big Red Bar.