TINTON FALLS – Mary Walmsley was easy to spot in the lobby of Seabrook retirement community. She was wearing a surgical mask.
The 51-year-old called me shortly before Christmas with a plea to hear her story, in the hope that it would help others.
It’s the story of black mold, a toxic hazard that crept into her family’s life and is blamed for wrecking everything. Now Mary, her 20-year-old daughter Amanda and a therapy dog named “Baby George” are drifting from motel to motel, trying to survive.
When we met, they were staying with her octogenarian mother for a short spell in Seabrook. They’ve since relocated to Budd Lake in Morris County, but their cautionary tale should register with anyone who is renting in Sandy-ravaged communities along the Jersey Shore.
“We never heard about toxic mold until it happened to us,” Amanda Walmsley said. “It’s something a lot of people don’t know about. We want people to know about it.”
The Walmsleys hail from Passaic County. Mary worked as a paralegal before a heart condition forced her to take leave in 1997. As a single mother of two small children, she moved to the most affordable situation she could find – rental-assistance housing in eastern Pennsylvania.
“The house had black mold,” she said. “You couldn’t see it and you don’t smell it. It’s inside the walls.”
The symptoms piled up: sinus infections, difficulty breathing, a constant flu-like fatigue, aching joints. Those ailments could mean a lot of things, though, and years went by before the culprit was detected.
Long-term exposure can cause brain damage and destroy an immune system. Mary’s son Korey, who had been an honor-roll student, committed suicide in 2013 at age 20. She still keeps his favorite hat in a sealed bag.
“He couldn’t take it anymore,” she said, tears welling up.
After Korey's death, Mary and Amanda relocated to a different rental home in the region, but it had a similar problem. They maintain a folder thick with documentation of these travails. A series of air tests, conducted on the second home in August, found mold levels that were considered “elevated” and “unusual.”
With limited income, the Walmsleys lacked the resources for a legal challenge, so they packed a few non-contaminated belongings and returned to New Jersey in October as nomads. They live on Mary’s Social Security insurance payout of $777 per month.
Amanda said she would like to work but can’t shake the joint pain, and she has not been able to find a doctor who specializes in treating toxic mold exposure.
“It’s hard for (unaffected) people to grasp exactly how much damage this does,” she said. “People treat you like you’re crazy.”
Mary Walmsley is not sure how much longer her body will hold out, but as long as she can talk, she will warn other renters – especially those in flood-prone areas: Don’t trust your landlord and don’t trust the government. Get your home tested for mold by an independent service.
Tests can run a few hundred dollars, but the cost of black mold poisoning is far greater.
“We lost everything,” she said, “but I’m glad someone is hearing this story.”