Mysterious illnesses caused by fungi
Christine Brown is a young woman with her whole life ahead of her. A recent Douglas High graduate, she now attends the Boston Conservatory of Music where she is studying opera.
In order to avoid the problems associated with singing and tonsils, Christine had her tonsils removed and soon after fell deathly ill.
She went to doctors who were unable to tell her what was wrong. They diagnosed a sinus infection and gave her antibiotics.
“It doesn’t do anything to fungus but mask it,” said Christine, explaining that the medicine did nothing but make it harder to detect the real killer in her body.
Doctors then told Christine they thought she had lymphatic cancer as she said, “my lymph glands were going wild.”
The first idea that a fungus might be behind the problems came when Christine blew what she believed to be chunks of tissue out her nose in front of her doctor.
The doctor, Samuel G. Kellogg of Carson City, was able to identify the hard, peanut-buttery substance as a fungal colony, according to Christine’s mother, Doris.
Kellogg didn’t return phone calls for this article.
“I had two major holes in my mouth,” said Christine. “Tonsils are just big filters, it was already harboring there.
“Then it just went straight into my body.”
A little more than two years ago, the Browns moved into a rental house which needed some work on a beautiful piece of property in the Sheridan area.
“The house had garage sale-type light fixtures, the creek (running through the yard) was a mess, there was no yard, the pond was gross, and there was a tree that fell in the back yard just lying there,” said Doris who moved to the residence in May 1995 along with her husband, Richard and their daughter, Christine.
“We fixed it up,” said Doris. “We stocked the pond with huge rainbow trout for the neighborhood kids to catch and release.
“The neighborhood kids called me ‘Aunt Doris.’ We wanted to stay after our lease is up (in 1999) and build a new house on the property.”
Just like a bad horror movie, when a family moves into a wonderful house and everything seems great, the killer makes a move. The Browns began experiencing ill effects from a predator living in their house, and this was no movie.
Deinatiaceous, exophiala, chrysonilia, phialophra, acremonium, and alternia were various types of fungus identified in the Browns’ drinking, bathing and cleaning water by the State Health Department.
Representatives from the State Health Department said one type of fungus has the potential to be pathogenic, but they said there is little chance of proving the pathogens came from the Brown’s water.
The Browns said they noticed there may have been problems with their water from the time they moved into their house as it appeared discolored sometimes. However, Doris said the problems grew far worse immediately after the Autumn Hills fire in June of 1996.
“We had fungus before Autumn Hills, but it was not growing as quickly,” said Doris. After the fire, Doris said, her water stopped flowing for a few days, then began again, but was always brownish colored with particles floating in it.
Judy Kareck, water engineer for the Public Service Commission, said it is unlikely that the fire affected the water supply, although it came close to the Sheridan water tank. Kareck said the water lines were flushed two months prior to the fire and that could have been a contributing factor.
Christine said the family tried to rationalize at first.
“You know how when you turn your faucet on quickly and there are all those bubbles in it,” she said offering an explanation the family used for the contaminated water.
Then she had her tonsils out and soon after fell deadly ill.
“It was all a mystery to us,” said Doris. “We didn’t know.”
The Browns went to the Sheridan Acres Water Co. which controlled their water at the time. Doris said she was told that they would do nothing about her alleged problem so she carried out the research on her own.
On May 30, District Judge Michael Gibbons appointed Tim Holt, a private water engineer, to take over receivership of the Sheridan Acres Water Co. after granting a PSC petition for receivership in February.
Rick Hackman of the PSC said he told Gibbons that Sheridan Acres wasn’t running its operations correctly. Former Sheridan Acres Water Co. operator Russ Hearold was relieved of his duties and the PSC took over the company until receivership was granted.
Doris said that shortly after Hearold was removed, he came to her residence and told the Browns that he had prior knowledge, as well as the PSC, that there might be problems with the water lines.
“Hearold said it was an illegal line,” said Doris. “There are dead end lines that run everywhere.
“Someone should have done something,” she said.
“It’s highly unlikely any one of us knew about this,” said water engineer Kareck. “I have never been told about illegal lines. Had we known that the line was outside of the service territory, at the very least we would have recommended annexation into the service territory. We did not know it was illegally being served with water.”
Doris claims that her water line is not a part of the circulating system of the entire Sheridan water system. She said her line was connected to six lines in her area off one circular line which should help with circulation and aeration of the water.
The problem was, Doris said, the other homes had long-since cut off those lines and connected to wells, leaving her house as the sole residence on the line.
The water pipes still extend to the other residences, but dead end there, leaving lots of pipe space that goes nowhere and holds stagnate water. Doris believes the Autumn Hills fire which shut off her water for a short time caused the stagnant water to fill her pipes and gave the fungus a path to her house.
Doris had to research this herself, paying private researchers and doctors to investigate water samples, and looking through water records.
“It was not a big secret like I thought it was,” said Doris. “There was a quarter-mile line (in the middle) with hundreds of yards of lines (extending to houses). It’s not like this was dug at night and under cover.”
After realizing what was wrong with her family, Doris decided to take action on her own without waiting for the PSC to confirm her findings.
By this time, Doris, her son and her husband were also experiencing health problems including non-cancerous tumors, huge sores that didn’t heal and massive body infections. Doris said the entire family was also feeling lethargic.
“We’d all be so worn out that we’d need to take a nap by 2 (p.m.) and we’d go to sleep at 7:30 (p.m.),” said Doris.
Kareck said the State Health Department has done tests on the water and has identified several fungi living in the water, but deemed the test results “inconclusive.”
Kareck said the State Health Department cannot condemn a problem based upon nonpotable (undrinkable) water.
The Browns stopped using the water in March, traveling to Walley’s Hot Springs each day to shower and filling up 30 gallons of water per day at neighbor’s residences for their daily needs. The only place the Browns allowed the contaminated water to flow was to their toilets which were covered with a substance resembling fungus to the day the Browns moved out of the residence.
The Browns all began taking a powerful anti-fungal medication – a medication so powerful Doris said they can only take it for two 30-day regimes. Any more than that and they would risk liver damage.
The Browns moved to Carson City about two weeks ago.
Doris said, on their first night there, while getting ready for bed, she got out the bottled water and her toothbrush and began brushing her teeth. She said Christine reminded her she could use the faucet water.
Aside from some lingering health problems that may not be permanent, the Browns are now recovering and far away from the fungus.
Doris said she fears for the 95 residences that are connected to her former water line.
Hackman said there is no cause for alarm.
“We have no evidence of that what so ever,” said Hackman. “It’s flat-out incorrect. There’s no evidence it exists elsewhere in the water system.”
Of the fungus in the Brown’s water, Hackman said, “If there is some foreign material in her pipe, the water company may not be at fault. From the meter to the house is the customer’s responsibility, the rest is the water company’s.
“That is a possibility (fungal contamination). But we’re not doctors here. We’re engineers, lawyers and accountants.”
Brown said that if a water line were to break in the Sheridan system, then the water from her line would be forced into the main system as all water has to go someplace.
“They break quite often,” Doris said of the pipes. “Water will not stay still as long as it has somewhere to go.”
Kareck agreed with Doris that there is a possibility that there could be contamination from a break, but said that is unlikely. Kareck said the more likely source of contamination could come when the Sheridan water tank is drained.
“Anything that causes pressure fluctuation could cause contamination,” said Kareck.
Kareck said Holt went out to the site Monday to cut off the Brown’s water lines from the Sheridan system.
“Yes, we are making a complete disconnect of the Browns’ connection,” said Holt, saying the other lines in the Brown’s water circle have been dug up and he is in the process of designing an appropriate cutoff.
“The project should be complete by the end of the week,” Holt said Monday.
“The cheapest thing would be a block valve at the end (of the line) and to flush it every week,” said Kareck.
Kareck said a rough estimate for the needed repairs to the system total $600.