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St. Louis County family falls sick after house fire releases dangerous chemicals

They're fighting in court for their insurance company to declare the house a total loss, after health complications forced them to relocate

TOWN AND COUNTRY, Mo. — Photos can bring up a lot of memories. Mike Megown had an unexpected reaction to pictures that survived a fire at the family home.

“I lost my sense of taste and sense of smell. And I'm thinking, I've got the COVID, but let's go get tested. Tested negative,” said Megown.

Remnants of their Town and Country home before the fire held the secret to his symptoms, he said.

“I'm finding things like this black stain on the back of it that, I don't know what it is,” said Megown. “This is just an old photograph of my son.”

Four years ago, a large electrical fire destroyed the basement at the Megowns’ home. Their insurance company looked at the damage and decided the house didn’t need to be rebuilt.

“The smoke was so thick and so black,” said Jane Megown, Mike’s wife. “There was a lot of black on the walls.”

When the repairs were finished, the house still didn’t feel right. Different members of the family started feeling the same symptoms, with no apparent cause.

“We had been going back into the house two weeks and I knew, I just knew, I was so sick every time I went and every gland would hurt, I'd have these headaches,” said Jane Megown. “My gums were bleeding. My eyes were burning. I just felt really sick.”

“My gums are bleeding, my ears hurt so bad and like, I just could not get up in the morning,” said Caroline Megown, Jane and Mike’s daughter.

When the Megowns found someone who had answers, they came to believe their home was haunted by the fire’s invisible aftermath. Even though it all looked like new, tests indicated that the chemicals left behind had done as much damage as the flames themselves. Now, they want to warn others to beware the fire damage no one sees.

Disaster recovery expert Lawrie Hollingsworth knows firsthand that the effects of a single exposure can last a lifetime. She was at the World Trade Center site in September of 2001, to recover equipment after the terrorist attacks in New York City. Two years later, she battled a rare form of cancer.

“My oncologist pretty much attributed to the likelihood of it being due to the chemicals I inhaled,” she said.

So what the Megowns reported when they asked for her help didn’t sound far-fetched. She took the case.

“We try to be chemical detectives,” Hollingsworth said. That started with tests all over the home, from the basement to rooms that never looked damaged at all.

“When we got the results back, they were off the charts unusual. And this was post-cleanup,” said Hollingsworth. “I've never seen anything like this in, what, 35 plus years, and a house fire. This is something I would expect to see, you know, if a manufacturing company or a chemical plant or something that had a fire, not a home.”

Hollingsworth said the chemicals probably resulted from the burning of building materials in the home from the 1950s.

“My conclusion was there was something in the structure itself, notably the basement, possibly in the rafters or something else,” said Hollingsworth, “it had been maybe coated, preserved with some form of chemicals, like for example building timbers, you know, outdoor timbers and things you preserve with different types of things. Formaldehyde has been a popular preservative over the years.”

The results validated what the Megowns were feeling.

“If it turns out that those toxins that we were exposed to ... wearing a mask was not enough. We should have worn a full-on respirator,” said Jane Megown.

When they moved out, the symptoms followed. Their belongings and
clothes still carried the chemicals that were making them ill.

“We had horrific rashes when we wore them. They were just bright red, thick rashes from the clothes,” said Jane Megown.

Dr. Stephanie McCarter of the Environmental Health Center of Dallas, Texas said she’s seeing patients like the Megowns falling ill after returning to their fire-damaged homes.

“There's probably a lot of people out there that have these symptoms and have no idea,” said McCarter. “There's so many toxic chemicals that get released when it burns. It's tending to cause some people to become chemically sensitive, and so once the person gets kind of sensitized and their nervous system... It's like a barrel, the barrel's full and everything spills over and they get all these different bodily symptoms.”

“So you see how the nervous system, the GI tract, everything starts to get sensitized because of that,” she added.

Armed with toxicology reports, the Megowns sued their insurance company. They want the home declared a total loss.

“I'm not putting any kids back in that house because it will be unsafe and there's no way,” said Jane Megown.

Until then, the house will continue to sit empty. The family’s belongings stay in a storage truck to protect them from the toxins.

“You can definitely smell the smoke,” said Mike Megown. “We don't want to take any chances. So here is 20-some-odd years of our life that is stuck in a trailer that we don't know what to do with it.”

He added, “I think that a lot of times people are forced to go into homes that are unsafe, and they have no knowledge. It's in the best interest of some of the insurance companies to give you a partial loss. That way, they can pay you less than a total loss.”

“It's been four years now and it's created a huge financial strain on us,” said Jane Megown. “I don't want anyone to ever go through this again.”

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