Household mold can put renters in tough situation | | Democrat and Chronicle

Household mold can put renters in tough situation

Steve Orr and Sruthi Gottipati • Staff writers • December 13, 2010

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It was Halloween when Jessica Silsby knew that things had gone too far.

Putting together a costume, she pulled her winter boots out of the closet, and noticed something was wrong. “It felt a little bit funny,” said Silsby, a 25-year-old high school teacher. “It was covered in green and yellow fuzzy stuff inside and out.”

The stuff was mold, and as Silsby and her two roommates discovered, it was growing rampantly throughout their apartment in the Riverton Knolls complex in Henrietta. Neighbors complained of mold as well.

After they complained, the landlord addressed the problem. But that didn’t eliminate the mold or replace belongings, and town and Monroe County inspectors couldn’t help much.

By mid-November, Silsby and her roommates had moved out.

“It was devastating because everything we owned really was covered in it,” she said recently. “It was so upsetting that other people were going to live through that as well.”

As Silsby learned first hand, potentially harmful mold can crop up almost anywhere.

It thrives in moist conditions, and can become a particular problem after floods, heavy rains, pipe breaks, roof leaks and the like. Once established, mold can continue to spread if moisture remains present. Colonies can grow unseen inside walls or under floors.

A category of fungus, molds are everywhere in the outdoors, and often move indoors as well. Many species are benign or beneficial, but some can cause allergic respiratory or skin reactions in sensitive people, exacerbate asthma or release potentially harmful toxins.

Yet there are no specific government regulations in New York’s state building or sanitary codes that address mold. Inspectors do respond to complaints — locally, there are several hundred every year — and they can cite property owners for allowing the conditions that promote the growth of mold.

But such actions apparently are rare locally. In many towns, inspectors defer to the Monroe County Health Department, which in turn relies mostly on the power of persuasion to get property owners to clean up a problem.

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“We try to seek voluntary compliance. We’re not out there looking to cite landlords and fine them. That doesn’t mean that we can’t or won’t,” said John Ricci, spokesman for the health department. “We typically get them to correct whatever we find is the source of the problem.”

After a surge in concern about toxic molds, the state Legislature in 2005 created a special task force to study remedies. The 12-member task force issued a draft report in August that recommended no specific changes in state codes, concluded it was not feasible to write human exposure standards for mold and stopped short of calling for regulation of companies that do mold remediation work. It did suggest more research and public education.

Extreme cases

Many people aren’t bothered by mold, and symptoms are usually mild in those who are. But extreme cases, while relatively rare, capture attention. One particular black-mold toxin caused a national stir in the early 1990s after it was blamed for the deaths of several infants in Cleveland and for sicknesses in many other locations.

Locally, a Hamlin family returned home after a 2003 vacation and found a pipe had broken, flooding their home and leading to explosive mold growth. Though exposed only briefly, one resident was hospitalized repeatedly for respiratory distress. The house was razed.

And in June of this year, a jury awarded $187,393 to a Pittsford couple that alleged faulty construction left their six-year-old home with a wet basement that promoted mold growth. At least two other suits are pending in local courts that allege property damage and health problems from mold.

Most town inspectors take a pass when complaints come in. “In all honesty, what we do is refer folks to the health department,” said Wayne Cichetti, a Penfield building inspector who is president of the Finger Lakes Building Officials Association. “We don’t have the expertise in mold.”

Some municipalities will send out inspectors on mold complaints. A Henrietta inspector visited Silsby’s apartment, she said, but simply suggested contacting the health department.

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County health officials typically document the presence of mold, look for the cause, and recommend a solution, which always starts with eliminating excess moisture.

The department gets 200 to 250 mold calls a year, about 80 percent of them related to rental property, Ricci said. Mold isn’t found in some cases, but when it is, the most common causes are plumbing leaks; high humidity and poor ventilation, and roof, foundation or gutter problems.

Taking measures

In Silsby’s case, her complaints led maintenance workers to find standing water in a crawl space under the apartment.

A sump pump was added to drain it.

A county health inspector was not called in until the roommates had virtually moved out, and the water had been removed. Very little mold was evident then, Ricci said.

Silsby and her two roommates had moved into the apartment at 430 Countess Drive in June — after leaving another unit in the complex where they’d found mold.

Shortly after arriving in the new place, “we started experiencing mold in the bathroom ceiling and mildew smell that wouldn’t go away,” said one of the roommates, Lynn Kubeja.

Leaving windows open and running a dehumidifier didn’t help. By early November, the roommates had found mold on walls, furniture, clothing, books and other objects. The roommates began staying with friends rather than sleep there.

The roommates rejected the offer of another Riverton unit and opted to go elsewhere. Morgan Management, the Pittsford company that owns Riverton Knolls and many other apartment complexes, allowed them to break their lease without penalty, but declined to provide any compensation for ruined belongings.

Richard Shoap, a Morgan regional manager who oversees Riverton Knolls, said workers addressed the standing water problem as soon as they were made aware of it.

Shoap said the company did offer to move the three women to a larger apartment at reduced rent, and to help with the move, he said.

“We went above and beyond.”

Another nice article highlighting the problems that mold can cause. It makes me think about the guys at Mold Remediation Rhode Island

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