Mold Continues to Threaten Multi-Family Housing

apartment complex

Media coverage, steadily increasing litigation and the documented direct link to health issues has caused mold to threaten owners of rental properties throughout the State and Nation. From New York to Los Angeles, the media has been releasing a scare on mold that mimics that of asbestos back in the early 80’s. The problem with the coverage is that it has created a panic without expressing proper analysis or treatment of the situation. It has left no reasonable and prudent explanation for an individual to follow.

The phones of environmental consultants that specialize in microbial investigations ring frantically each time a broadcast is aired or complex receives front page coverage with headlines that read “Homeowner’s forced to move,” “Mold chasing 270 from apartments” or “Mold plagues tenants, landlords.” With constant coverage like this, it makes it difficult to separate the true nature of the problem from hysteria. This type of hysteria has created litigation that steams from building defect to negligence.

There are a litany of potential causes of action available to the plaintiff, including but not limited to, negligence, professional malpractice, strict liability, breach of implied and express warranties, construction defect, unwarranted eviction, worker’s compensation, violations of the American’s with Disabilities Act, breach of contract, fraud, failure to disclose in sale of property, and violations of the Unfair Competition Act pursuant to Business & Professions Code Section 17200 et. Seq.

Because Americans spend between 75% to 90% of their time indoors, they are exposed to a variety of indoor air pollutants, which the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) claims may have between 100 and 200 times the actual amount of pollutants found in outdoor air. Lawsuits arising from indoor air pollution typically involve both personal injury and property damage components. Personal injuries caused by indoor air pollution fall into three categories; sick building syndrome (SBS), building related illness (BRI) and multiple chemical sensitivity (MCS).

It is not uncommon, especially during the rainy season, to encounter mold/fungi in homes/buildings. Mold is found everywhere, indoors and outdoors. It is common to find mold spores in the air of homes and growing on damp surfaces. There are a number of factors, which influence the growth of mold; environmental humidity and moisture content of materials, temperature, air circulation, light and the chemical composition of potential substrates. Additional sources of indoor moisture that may cause problems are flooding, backed-up sewers, leaky buildings, humidifiers, constant-plumbing leaks, steam Room cooking, shower/bath steam and leaks, poor housekeeping, wet cloths, cloths dryers vented indoors and combustion appliances not exhausted to the outdoors.

There are a number of things you can do when faced with mold in your buildings and moisture prevention is the first step. It is important to regularly check moisture condensation on windows, cracking of plasterboard, drywall tape loosening, wood warping, and musty odors. If you see any of the above, seek out and take steps to eliminate the source of water penetration, as quickly as possible. In all situations, the underlying cause of water accumulation must be rectified or mold/fungal growth (called “amplification”) will recur.

Any initial water infiltration should be stopped and cleaned immediately. An immediate response (within 24 – 48 hours) and thorough clean up, drying, and/or removal of water damaged materials will limit mold growth. Five different levels of abatement are described by the size of the area impacted by fungal contamination. Level 1 remediation is considered small isolated area (10 sq. ft or less), Level 2 remediation is considered Mid-sized isolated areas (10-30 sq. ft.), Level 3 remediation is considered Large Isolated areas (30-100 sq. ft.), Level 4 remediation is considered Extensive Contamination (greater than 100 contiguous sq. ft.) and level 5 remediation includes remediation of the HVAC system. These are written guidelines by the New York City Department of Health Bureau of Environmental & Occupational Disease Epidemilogy for remediation of fungi indoor environments. There are also water restoration guidelines established by the IICRC S500 (Institute of Inspection Cleaning Restoration Certification) that remediation and restoration contractors follow immediately after a water release.

As a rental property owner, by establishing a maintenance routine that eliminates moisture on a regular basis and by generating consistent emergency response actions to water infiltration situations, your are more likely to eleviate any ramifications from mold growth. It would also be proactive to send a pamphlet to your tenants asking them to report leaks, use hood ventilators when cooking, wipe up water from shower overspills, report visible mold immediately, etc. With a pamphlet asking for the tenant’s assistance, you should be able to cut down occupant related moisture issues, which make up some 20% of all microbial investigations.

In conclusion, proper maintenance, a written protocol for emergencies, established relationships with environmental consultants/contractors and proactive tenant relations go a long way in keeping your properties free of mold and yourself out of litigation.


References:

California Dept. of Health Services “Indoor Air Quality Info Sheet”

Alexander Robertson of Knopfler & Roberston


About the Author

Wendy L. Buller, President of Benchmark Environmental Engineering, has been in the environmental industry since 1986 specializing in asbestos, lead and indoor air quality. Her firm, Benchmark, specializes in building inspections, environmental engineering, specialized training and contract management. Clientele include NASA-Ames, Local Cities, California Apartment Association, Property Management Firms, Architects, Contractors and others.