Anyone east of the Rockies will tell you this has been a wet year. It wasn’t just that Hurricanes Florence and Michael soaked parts of the South. It wasn’t just that this year’s drenching storms were numerous and tracked unusually far north (one, Alberto, made a historic appearance all the way up in Michigan).
It was also that the rest of the Eastern Seaboard just simply got wetter. In Wilmington, N.C., 60 inches of rain broke an annual record set in 1966. Around Scranton, Pa., rainfall broke a 1945 record. Wisconsin, Colorado and Maryland all saw 1-in-1,000-year rainfall events. And dozens of locations, like Baltimore, Pittsburgh and Charleston, W.Va., had their second- or third-wettest summers on record.
In some houses, mold spores are nothing more than a nuisance—staining furniture or making the basement smell funny. But in other homes they can put people in the hospital or even kill them. Many molds are associated with allergy or asthma attacks; some have been linked to serious complications in immune-compromised populations, and cancer. It is hard to say just yet how much the latest wet year has affected people’s respiratory systems, but it is certainly already hitting their pocketbooks.
“This year there’s just a lot of mold tests being done,” says Michael Berg, the laboratory director for EMLab P&K, one of the biggest U.S. mold-testing companies. He says staffing has become a challenge after two hurricanes and relentless storms along the Eastern Seaboard: “We are struggling, as far as having enough hands on deck in a year like this.”
As climate change and CO2 emissions continue to shape life on Earth, we may be seeing a lot more flooding—with higher sea levels and more powerful storms. In some ways this year might be a glimpse into a wet and moldy future. But what will that mean in practical terms?
Modelling the effects of climate change and rising CO2 levels is notoriously difficult, and even more so when it comes to the diverse world of fungi. It is a little like asking, “How will climate change affect animals?”—some may benefit while others suffer. In some cases the heat will make for fertile breeding grounds for fungi. In others the additional CO2 might irritate them, thereby prompting them to release more spores. “It’s a stress response. The fungus wants to survive, and the way it tries to survive is to produce more offspring—and that means more spores,” says Naresh Magan, a mycologist at England’s Cranfield University. Aspergillus fumigatus, a member of what is perhaps the most common genus of mold to irritate humans, seems to release far more spores when scientists raise it in warmer, CO2-rich enclosures. Other researchers have suggested that increased CO2 might create more leaf litter—where a lot of mold grows when it is not in your house—adding much-needed nitrogen for fungi.
And the spores they produce might be more harmful. In addition to the number of spores a mold puts out, evidence suggests higher CO2 might change the spores themselves. Some mold spores are more than eight times more allergenic today than in pre-industrial times (though it is not clear this trend will be maintained as CO2 levels continue to rise).
Scientists are not completely certain as to how this works. Unlike plants—which breathe in CO2 and can benefit from its increase—fungi take in oxygen, so changes in the chemistry of their spores may be due to some kind of secondary effect. Experts have suggested that more CO2 can lead to more acidic soil or indirectly change fungi respiration. Or there might be some unknown mechanism that causes different responses in different molds. Whatever that mechanism might be, higher CO2 somehow triggers the more allergenic proteins in many molds—which may be why so many more people are allergic to mold today than in generations past.
But not all fungi react the same way to environmental changes. Experiments suggest Alternaria—a genus of mold that causes respiratory problems and is often found in spoiled crops and houses—may actually decrease the allergens in its spores in a warmer, higher-CO2 world. In many cases, it is not clear what chemicals cause adverse health effects from mold spores, let alone how they will respond to a changing climate and atmosphere.
Magan has exposed many types of mold to different levels of CO2, heat and moisture. He says molds such as Stachybotrys—a dangerous group often referred to as “black mold”—might become less allergenic as CO2 increases. But when Aspergillus species are put in a higher CO2 environment, they increase production of aflatoxin B1, a potent cancer-causing chemical that the mold can deposit on some types of produce and livestock feed.
Some of these effects will change, Magan says, as molds adapt and mutate. This might mean the molds will adjust to the stress of climate change—but it could also mean they will adjust to how we treat them. The human body is an excellent place for molds to grow, but most people’s bodies are able to fight them off (though we might start coughing or get runny noses in the process). But in people with compromised immune systems—after stem cell therapy or an organ transplant, for example—Aspergillus can be lethal. Studies have documented an increasing ability among such molds to resist medical treatments including triazole, the most potent anti-fungal in such cases, even in patients who have never taken the drug.
Another problem with mold today is that many energy-efficient homes are designed to capture and conserve heat—which means they can also trap moisture and prevent ventilation, Magan adds. Heat and moisture create a perfect environment for mold. In a bitter irony, architects battling the very things that encourage molds globally may be making them more comfortable in your basement.
But people living in modern, energy-efficient homes are not the ones likely to suffer most from the long-term effects of mold. As is often the case with climate change and rising CO2 levels, the repercussions will likely be worst among the poor, especially in underdeveloped economies where many people cannot purge moisture and mold from their houses.
“With asthma and chronic pulmonary disease, it’s a vicious cycle. [Patients] go and get medication and they feel a little bit better, but they come back into the same home environment,” says Maureen Lichtveld, a global health professor at Tulane University who works with marginalized communities in the Caribbean region as well as the U.S. Southeast.
Lichtveld studies many forms of disease that follow disaster and climate change, but she finds mold especially frustrating because it is highly preventable and relatively easy to control in the home. And if it is not removed, mold can exacerbate chronic asthma and other diseases and stunt a child’s learning and growth. In Puerto Rico asthma was already 23 percent higher than on the mainland—with twice as many asthma-related deaths—before Hurricanes Irma and Maria battered the island in 2017. Many reports suggest it has spiked since then, though objective numbers are not yet available.
In places such as South Florida, where seasonal flooding is common, the mold remediation business has become especially competitive, according to Berg. In other places hit by hurricanes or heavy rains, residents might be facing mold problems for the first time. But whether from flooding, increased spore output or changes in how it functions, mold is likely to become a bigger part of our lives.
Tips* for avoiding the effects of airborne mold spores:
Toxic mold exposure is on the rise, and most people aren’t even aware they’re at risk, according to experts.
“There are millions of people suffering from mold toxicity that don’t know it because it’s going majorly undiagnosed,” said Dr. Neil
Nathan, a Board Certified Family Physician and author of the book “Toxic” (Victory Belt Publishing).
Mold, which releases mycotoxins in the air due to water damage, is often invisible with the naked eye, but dangerous to those with toxin sensitivities. Nathan said not everyone who is exposed to mold gets sick.
“We do believe that it’s somewhat genetic so certain people are more genetically predisposed to it than others,” Nathan said. “So you can have several people living in a moldy environment and only one of them will get sick.”
Doctors estimate 25 percent of the population (or 1 in 4 people) have the gene that makes them more susceptible to mold sensitivities. Some of the symptoms for mold toxicity include fatigue, headaches, nausea, anxiety, Irritable Bowel Syndrome, muscle aches, brain fog, weight gain, adrenal fatigue and sensitivities to light and sound. Nathan, who has a website for mold toxicity resources (www.neilnathanmd.com) said it’s never too late to get treatment, but curing it can only happen by clearing all toxic mold from your home, office, car and eventually the body.
“My symptoms got so bad that it affected everything,” said Chicago radio personality Kathy Hart, who discovered she’s one of the “susceptible 25 percent” after being misdiagnosed by several doctors and specialists.
Physical therapist Michelle Dwyer, who initially treated Hart for vestibular symptoms such as vertigo and dizziness, said many of her patients with chronic issues discover mold to be part of the reason they aren’t fully recovering.“One neurologist told me I was just ‘stressed’ and that I needed to see a psychiatrist, and I walked out of his office in tears,” said Hart, who was suffering from headaches, dizziness, adrenal fatigue, panic attacks and noise and light sensitivities. “I’d been to two different neurologists, an eye doctor, and they all said it was just stress. It was finally my physical therapist that suggested I look into mold.”
“We only have a few physicians in our area who know about mold and the reason they do is because they’ve been through it themselves,” said Dwyer, who was treated for mold toxicity after discovering her home had water damage. “If more medical professionals got educated about mold toxicity and its effects on the human body, there would be fewer cases of misdiagnosis. They came out with studies in 2017 that showed mold can be a direct link to Alzheimer’s and other kinds of dementia, and once these patients get treatment for mold, their symptoms improved. Cognitive impairment is a big factor with mold. So is muscle and joint pain and lethargy, which can be misdiagnosed as chronic fatigue, the list goes on.”
Nathan agreed and said many doctors need to consider a person’s environment when assessing their symptoms.
“These illnesses are increasing and if we do not grasp this, take it seriously and monitor our exposure, all of us are going to be sick,” Nathan said.
Here are tips to treat and diagnose mold toxicity/sensitivities.
Dwyer and Nathan recommend www.survivingmold.com or www.ISEAI.org as resources for testing and diagnosing mold toxicity.
“The single most useful way to find out is to do a urine mycotoxin test,” Nathan said. “This is simply collecting the urine, mailing it to the company and then they measure. If you get a positive test in the urine, this means there is an excess amount of toxin in you and you need to get to work on treating it.”
“After you test yourself, you need to have your home checked and there are tests you can do at home where you’re just taking a wipe and wiping the surfaces,” Dwyer said.
Do your research
“Consumers need to be careful because there are some companies who will always find mold and insist that they can remove it for six figures,” Nathan said. “Be discerning and only use people who come highly recommended by trusted sources.”
Don’t rule anything out
Nathan and Dwyer said mold can live anywhere, old or new construction. All it takes is 48 hours for it to develop.
“I lived in a condo that had been rehabbed and it looked fine but I found out the roof had leaked for years before I moved in there so I was slowly getting exposed,” Dwyer said. “And college dorm rooms now are under scrutiny. So many places go unchecked, it’s up to you to be your own advocate.”
“I know someone who had dogs who peed on the carpet so much that the wood underneath started growing mold and they were affected,” Hart said. “There are so many different sources.”
Dwyer said to get an air purifier in your home and bedrooms with a “good HEPA filter.”
“I also teach my patients to do lymphatic massage on themselves to help with the drainage,” Dwyer said. “And intense sweating from an infrared sauna or Epsom salt bath are great ways to clear toxins out.”
Get inspired to do something about it
“I felt like I was going crazy because no doctor could tell me what was wrong,” Hart said. “Sadly, it’s common for many people to feel that way because much of the medical community isn’t familiar with these mold illnesses. I hope that by sharing my story, it will bring much needed awareness to the condition and help those who are suffering finally get properly diagnosed.”
People with asthma, allergies, or other breathing conditions may be more sensitive to mold.
If you or your family members have health problems after exposure to mold, contact your doctor or other health care provider.
Controlling moisture in your home is the most critical factor for preventing mold growth.
If you plan to be inside the building for a while or you plan to clean up mold, you should buy N95 masks (or a respirator with a higher protection level) at your local home supply store and wear one while in the building. Make certain that you follow instructions on the package for fitting the mask tightly to your face. Even if you go back into the building for a short time and are not cleaning up mold, you need to wear an N95 mask.
After natural disasters such as hurricanes, tornadoes, and floods, excess moisture and standing water contribute to the growth of mold in homes and other buildings. When returning to a home that has been flooded, be aware that mold may be present and may be a health risk for your family.
People at Greatest Risk from Mold
People with asthma, allergies, or other breathing conditions may be more sensitive to mold.
People with immune suppression (such as people with HIV infection, cancer patients taking chemotherapy, and people who have received an organ transplant) are more susceptible to mold infections. People with a weakened immune system, especially people receiving treatment for cancer, people who have had an organ or stem cell transplant, and people taking medicines that suppress the immune system, should avoid cleaning up mold. Children should not take part in disaster cleanup work.
Possible Health Effects of Mold Exposure
People who are sensitive to mold may experience stuffy nose, irritated eyes, wheezing, or skin irritation. People allergic to mold may have difficulty in breathing and shortness of breath. People with weakened immune systems and with chronic lung diseases, such as obstructive lung disease, may develop mold infections in their lungs. If you or your family members have health problems after exposure to mold, contact your doctor or other health care provider.
Safely Preventing Mold Growth
Clean up and dry out the building quickly (within 24 to 48 hours). Open doors and windows. Use fans to dry out the building. Position fans to blow air out doors or windows.
When in doubt, take it out! Remove all porous items that have been wet for more than 48 hours and that cannot be thoroughly cleaned and dried. These items can remain a source of mold growth and should be removed from the home. Porous, noncleanable items include carpeting and carpet padding, upholstery, wallpaper, drywall, floor and ceiling tiles, insulation material, some clothing, leather, paper, wood, and food. Removal and cleaning are important because even dead mold may cause allergic reactions in some people.
To prevent mold growth, clean wet items and surfaces with detergent and water.
Homeowners may want to temporarily store items outside of the home until insurance claims can be filed. See recommendations by the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA).
If there is mold growth in your home, you should clean up the moldand fix any water problem, such as leaks in roofs, walls, or plumbing. Controlling moisture in your home is the most critical factor for preventing mold growth.
To remove mold growth from hard surfaces use commercial products, soap and water, or a bleach solution of no more than 1 cup of household laundry bleach in 1 gallon of water. Follow the manufacturers’ instructions for use (see product label). Use a stiff brush on rough surface materials such as concrete.
If you choose to use bleach to remove mold:
Never mix bleach with ammonia or other household cleaners. Mixing bleach with ammonia or other cleaning products will produce dangerous, toxic fumes
Open windows and doors to provide fresh air. Use fans to dry out the building. Position fans to blow air out doors or windows.
Always follow the manufacturer’s instructions when using bleach or any other cleaning product.
For more information on personal safety while cleaning up after a natural disaster, see Response Worker Health and Safety.
If you plan to be inside the building for a while or you plan to clean up mold, you should buy N95 masks (or respirators with a higher protection level) at your local home supply store and wear one while in the building. Make certain that you follow instructions on the package for fitting the mask tightly to your face. Even if you go back into the building for a short time and are not cleaning up mold, you still need to wear an N95 mask.”
Original Article Source: https://www.cdc.gov/disasters/mold/index.html
In 2000, a new “toxic mold” panic swept the country, and after 16 years of untold lawsuits and billions of dollars spent, major myths still plague and unnecessarily panic association boards, managers and homeowners. The myths all too often cause exaggerated repairs, unduly frightened residents, and conflict. In this and the next column, I will address thirteen pervasive toxic mold myths.
1. Mold is new. Mold, one of the earliest and simplest life forms, has existed for thousands of years. Almost 100 years ago, mold was the basis of the discovery of penicillin. Mold is ever-present, as is dust or pollen.
2. The scientific and medical communities confirm mold’s many dangers. In 2004, the National Institute of Medicine published its comprehensive study on indoor mold exposure, called “Damp Indoor Spaces and Health.” A central finding was: “Scientific evidence links mold … in homes and buildings to asthma symptoms in some people with the chronic disorder, as well as to coughing, wheezing, and upper respiratory tract symptoms in otherwise healthy people… However, the available evidence does not support an association between … mold and the wide range of other health complaints that have been ascribed.”
That sounds like mold is as dangerous as dust or pollen to people with severe asthma. The announcement containing this finding is easily located by a web search, but it did not receive much press play – stories of frightened people living in tents are more interesting.
3. One must determine the kind of mold present. Mold consultants and plaintiff attorneys often describe some molds as worse than others. The most famous mold is stachybotrys chartarum, a mold producing infinitesimal quantities of a substance similar to botulism poison. However, the amount is so small they call it a “mycotoxin.” It sounds frightening, but the scientific community long ago debunked the myth that this or any mold was somehow poisonous to breathe. For example, read the National Institute of Health Fact Sheet on Mold, found at www.niehs.nih.gov.
4. California is protected by the Toxic Mold Protection Act of 2001. The act instructed the Department of Public Health to develop permissible exposure limits of the various mold strains. However, in 2005, and again in 2008, the DPH reported the task could not be completed with the scientific information available. Consequently, there is presently no official standard as to how many mold spores of any given variety are “unhealthy.”
5. Always start with a mold test. The Environmental Protection Agency recommends against mold testing. There is no standard as to how many mold spores are “unhealthy,” and indoor air sampling tests are extremely vulnerable to events in the home, which can change the results. A recent shower, window opening or carpet cleaning are some of the many factors that can completely change test outcomes.
Mold tests, to put it bluntly, primarily frighten the occupants and create a “need” for the expense of a mold consultant, and a second test after the area is cleaned. Since the health authorities have not confirmed any particular strain is more dangerous, and since there is no official standard as to how many airborne spores are unhealthy, there is rarely a good reason to spend the money on such a test.
Try explaining to a 6-year-old boy that he can’t live with his mother because her apartment is ridden with mold.
Shanica James has tried. But her son, Cafarie, a smart, high-spirited first-grader, just doesn’t understand.
For the past four months, ever since James, a 27-year-old nursing home worker, discovered pervasive dark mold hiding behind the drop ceiling tiles in their living room, they’ve lived some 90 miles apart.
Worried about her son’s health, James sent him to live with his father in Vineland, Cumberland County. Meanwhile, she’s been living alone in their musty one-bedroom apartment in Brick, which is so damp it literally rains indoors.
Whenever it rains or snows, she says, water seeps from the roof down into the second-floor unit, forming beads of moisture that cling to the discolored ceiling like dew on a bruised peach.
One day last month, falling droplets pit-patted onto a waterlogged couch every so often as James told her story, her gloom matching the grimness of her surroundings.
“A week ago was my son’s birthday, and I couldn’t even get him here because of the mold,” she said, overcome with emotion.
“He called me and said, ‘Mommy, you coming to pick me up?’ and I said, ‘I can’t pick you up, because of the mold.’
“He was so mad,” she said, wiping her tears. “It’s just terrible the way I’m living.”
You can watch James tell her story in the video below.
At first her Brick apartment seemed fine, but then the black mold appeared and it turned Shanica James’ life into a living hell.Peter Ackerman
A renter nightmare
A bucket of bleach and a little elbow grease won’t solve James’ housing issues.
A breakdown in New Jersey’s tenant protection laws, coupled with the lack of any regulations pertaining to mold, has left her in an impossible bind.
James says that when her landlord failed to do anything to correct the mold issues, she withheld her rent, as allowed under the law. But the strategy backfired miserably.
After the landlord filed a complaint to have James evicted, the best deal James’ lawyer could get was for her to move out within 30 days and let the landlord keep her $1,350 security deposit, even though her apartment never had a certificate of occupancy as the law requires.
She wants to leave — who wouldn’t if they were living in a $865-a-month terrarium? But because she now has an eviction filing on her record, even though the case was settled, James says other landlords won’t rent to her.
Since the 1970s, New Jersey has had a reputation for having some of the strongest tenant protection laws in the country.
But the roach- and rat-infested apartments the Asbury Park Press visited as part of its “Renter Hell” investigation last year show how badly the system is broken.
The reasons, the Press found, include shoddy inspections, renters who risk being blacklisted merely for asserting their rights in court, and negligent landlords that hide behind New Jersey’s limited liability corporation laws to avoid having to pay fines and make repairs.
The people most likely to fall through the cracks are low-income renters like Shanica James. A single mom from Jamaica, she makes $13 an hour working 60 to 80 hours per week as a certified home health aide and nursing assistant at a nursing home in Wall.
Mold adds another element of risk to the calculus of renting.
Eradicating it is another roll of the dice since mold remediation contractors in New Jersey don’t need to be licensed or have any special certification, as they do in New York and a handful of other states.
Mold is a fungus. To thrive, it needs a warm, moist environment and something to eat, be it drywall, insulation, carpet glue or dirt. All it takes is a leaky pipe or a buildup of condensation due to insufficient ventilation to create the ideal growing conditions. Sometimes it’s visible, as it is on James’ ceiling, and other times it’s hidden, quietly lurking inside walls, basements, crawl spaces or air-conditioning units.
Mold is everywhere, even in the tidiest, most well-maintained homes. There are thousands of different varieties. According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the term “toxic mold” is a misnomer. Mold by itself isn’t toxic or poisonous, but certain types of mold release toxins into the air that can make some people feel sick if they have a mold allergy, a weakened immune system or a lung condition such as asthma or emphysema, the CDC says.
Symptoms of mold sensitivity range from sneezing, coughing and watery eyes to more serious respiratory problems. There is no established link between mold exposure and more serious health problems, such as lung hemorrhages or memory loss, the CDC says.
No testing has been done on the mold in James’ apartment so she doesn’t know what type it is, though she says the musty air makes her feel congested.
New Jersey has strict rules on the books to guard against other household hazards, such as lead paint, asbestos and radon gas. But there are no state or local codes regulating mold. Nor are there any federal thresholds for mold. The township code inspector who visited James’ apartment when she first noticed her ceiling leaking in November didn’t even mention mold in his report, since it’s not covered by the municipality’s property management code. “Water droplets visible on ceiling above tiles,” the report states.
James says she contacted the Ocean County Health Department. She says she was told the department doesn’t test for residential mold.
Brian Rumpf, the department’s director of administration and program development, said the presence of mold in a restaurant would qualify as an unsanitary condition that would have to be corrected.
“But in a residential context our function is really education,” said Rumpf, who is also a Republican assemblyman representing part of Ocean County. “We’re not a code enforcement agency in that regard.”
It’s the same in Monmouth County and throughout the state.
“Because there’s no standards, there’s nothing in an ordinance we can write up as a violation,” explained David Henry, the health officer for the Monmouth County Regional Health Commission, a shared public health agency that serves 21 Monmouth County towns.
“Even if you do the testing and determine that it’s one of the toxic mold spores, we still don’t have any regulatory authority to address that situation,” he said. “Basically, it winds up being a negotiation between the landlord and tenant.”
‘Nothing was done’
James lives in Olympic Gardens, an 80-unit apartment complex off Route 88 in Brick.
James and her son moved there on June 1, 2016. An appreciative family whose elderly parents she cared for until their deaths helped get her settled. She says she was so excited to have a nice apartment that she slept on the floor the first night before her furniture arrived.
James says she didn’t know that the apartment didn’t have a certificate of occupancy, which is required whenever a new tenant moves in. To get one, the apartment would have had to have passed a municipal inspection, but in a letter to James’ lawyer the code enforcement supervisor in Brick, Christopher J. Romano, said no certificate of occupancy had been issued for the unit since June 1, 2016, when James’ lease went into effect.
Multi-family rental properties also need a certificate of inspection from the New Jersey Department of Community Affairs, which is responsible for inspecting each property every five years. Olympic Gardens obtained its state certificate in 2015, after correcting 80 violations cited in its last DCA inspection, records show. But James’ apartment isn’t listed as being among the units the state inspector checked.
The owner of Olympic Gardens at the time James moved in was Longwood Avenue LLC, which used a beeper store in downtown Lakewood as its mail drop. Longwood Avenue sold the property on June 26 to Lakewood-based Brick Apartments LLC for $10.1 million, records show.
James says she had no complaints about the apartment until November, when she noticed water leaking from the ceiling tiles of her living room. She says she contacted her landlord multiple times about the mold and water leaks by telephone and email but, she said, “nothing was done.”
James’ lease identifies the principal operator of Brick Apartments as Jake Klor. Klor did not return three telephone messages left with the management company that operates Olympic Gardens. The company, Olive Tree Management, responded by email with the following statement:
“Brick Apartments LLC only recently took over this property. Our company prides itself on taking difficult properties and improving them. We take every legitimate complaint very seriously.”
In a separate email, the company added: “While we aren’t prepared to have an interview on the matter, a little bit of research will show that one of the tenants in question is in legal proceedings due to violations of their lease.” The company declined further comment.
At the urging of a co-worker, James contacted the Brick Township code enforcement department. The inspector uncovered the mold when he removed ceiling tiles to trace the source of the leak, James says. You can read the inspector’s follow-up report below.
In January, James hired a lawyer, Brian F. O’Malley, and began withholding her rent payments. Within days she received an eviction notice.
A legal doctrine known as the “implied warranty of habitability” ostensibly protects tenants in situations where a rental unit isn’t fit for anyone to live in.
It means the property owner is obligated to provide a tenant with a livable home. But as James would discover, asserting that right carries hazards of its own.
Under New Jersey law, a tenant in a substandard rental can pay for repairs and then deduct the amount from their rent. That’s not a viable option, though, in instances where mold remediation and structural repairs can run in the tens of thousands of dollars.
Another option is to stop making rent payments until the problem is fixed. If the landlord files an eviction complaint, the tenant can use the warranty of habitability as a defense in court in a separate proceeding called a rent abatement or “Marini” hearing, named after a 1970 New Jersey Supreme Court case.
But to qualify for such a hearing, a tenant is first required to deposit any rent money owed into an escrow account held by the court until the case is resolved. O’Malley told the Press that his initial plan was to negotiate James’ move to another unit in the same complex, rather than to seek a Marini hearing. But he said he did advise James to deposit the back rent she owed into an escrow account.
James didn’t do that. She says she used $1,000 of the approximately $3,000 in back rent payments for January through March to hire O’Malley and needed the rest to pay other bills. As a result, O’Malley said, he had little leverage to work with.
“I saw the apartment too and I thought it was a disgrace for anybody to have to live there,” O’Malley said, “but we weren’t able to push the habitability issue.”
The best deal he could get James was 30 days to move out, rather than the five days required when there’s an eviction order. In exchange, the landlord kept James’ $1,350 security deposit. Because the apartment didn’t have a certificate of occupancy, the landlord wasn’t legally entitled to back rent, O’Malley said.
Seeing no other option, James signed the agreement.
There is, however, another course of action available to tenants in these situations: a constructive eviction.
Tenants can argue in court that the landlord has broken the lease by not maintaining the rental unit in a livable condition, thereby violating the warranty of habitability. If successful, the tenant is free to move without having to pay off the balance of the lease, and the landlord cannot keep the security deposit.
But there’s a risk there, as well. The judge may not agree that the problems are that severe, in which case the lease remains in effect.
Standards a sticking point
New Jersey’s lack of mold regulations isn’t unusual. A 2015 analysis by Elizabeth Ann Glass Geltman, an associate professor at the The CUNY Graduate School of Public Health and Health Policy in New York City, identified 11 states that regulate mold remediation: Florida, Illinois, Kentucky, Louisiana, Maryland, Maine, New Hampshire, New York, Oklahoma, Tennessee and Texas.
A few states, including California, have taken steps toward establishing standards for mold in indoor air, but none have standards in place yet. Some cities have adopted their own mold ordinances.
A few cities, including New York City and San Francisco, have enacted ordinances that make landlords responsible for cleaning up mold.
Attempts have been made over the years to established standards for mold in New Jersey, without success.
Among the lawmakers who have tried is state Sen. Robert W. Singer, R-Ocean. His bill, crafted in response to the mold issues caused by flooding from superstorm Sandy in 2012, met with resistance from the state Department of Community Affairs, he said.
“New Jersey wanted national standards set by the federal government first,” Singer said.
Singer’s latest effort, introduced in January, is S-460, titled the “Mold Safe Housing Act.”Co-sponsored by state Sen. Thomas H. Kean Jr., R-Morris, it would allow tenants living in mold-contaminated rental housing to request that their landlord have the mold effectively removed, or relocate them to safer rental housing at the landlord’s expense.
In addition, the bill would require all rental housing in the state to be inspected for mold whenever there’s a change of occupancy. Multi-family rental properties also would have to be checked for mold as part of their five-year state inspection.
A separate bill, A-1433, would require the state Department of Community Affairs to establish procedures for inspection and abatement of mold hazards in residential buildings and school facilities, and certification programs for mold inspectors and mold hazard abatement workers.
Richard Buckley, director of the Rutgers University Plant Diagnostic Laboratory in Millville, said those standards are the sticking point. The problem, he said, is that there is no scientific consensus on where to set thresholds for the many types of molds that can populate a home
“I think the whole idea of a threshold is the issue because I can tolerate a lot more (mold) than my mother, who’s 85,” Buckley said. “So where do you set a standard? Do you set it for me, or do you set it for her?”
‘Too afraid to look’
Whatever becomes of the proposed legislation, it will come too late for Shanica James.
With her April 11 deadline to move out looming, she reluctantly made plans to rent a room in a private home in Neptune where a co-worker’s niece and her father also live.
It’s a temporary arrangement, she hopes, until she can find a place of her own. In the meantime, her son Cafarie will remain with his father in Vineland.
James said she was feeling sorry for herself until a few weeks ago when she happened to run into her next-door neighbor at Olympic Gardens, Jashauna Creadle.
The two women hadn’t spoken before, and they got to talking about the problems James was having with the mold in her living room.
James invited Creadle in to see for herself. Then Creadle pulled out her phone and showed James what the mold was like in her apartment.
Judging from the photos, it appeared to be even worse.
Creadle, 27, says an Olympic Gardens maintenance worker treated and re-painted the affected area inside her bedroom closet more than a year ago, but she’s worried the mold has come back, or never really went away. She says she’s “too afraid to look” under the ceiling tiles to know for sure because she has nowhere else to go.
A single mother like James, Creadle shares the one-bedroom unit with her two daughters, ages 9 and four months. The 9-year-old, Jalylah Vasquez, has asthma and told the Press the musty air “makes my throat itchy and I start coughing.”
“It’s like every month she’s sick. She misses a lot of school which causes me to miss a lot of work, which makes me fall behind on my rent,” said her mother, who is currently unemployed. “The pulmonologist explained that as long as we’re in a home with mold, she’s not going to be better.”
The monthly rent for their apartment increased this year from $800 to $950, she said. “I just want to get out of here,” Creadle said. But with an eviction filing on her record, as well, she’s finding it difficult, too. Olive Tree Management declined to comment.
Her neighbor’s predicament put her own problems in perspective, James says.
“I don’t have it bad,” she said after visiting Creadle’s unit, “she does.”
Like Creadle, James said she’s been too afraid to check behind the ceiling tiles in her bedroom to see if there was mold there also, preferring to believe that her bedroom, at least, was a sanctuary from the mold lurking right outside the door.
After returning from Creadle’s apartment, though, she mustered up the courage.
Stepping onto the air-conditioning unit sitting on the floor, James reached up and, with her finger, gingerly lifted the corner of one of the tiles, just an inch or two.
Seeing a black substance, she quietly lowered the tile and stepped down.
“I was in shock,” she said later. “I’m not safe at all in that place.”