Body and Mold

By Sarah Mortimer, Pamela Granda, Camilo Gomez, Kyle Ligman, Sandra Lopez-Monsalve, and Oresti Tsonopoulos

May 13, 2014
New York, NY

Maribel Baez was taking three medications to control her asthma when New York City Housing Authority staff finally arrived to address her concerns about the seeping water and mold that was overtaking her bathroom in August of 2012.

Baez had lived in Melrose Houses — a subsidized apartment complex in the Bronx — with her teenage sons for seven years. In those years, she'd complained multiple times to NYCHA about the perspiring walls and excessive mold growing in her windowless bathroom. She had noticed her asthma symptoms were getting worse.

That summer NYCHA replaced her bathroom walls with finished wallboard and repainted and plastered the ceiling, Despite a steady source of water dripping from the bathroom's walls, not a single plumbing pipe was touched.

According to court documents, the mold returned in a month.

Last December, Baez and two other households living in New York's public housing complexes filed, and then settled, a lawsuit against NYCHA. The lawsuit argued that NYCHA had failed to make reasonable accommodations to its mold removal policies in homes where residents are affected by asthma. The court documents include an estimate that nearly 10 percent of NYCHA's residents — around 37,000 adults and children — suffer from asthma.

The settlement, which is being overseen by a federal judge, now requires NYCHA to repair any tenant's mold and excessive moisture problems, including fixing leaky pipes, within seven to 15 days, depending on the complexity of the problem.

The case cites studies that link mold to increased asthma symptoms—and NYCHA's informational materials now inform residents that mold or excessive moisture may aggravate asthma symptoms. But what is not as clear, when the scientific evidence is weighed, is whether the greater occurrence of asthma in New York's public housing can be attributed directly to prolonged exposure to mold. Now the closely watched case is raising questions, among experts and tenants, about the wider health effects of mold.

“I don't know much about it, but I feel like it's not good for me,” said 52-year-old Aida Rodriguez, a long-time resident of the Jefferson Houses in East Harlem.

Research out of the University of Cincinnati has suggested that children may be at a higher risk of developing health problems if exposed to mold in early life.

Tiina Reponen, a leading researcher of environmental health risks at the university who studied mold exposure in homes after Hurricane Katrina, found, in a 2012 study, that children exposed to mold before age one showed a higher risk of developing asthma later on.

“We did the first year of life then at age seven and what we were able to show was that the early moldiness before age one increased asthma risk,” she said.

Reponen said that mold exposure could also worsen other types of allergies.

But the jury is still out among researchers on other connections between mold and health.

Dr. Ronald E. Gots, chief executive officer of the International Center for Toxicology and Medicine in Rockville, Md., says that mold has yet to be proven to be a highly dangerous environmental toxin. He warned, however, that mold may pose a risk to asthma-sufferers who are allergic to certain mold types.

“There are some people who are allergic to molds. They might get an asthma attack if they are exposed to the mold they are allergic to,” he said.

Some studies have even linked mold exposure to depression and fatigue. But the findings have yet to receive wide scientific support.

“There is research [on this], but it is not generally accepted,” said biochemist and molecular biologist Gary Rosen, a mold remediation specialist based in Davie, Florida. “It's not like everyone is going to say, ‘Yes that happens.’ They are not going to say that mold makes you lose your memory.”

Ryan-NENA Health Center Reaches Out to Residents

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Credit: Pamela Granda

Yet with rates of asthma above the national rate in New York City's low-income areas, according to court documents, the effect of mold on respiratory health remains a large concern for NYCHA residents.

Christopher Acevedo, age 10, who lives in Jacob Riis housing with his parents and three siblings, was hospitalized before the age of two with asthma outbreaks. Years later, his older sister, Jasmine, was hospitalized with pneumonia in both lungs. Their parents, Jose and Ana Acevedo say that they have made about 10 visits to Beth Israel Medical Center in the past decade for respiratory emergencies for both children.

Christopher's doctor once told the family they needed to move.

“Where would we go?” asked Ana. Transfers in public housing are rare.

“I don’t know what it is, but this place is making us age really fast. It's too much stress,” her husband, Jose, added.

Breathing Troubles
By Sandra Lopez-Monsalve

Hurricane Sandy slammed Iris Parra, 40, a resident in the Jacob Riis projects since 2010. After the storm, water seeped through walls and ceilings — and mold developed. Parra, who has suffered from asthma since childhood, said her symptoms worsened. “I got asthma episodes,” said Parra, in Spanish.

Parra called FEMA to get help with the problem. “They came home and took photos of all the mold,” she said, but later, the agency sent her a letter saying she was not eligible for FEMA aid. The letter also said she had to clean up her own apartment.

In December, 2012, Parra paid a contractor $400 — plus the cost of materials to paint and sand the walls and ceilings of her two-bedroom apartment. But the mold came back. She ended up buying a special treatment to kill the mold for $25 at a hardware store. “We painted again and again with it, until it was over but it took me a month,” she said.

Click on the green windows for tenants' stories of their battles again mold.

To better inform NYCHA residents like the Acevedos, local medical organizations are making an effort to spread awareness about what the risks of mold may pose to public housing residents with asthma.

At an informational event held on May 6 by Ryan-Nena Community Health Center near Jacob Riis, asthma specialist Tina Munzu explained that her organization wants to teach residents how to maintain good respiratory health and remove excessive moisture from their apartments.

“Even before Sandy there was always a mold issue, especially if you're cooking, you're showering. There is a lot of moisture in the atmosphere,” said Munzu. “That creates mold developing around in the apartment and for someone that has asthma, inhaling those mold spores can be very dangerous for them.”

Residents living in Jacob Riis Houses and the Jefferson Houses say they've seen a recent improvement in response times to mold complaints in the building.

But for NYCHA residents who are exposed on a daily basis to the possible toxic effects of mold, deep concerns remain.

Menaced by Mold is a product of the NYCity News Service at the CUNY Graduate School of Journalism.

Content, Copyright © 2014, CUNY Graduate School of Journalism

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