“Damp buildings … increase the risk of people developing asthma, allergies, breathing difficulties and other respiratory problems,” says David Lipton, industrial hygiene consultant at the Occupational and Environmental Epidemiology branch of the North Carolina Division of Public Health.
In George’s first exposure, the “water heater had gone off the whole time we were gone, and the walls were buckling,” she says. The landlord had replaced different valves on the water heater several times before, but it still sporadically malfunctioned, spewing steam and water into the small, two-bedroom trailer. “There were pockets of mildew, and the paneling on our walls [was] just falling off. My posters were covered in mold. I couldn't breathe.”
The landlord moved George and her boyfriend to a different trailer with a lower rent.
Mold problems aren’t uncommon, particularly in Western North Carolina’s climate. “We tend to look at mold growing in a building as a symptom of chronic water damage, persistent moisture accumulation or high humidity,” says Lipton. “We want to focus in on that underlying condition. If you look at the scientific and epidemiological data, we know damp buildings aren't healthy.”
In a subsequent home, unfortunately, George experienced a worse encounter. Her boyfriend practiced with his band in the basement, usually only lit by rope lights strung around the ceiling. One day, she found thick, bright-green mold growing up the basement walls. The landlord cleaned up, but George later found the crud growing through the ceiling, into her bedroom, along the walls and in the crevices of all the windowpanes.
“My boyfriend had really bad allergies, and was sneezing all of the time. He had recently developed asthma, and we couldn't figure out why,” George recalls. “I was always sick too. I was coughing up phlegm and wheezing all of the time.”
“Children may be more sensitive than adults, [and] people with pre-existing respiratory conditions and compromised immune systems are at a greater risk than healthy people. That is the bottom line,” says Lipton.
The landlord gave George a dehumidifier, but it occasionally overflowed, encouraging more mold. The landlord’s response: George was told to keep it running and mop up the overflow — which happened several more times in the year that she lived there.
North Asheville resident Maisey Cooley faced similar conditions when she moved into a bottom-floor apartment but says the landlord hasn’t addressed the problem. “My dehumidifier is old, and I've tried to get it fixed multiple times. I've told [the landlord] I'm sick multiple times a week,” Cooley says. “I have a cold pretty much always. I'm always congested. They act like it isn't a problem.”
Describing Asheville as an “extremely humid climate,” Lipton emphasizes that landlords and property managers must take care of the source of the mold and moisture instead of merely treating the symptom. “Say you're trying to use a dehumidifier in an unvented crawlspace. You're fighting a losing battle there,” Lipton observes. “Once you've taken care of all of the structural problems that cause moisture, then a dehumidifier might actually work.”
Mold removal and related repairs as part of the landlord's legal responsibilities, according to North Carolina General Statute 42-42, which outlines the duties required for providing fit premises. It specifically addresses “excessive standing water, sewage, or flooding problems caused by plumbing leaks or inadequate drainage that contribute to mosquito infestation or mold.” These are noted as some of the “imminently dangerous conditions” that the landlord must promptly repair.
“Although [the statute] does not require written notice, we recommend that tenants provide the landlord notice of the dangerous condition in writing, sign and date the notice and retain a copy,” says Pisgah Legal Services staff attorney Mae Creadick. “As housing advocates here at Pisgah Legal, we see so many rental housing cases of mold, especially with this torrential rain that can lead to flooding and mold.”
“When the General Assembly changed Chapter 42 to include the 12 imminently dangerous conditions — including [those] that lead to mold, that a landlord must repair within a reasonable period of time — we cheered,” says Creadick.
Along with repairing the initial leak or problem, landlords and tenants must clean the mold effectively to ensure the building is safe. “It's really important that you find, [remove or clean] all of the materials that might have been wet, or are wet,” says Lipton. “You can … remove the soft, porous, deteriorated, decayed, damaged organic material with mold growing on it. Anything hard, dry, nonporous and made of an inorganic material, you can clean,” he explains. “
“We emphasize that the cleaning is a physical process. In other words, you're scrubbing the surface down, you're vacuuming up the mold spores or [doing] something to get the mold off the surfaces.”
Further, tenants can call local building inspectors, who will investigate structural conditions that could lead to moisture and or whether the tenant did something to cause moist conditions.
“What they should not do is say, 'Help me housing inspector. I have mold,'” Creadick says. “They need to say, 'I believe that there are leaks because there is a crack in the roof that's causing mold,' or 'water flows right under this house and stays there and causes moisture.' That way, the housing inspector can come out and enforce the housing code.”
The health effects of living in a moist, moldy home can linger, according to George. Now living in a new house that seems to be mold-free, she’s convinced that her boyfriend’s respiratory problems were exacerbated by their earlier experiences.
He “did not have asthma before he moved into that house. Now he has to take his inhaler with him every day,” George notes. “He quit smoking, and it's still there.”
— Megan Dombroski is a freelance journalist living in Asheville.