Protect Your Residents—and Yourself—Against Mold Problems
Mold at your site is more than just a nuisance. It can exacerbate health problems for residents and create a legal liability for you. To reduce these risks, take steps to educate residents and involve them in the fight to keep mold to a minimum.
First, it's important to understand that mold is everywhere. “According to accepted science and research, and particularly the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), mold is considered ubiquitous, or ever present,” explains Bernard Morosco, a housing consultant who specializes in maintenance and management and is a certified indoor environmentalist and mold remediator. “It is not possible to completely prevent mold. You can find it in a very clean house or a surgical ward.”
Another aspect about mold and its growth that's important to note is that there is no clear-cut definition of “overexposure to mold.” It's not possible to know how much mold is too much, Morosco says.
“Mold is not treated in the same fashion as lead paint or asbestos,” he points out. “Currently, there are no standards or threshold limit values for airborne concentrations of mold or mold spores set by the federal government, and the reason is simple: human biology. Mold affects people in different ways. What would not affect one person could trigger an asthma attack or dermatitis for another.”
Take Appropriate Action
What, then, can be done about mold? Here are four critical steps:
1. Establish a maintenance plan that specifically addresses mold.
2. Educate residents about mold, its causes, and measures that can help combat it.
3. Establish house rules that formalize residents' responsibility to help combat the problem.
4. Encourage residents to report possible mold-related conditions promptly.
Put plan in place. Morosco says that this is where the battle against mold begins. “Site managers should have an operations and maintenance plan for mold and moisture control in place that can serve primarily as a preventive procedure and an effective communication tool with residents,” he says.
A well-put-together plan should cover these things, according to Morosco:
Training of staff;
Education of residents;
Routine maintenance checklists;
Maintenance request processing;
Procedures for mold remediation; and
Resident follow-up letters and procedures.
A sample set of site policies and procedures regarding mold is available free on Morosco's Web site at http://www.morosco.org/products.htm.
Educate and engage residents. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) is a good source of educational information about mold and mold growth, according to Morosco. “The EPA has taken ownership of this subject and has some very valuable information online,” he explains. “In particular, I recommend the booklet, A Brief Guide to Mold, Moisture and Your Home.” The EPA guide can be found at: http://www.epa.gov/mold/pdfs/moldguide.pdf.
As the EPA points out in the guide, the key to mold control is moisture control. Finding the source of the moisture and drying out the moisture-damaged areas are critical.
“The source of the water is key,” Morosco explains. “What I come across frequently is mold in the bathroom—the tubs and surrounding areas particularly. The bathroom has all the right conditions—warmth, high humidity, and a food source. When you take a shower or bath and do not turn on the vent fan or open the window, you trap that moisture inside, which encourages mold to grow. Properly running exhaust fans and opening windows can ease this problem.”
Morosco recommends keeping relative humidity down to 50 percent or less and using dehumidifiers along with mechanical or natural ventilation.
Establish house rules. This may be the best “best practice” on managing mold issues. Adopt house rules that set up residents' role in preventing mold problems. House rules on mold:
Support efforts to educate your residents;
Clarify residents' role and responsibilities related to the issue;
Give residents an avenue to keep you informed about mold-related concerns; and
Serve as a potential defense in the event a resident tries to hold you liable for health problems or injuries cause by mold.
Morosco says that, if possible under the rules of your HUD program, you should incorporate your house rules on mold into the lease by way of a lease addendum. For language you can adapt and use, see our Model Agreement: Have Residents Sign House Rules on Mold.
House rules about mold may come in handy against potential lawsuits, but, as Morosco points out, other “defenses” could work on your behalf as well.
“While the CDC clarifies that there is sufficient evidence that mold can exacerbate health conditions like asthma, there is no evidence that it ‘creates’ these conditions,” he says. “The first and, according to many experts in the industry, the best guide to indoor mold was issued by the New York City Department of Mental Health and Hygiene, which stated that just because you see visible mold does not mean that people will exhibit health effects from it.”
Those who would hold you liable in the case of a mold-related health problem would probably have difficulty proving such a claim, Morosco adds. “How do they provide the proof that the conditions in the apartment caused the health effects, as compared to exposures in other places they visit on a regular basis, such as schools, work, etc.?” he says. “How do medical doctors say with undeniable statements, without conducting testing and physically visiting the home, that the conditions that the patient describes actually were the cause? Many medical statements from physicians are based on just what the patient tells them—so the physicians are like a judge who hears only one side of an argument and renders a decision.”
Bernard J. Morosco: Consulting, Training and Inspection Services, 56 Woodberry Rd., New Hartford, NY 13413; (315) 794-0825; firstname.lastname@example.org.
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