Tenants demand safer conditions

Toxic mold discovered in Howard apartments

December 15, 2003|By Jackie Powder | Jackie Powder,SUN STAFF

Tenants at a Savage apartment complex say the landlord and Howard County authorities have failed to adequately address substandard living conditions in some of the units at River Island Apartments, including the documented presence of a toxic mold.

Although county health and inspection officials say the problem has been resolved, a Howard state senator and the mother of a former tenant - who has become an unofficial advocate for residents - maintain that conditions at the complex are deplorable.

"The time for talking is over; this is abominable," said Sen. Sandra B. Schrader, who visited some apartments at the tenants' invitation and made several requests to meet with the landlord, Sateesh K. Singh. "It is unconscionable the way some of these people are living - holes in the ceiling, water pouring in, mold."

An environmental testing company, hired four months ago by the mother of a former resident, detected elevated levels of the mold, stachybotrys. The tester also found that the ventilation system was dirty and improperly installed.

The company recommended that the tenant, 22-year-old Nickole Smith, leave her apartment immediately and throw away all of her belongings in the unit.

"After reviewing the lab report, I pretty much determined that the place was unsafe," said Raul Villarreal, director of environmental services for Air Tech International, based in Silver Spring.

"I recommended that they leave because the HVAC [heating, ventilation and air-conditioning] system was spreading this mold all over the place," he said. "You don't want to gamble with that type of mold."

According to the lab analysis, the stachybotrys fungus can produce a toxin that, when airborne, is poisonous. In cases of chronic exposure, the report said, it has been associated with cold and flu symptoms, diarrhea and skin problems. The toxin can also weaken immune systems and is a potential carcinogen that affects the liver and kidneys, the report said.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention report that more than 1,000 kinds of indoor molds have been found in U.S. homes. Of those, a small number are toxic. However, the CDC has not determined a link between toxic mold and particular health problems.

After the discovery of mold in her apartment, Smith moved back with her mother, who for the past four months has pressed apartment management and county officials to address violations at the 144-unit complex that serves many low-income residents.

"To think that a property could be this run-down," said Nickole Smith's mother, Robin Smith. "I'm sure people don't believe me."

Michael Evans, director of the county Department of Inspections, Licenses and Permits, said he met with Singh this month to discuss the mold problem.

"I was telling him that he needed to be proactive in dealing with the mold situation and to be aware of symptoms that indicate a mold risk," he said.

"He appreciated the information and said he'd look into it," Evans said.

A rental housing inspector in Evans' department has been to River Island several times since August. He found evidence of mold in some units and directed the management to hire a firm to conduct testing.

The company, Brook Environmental and Engineering Corp. of Columbia, found no mold in Smith's apartment and a small amount in the unit rented by Barbara Butler, said Linda Adams, the resident property manager at River Island, who said she spoke for Singh.

Smith's apartment has been professionally cleaned and Butler's is scheduled for cleaning, she said.

"The apartment is completely cleared of mold," said Adams, who added that Smith and Butler were the only tenants who complained about mold.

"I have been here for eight years, and this is the first time we've had a mold or moisture issue," she said.

Butler, a tenant in the building where Nickole Smith lived, said her family always seems to be sick.

She lives in an apartment with her 18-year-old daughter, 16-year-old son and 2-year-old granddaughter. She said everyone in the apartment except her son has had unexplained health problems - including rashes, memory loss, fatigue and watery eyes - since they moved there in May last year.

Deborah Dunn, a physician's assistant at the Laurel Medical Center practice that treats Butler's family, wrote a letter of complaint to the state Department of Housing and Community Development, and pointed to mold as a potential cause.

Dunn wrote that Butler's daughter and granddaughter have been seen several times for respiratory infections, and the child has a rash that has been difficult to treat.

Mold is not the only reported problem at the complex.

In a Nov. 21 letter that Schrader sent to County Executive James N. Robey, she listed several other concerns about conditions at the complex. Among the problems she observed were rodent droppings, no cold running water in a kitchen, no exterior lighting outside a basement unit and an unlocked utility room filled with broken glass.

Herman Charity, an assistant to Robey, said the county executive directed him to look into the situation. Charity said that he spoke with Evans and his inspectors, and now receives updates on conditions at River Island.

"We're monitoring the investigation to make sure we're doing everything that we're supposed to be doing," he said.

In the past two weeks, Schrader said, the apartment management has been more receptive to county officials.

"My understanding is that they're starting to get some positive reaction from the landlord," she said.

Adams said that some tenants have complained to her that Robin Smith has been asking if there are problems in their apartments.

Smith said she has no intention of backing off.

"These families deserve to live in a healthy environment," she said.

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