Apartment dwellers' gathering to address a growing concern

Mold: Howard County and River Island complex officials will field tenant and community questions on removal of a potentially toxic fungus found in some units.

January 06, 2004|By Jackie Powder | Jackie Powder,SUN STAFF

Two community activists say tenants of a Savage apartment complex - and other residents in the town - should know about potential environmental issues related to the discovery of toxic mold in one of its units, and they've organized a meeting tonight to seek answers from county officials and apartment management.

Robin Smith, who has become an unofficial tenants' advocate, and Myra Phelps, acting president of the Savage Community Association, distributed more than 200 fliers around town to tell residents of the meeting at 6 p.m. at Carroll Baldwin Hall, 9035 Baltimore St.

"We said, `We've got to do something to make the public in Savage aware of their environment,'" said Smith, who became involved in trying to improve conditions at River Island Apartments after toxic mold was found in her daughter's unit.

Conditions at the 144-unit complex were brought to the county's attention by state Sen. Sandra B. Schrader, a Howard Republican who visited some units and found substandard living conditions. In addition to the mold, she saw a kitchen with no cold running water, rodent droppings and an unlocked utility room filled with broken glass.

In response to Schrader's observations, Howard County Executive James N. Robey directed an assistant, Herman Charity, to work with other county departments to correct problems at the complex, which has many low-income residents. It is owned by Sateesh K. Singh, who owned an Annapolis complex that he sold for $2 million in 1989.

"I know our inspectors have been actively working on the issues brought to their attention," Charity said. "I know that we have resolved some of them. I can't say we've resolved all of them."

"If there are some things we have not addressed to their satisfaction, then we'll continue to work with them and management."

Robin Smith's daughter, Nickole, 22, moved out of her apartment after an environmental testing company, hired in August by her mother, detected elevated levels of the toxic mold stachybotrys in her apartment and declared it unsafe. The company, Air Tech International of Silver Spring, recommended the use of "full body protection" during removal of the mold.

According to a lab analysis of the tests, the stachybotrys fungus can produce a an airborne toxin; chronic exposure to it has been associated with cold and flu symptoms, diarrhea and skin problems. The toxin also can weaken the immune system and is a potential carcinogen.

After Nickole Smith moved out, apartment management said it had the unit professionally cleaned and that according to recent tests it is mold-free. A new tenant living in the unit was informed of the mold problem before he moved in, said Linda Adams, River Island's resident property manager.

"Everything is fine in there," Adams said.

Robin Smith worries that if the mold was not removed according to Environmental Protection Agency remediation guidelines, toxic spores might have been released into the air.

"These are things that need to be answered," she said.

Michael Evans, director of the county Department of Inspections, Licenses and Permits, said that in garden apartments his inspectors typically find that mold occurs in ground-floor units, where water collects around the foundation.

"I have never seen such a thick buildup of slime, like jelly and deep green," Robin Smith said of the mold on the patio of her daughter's former ground-floor unit.

Environmental tests ordered by River Island, at the request of county rental housing inspectors, found no mold in Smith's apartment but detected a small amount in a unit rented by Barbara Butler, Adams said. She said Butler refused a cleanup crew access to her apartment.

Butler has complained that since she and her family moved into the apartment in May, they have had unexplained rashes, watery eyes and fatigue. In a visit to Butler's apartment, Phelps said, she saw mold hanging from ceiling vents.

Adams said the complex's management is working with the county Department of Inspections, Licenses and Permits to address the mold issue and other problems, and that the problems are being taken care of.

Community activists also want to see the report prepared for River Island by Brook Environmental and Engineering Corp.

The county has the report, which contains a disclaimer that it is not to be released without the consent of Brook Environmental, said Constance A. Tucker, a senior assistant county solicitor. She said her office plans to send a letter to the company this week to determine whether the county can release the analysis to Phelps, who filed a request for a copy of the report.

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