The Mold War
In 2012, shortly after returning to D.C. from medical anthropology fieldwork in Peru for her graduate program, Clare Kelley was diagnosed with kidney stones. She had what was supposed to be routine surgery, but instead of bouncing back as expected, she needed an additional four operations that year.
Things kept getting worse from there. That October, Hurricane Sandy hit. D.C. was mostly spared, but the walls of Kelley’s apartment on Crescent Place NW in Adams Morgan were damaged, so she told her property manager, who, she says, “kind of brushed it off.”
“I started getting sicker and sicker,” she says, “and I didn’t know why.”
Kelley, 32, is an active person: She teaches yoga and pilates. But in the months that followed, she began to feel extreme fatigue.
“Then it started getting weirder and weirder,” she recalls. “My hair started falling out. I’d run my hand through my hair and huge clumps would come out from the roots. I started getting dizzy, fainting.”
She saw a doctor, who ran some tests. Kelley failed a visual acuity test meant to determine whether she’d been exposed to neurotoxins. She knew she’d come into contact with something dangerous; she just didn’t know what, or where.
“That was terrifying, because suddenly it’s like the whole world is threatening,” she says.
Spring rolled around without any answers. Kelley slept in a lofted bed in her apartment, and as the weather warmed, she decided to open the air-conditioning vent on the ceiling, just above her bed. It was covered in mold.
She emailed her property manager, Chatel Real Estate, and ordered a home test kit for mold on Amazon. When it arrived, she tried it on the vent. It tested positive for two kinds of mold. (Chatel, which Kelley describes as “difficult” and uncooperative during her efforts to test for and remediate the mold, did not respond to multiple requests for comment. Two of Kelley’s old neighbors in the building confirmed they also saw mold in the basement, and complained that Chatel simply painted over the mold; one sent photos.)
Kelley was aware of the dangers of mold; she’s working toward dual master’s degrees in public health and international development, with a focus on health issues. But she didn’t move immediately, she says, because she was “so sick and so tired that the idea of moving was overwhelming.” Instead, she called the Department of Consumer and Regulatory Affairs to arrange for an inspector to visit.
The inspector, Kelley says, was “great,” but her hands were tied. She saw the mold, but told Kelley, “All I can do is cite for the water damage and the windows not working.”
Mold, it turns out, sits at the center of perhaps the biggest loophole in D.C.’s housing code. DCRA inspectors can cite property owners for insufficient natural light in bedrooms, dilapidated sheds, or improperly mounted radio antennas. But if they see mold, the best they can do is cite for related issues like water damage or an unclean surface—issues that landlords can often remedy in advance of a DCRA visit by simply painting over the mold. The city has treated mold like an environmental problem, not a housing or safety issue of the sort that DCRA can cite for.
“DCRA can only cite for underlying causes, including moisture and pipe breaks,” says Joel Cohn, legislative director of the Office of the Tenant Advocate, a D.C. government office. “If all the inspector sees is some black stuff on the wall, then it’s difficult to establish a responsibility on the part of the landlord.”
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Over the course of a conversation, Kelley sometimes gets stuck on words. It’s not quite a stutter; she’ll arrive at a word and struggle to get it out of her mouth. For whatever reason, during our recent meeting over coffee, it’s mostly years. Narrating a part of her story that took place in 2012, she finds herself unable to say “2012,” instead resorting in frustration to drawing the digits with her finger on the table.
This never happened before the mold incident, she says. She has a lot of problems she hadn’t previously experienced. She has trouble with analytical skills. She feels tired and dizzy. The left side of her body doesn’t work as well as her right. She sometimes loses vision temporarily in her left eye. She feels “crazy anxiety.”
Kelley struggled to find a doctor who specializes in this kind of reaction to mold. It wasn’t until this past October that she came across Dr. Janette Hope in Santa Barbara, Calif., and dipped into her retirement savings to pay a visit. Hope ran a series of tests. One found that Kelley had toxic encephalopathy, a form of degenerative brain damage. Another found elevated levels of mycotoxins—toxins produced by mold—in her urine.
Mold can affect people as an allergen, an irritant, an infectious agent, or a toxin, depending on genetics and a person’s environment. There’s some disagreement among doctors about how strong the link is between mold and toxic reactions. Jerome Paulson, medical director for national and global affairs of the Children’s Health Advocacy Institute at the Children’s National Medical Center, has testified before the D.C. Council about the perils of mold but isn’t convinced that science has established a definitive connection to outcomes like brain damage. “I know a lot of people believe they are affected that way by mold, but I don’t think there’s really scientific evidence to support that,” he says.
But Hope, whose practice deals primarily with mold and mycotoxins and who serves as president of the American Academy of Environmental Medicine, argues that there’s “an abundance of international literature” on the neurocognitive effects of mold and that “for the people truly researching it, there really is no debate.” Kelley’s neurocognitive and general symptoms, she says, are consistent with exposure to mold; her kidney stones may have also been caused by mold, but that connection is harder to prove.
Regardless, there’s no question that mold is a substantial public health issue in the District, and one that gives victims little opportunity for recourse.
“Here’s how big a problem it is: When you go to court to file that there’s a problem in housing conditions, you actually check boxes for what’s wrong,” says Judith Sandalow, executive director of the Children’s Law Center. “And in the past few years, literally 50 percent of people who file a complaint in court check the box that mold is a problem.” Sandalow is referring to a 2013 survey by the Legal Aid Society of the District of Columbia, which found that half of all complainants in housing conditions court cited mold or mildew as a problem.
According to Cohn, the leading cause of complaints to the Office of the Tenant Advocate has to do with security deposits. No. 2 is housing code violations, and “mold is a problem in a great many cases”—even though it’s not officially a housing code violation.
Sandalow points to studies that have shown D.C. to have twice the prevalence of asthma as the national average. In her experience, there’s a strong correlation between children who live in mold-infested apartments and children who suffer from asthma—as evidenced by what happens to their health when the mold issue is resolved.
“This is such a solvable problem,” Sandalow says. “When you move a kid from a mold-infested apartment to a new one or remediate the problem, they bounce back almost immediately.”
Unfortunately, mold can be difficult to address, says Sandalow’s colleague Cathy Zeisel, an attorney who handles a lot of mold cases for low-income tenants. “Right now, if there’s no visible dampness and you call in a city inspector, as long as the landlord paints over the mold it will pass inspection,” she says. “We see a lot of landlords who paint over the mold and call it a day.” Legal action is also difficult: In housing court, says Zeisel, the judge will often say that mold isn’t covered by the D.C. housing code; in civil court, cases can take months or even years, so the damage is done by the time the case concludes.
That could change. Ward 3 Councilmember Mary Cheh introduced an amendment to the Rental Housing Act of 1985 this month that would make it easier for the city and for tenants to address mold issues. Under the legislation, passed unanimously by the Council on first reading and awaiting a final vote, the District Department of the Environment would be required to set mold standards consistent with federal mold guidelines. It would also compel landlords to disclose recent mold issues to new tenants, and to hire licensed practitioners to inspect and remediate mold.
If it becomes law, the amendment wouldn’t actually compel DCRA to cite for mold, as it does for things like improper rat-proofing. Instead, according to DCRA spokesman Matt Orlins, it would allow DCRA to use evidence from a mold test as the basis to cite for a “defective surface condition” if the test shows the mold level to exceed the threshold established by DDOE. It doesn’t exactly put mold in violation of the housing code, but it does make it easier for tenants to take mold cases to housing court and get them remedied quickly.
“It doesn’t go as far as we would like,” says Beth Harrison, an attorney with Legal Aid. “We would have loved for it to have specifically said that it is a violation of the housing code.” But she adds that the legislation would put D.C. on the leading edge with regard to mold laws, since most states don’t have legislation to address mold.
“We’re pretty excited about this law,” says Sandalow. “This law will allow us to help a lot more children. It will make a tremendous difference in the health of low-income residents.”
But for people like Kelley, it comes too late. Last week, she went back out to California for neurocognitive rehabilitation therapy. She might never fully recover from the damage she’s suffered—Hope says many patients recover from mold-exposure symptoms, while others do not, and Kelley is one of the sicker patients she’s encountered. But Kelley’s beginning to feel optimistic. While she’s borrowed substantially from her savings and maxed out a credit card to pay for her treatment, friends have now rallied to raise money for her. Perhaps most important for her peace of mind, she’s living in a new apartment—although she had to throw out most of her old possessions due to mold contamination.
Still, Kelley is bothered by the fact that under current D.C. law, other people are likely experiencing what she’s endured. She recently went past her old building on Crescent Place and saw that someone new is living in her apartment. She saw condensation on the window and worried that the moisture and mold problems hadn’t been fixed at all, just painted over. And she’s troubled by the fact that, at least until Cheh’s amendment has a chance to become law, the landlord had no obligation to disclose Kelley’s issues to the new tenants.
For all she knows, they could be going through the exact same thing.
Photo by Darrow Montgomery