Toxic mold Lawyer District of Columbia

The Mold War

Housing_Mold-1In 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.”

* * *

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.


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