My apartment building flooded during Sandy. Should I still be worried about mold?

By Tracy Kaler  | January 10, 2013 - 9:51AM

It's been more than two months since Sandy flooded many NYC neighborhoods and buildings, yet some apartment dwellers continue to worry about the possibility of mold.

Is it realistic?

"As long as the water was drained and the area was cleaned out properly and within 72 hours, including disposal of any affected porous cellular material such as wood, paper, and furnituremold should not be an issue," says Jeffrey Gross, operations manager for Maxons, a New York-based company with experience in property damage restoration and recovery. "Most of the buildings that were affected were cleaned up pretty quickly."

Buildings that weren't cleaned up quickly--or with the right protocol--may not be out of the moldy woods.

If you're wondering whether your sneezing and wheezing is something more serious than a cold, read on.

Q. How do I know if I have mold?

A. You would have known if mold was growing in your apartment within the first week or two post-Sandy--you would detect a musty or 'damp basement' odor. 

"Mold needs warmth, moisture and an organic material to flourish," says Bill Sothern of Microecologies, a NYC-based firm specializing in interior environmental issues including mold.  Look for mold on paint, drywall, carpeting, wood, insulation, etc. 

However, because mold often grows behind baseboards and in wall cavities, you might not actually see it, so check for dampness where you notice a smell.

In prewar buildings, mold is most commonly discovered "in floors and in and around baseboards, and less likely in the walls," says Sothern. (Most walls in pre-wars are masonry and not wood.) "In post-war, mold will be probably be found more often in walls and ceilings."

Q. Can basement mold travel upstairs? 

A. If you live on a high floor, you may be wondering whether mold from a basement can travel, say, 10 stories up.

Although unlikely, it can happen. However, it may be more common for the odor to travel than the actual mold.

“It is possible for foul odors and potentially mold spores to rise up through a building due to something called the stack effect,” says Gross, referring to how air moves in and out of buildings, chimneys, elevators, etc.

Fresh air supply ducts in public hallways and exhaust vents in basements of high rise buildings help minimize this possibility.

“However," says Gross, "elevator shafts themselves cause enough of a vacuum when rising to suck up some air from the basement.”

One East Village renter, who lives in a sixth-floor apartment tells BrickUnderground that he is suffering from a mold problem that started in the basement after Sandy.

As a result of flooding, mold attacked the basement and first floor of his elevator building. Although he resides on the top floor, the mold traveled and is now around the baseboards of some of the second-floor apartments. As a result, he is suffering from the ill effects of mold on lower floors.

“I have a sinus-type headache every morning until I get to work, and then it clears up.” 

Repairs are supposed to be completed by spring of 2013.

“The entire elevator is being overhauled"--meaning it is out of commission--"and anything with water damage is being replaced," he says. Meanwhile, the city is waiting for proposals from technicians who have surveyed the damage, and he and his partner have chosen to stay in the city-owned-and-operated building.

“We’re staying because we’re on the sixth floor and moving without an elevator is a nightmare. Where would we move to?”

Q. Whose responsibility is it to get rid of the mold?

A. If you're renting, your landlord is responsible for the inside and outside of your apartment.

Photograph and document the mold and contact your landlord immediately, says real estate attorney Steven Wagner of Wagner Berkow

Most landlords try to repair before the case gets to court to avoid legal fees, he says. (See '6 ways to get your landlord to fix stuff in your apartment').

If your landlord doesn't rectify the mold, "you may need to contact a specialist to do a testing," he says. "A specialist like Microecologies can testify as to what mold is there and what is dangerous," as well as confirm whether it's been removed.

In co-ops and condos, the bylaws usually state that if you have a leak from a fixture that is considered common property, then the building should be responsible for remediation.

If the damage is from a fixture that is considered the shareholder’s property, then the shareholder would typically be responsible.

"Under the proprietary lease, the damage would be the responsibility of the tenant-shareholder. However the Housing Maintenance Code requires that the 'owner' of the property, which is broadly defined and includes, among others, the co-op and its managing agent, maintain the building," says Wagner.

If the co-op makes the repair and the damage was caused by a fixture installed by the tenant-shareholder or that is considered the tenant-shareholder’s responsibility, the co-op can charge the cost of the repair back to the tenant shareholder as additional maintenance charges, says Wagner.

In Gross’s experience, water damage and mold often affects both the common areas and the shareholders’ property, which can make matters more complicated when it comes to remediation.

Also, says Gross, if the mold is in your apartment alone, your building may not rush to resolve the situation. If it is affecting multiple units, the building is more likely to get involved.

“In NYC high-rise buildings, most owners have high-end [apartment] insurance, whereas the buildings themselves usually carry insurance with a small group of carriers that are not considered high-end and also have huge deductibles,”  says Gross.

Q. Will your own insurance cover mold?

A. "Most apartment insurance policies exclude or limit to a small amount of coverage for mold-related claims -- but there are some companies that sell higher limits of mold coverage," says Jeff Schneider of Gotham Brokerage.

Water damage claims are more than likely covered, but "the idea is to act quickly to catch a nascent mold problem before it turns into a major issue," says Schneider. Nip any mold issue in the bud -- the longer it festers, the less of a chance that your insurance company will write a check.

"If in six months or several years it turns out that water had accumulated behind a wall or under a floor and there is a mountain of slime there, that is where the exclusion will apply with most policies," says Schneider.

Mold that occurs as a result of built-up humid air, like in a bathroom vent, will not be covered either.

Q. What health effects are associated with exposure to mold?

A. If you have mold allergies and breathe air that contains high mold levels, you are likely to suffer from allergy symptoms such as stuffy nose, sinus problems, and shortness of breath, or worse, you may suffer an asthma attack, says Sothern of Microecologies.

Testing has also found that the black mold growth on sheetrock in flood-damaged homesis often a mycotoxin-producing mold, which while not yet established by sufficient evidence, may be associated with severe adverse health effects in humans, and especially in infants, he says.

Toxic health effects may occur from high-dose exposures, such as the exposures that may occur when workers or residents perform mold clean-up work without wearing proper respiratory protection, and symptoms include sore throat, flu-like aches and pains, and severe fatigue.

Infants are also very susceptible to the toxins produced by molds, and should not be allowed to enter a moldy home.

Q. What is salvageable?

A. Non-porous items such as china, glass, jewelry, porcelain, and metal can be damp wiped with a mild dishwashing detergent solution, or washed to remove dust and superficial mold, according to Sothern.

Wood furnishings displaying mold growth, but in otherwise good condition, may be salvageable by cleaning with SoftScrub and an abrasive sponge, then refinishing. These may require professional restoration.

Appliances and electronics that were not water damaged may be salvageable, and can be cleaned with regular cleaning products. TVs, stereo equipment, and other electronics that do not contain fans may be salvageable, and can be cleaned with regular cleaning products.

Window air conditioning units that are housed in moldy rooms should be carefully inspected, and should be disposed of if they display visible mold growth.

Photographs and critical documents displaying minor levels of mold growth may be salvageable by wiping with damp paper towels and a mild detergent solution.

Freezing these items will retard further growth until professional restoration can be performed.

Valuable artwork can be HEPA vacuumed to remove surface mold. Frames and backings can be wet wiped with a mild detergent solution. Items can then be set aside for professional restoration.

Q. What's non-salvageable?

A. Porous items such as upholstery, textiles, clothing, carpeting/padding, rugs, papers, books, and other items that were submerged, became wet, or display significant visible mold growth should be disposed of, recommends Sothern.

He notes that the removal of these items will unavoidably result in the release of extraordinarily high levels of airborne mold, and potential for consequential exposure to residents and workers by inhalation. Therefore, anyone performing this work should be wearing (at a minimum) a half-face air purifying respirator and gloves, and should shower promptly afterward.

Items should be placed in heavy-duty trash bags to limit the potential for exposure to sanitation workers who will be handling your trash.

Related posts:

6 ways to get your landlord to fix stuff in your apartment

Is your apartment making you sick? Top 3 places to look for mold

6 before-and-after NYC hurricane tips, including windows, elevators, basements and blackouts

10 things you don’t want to see in the board minutes

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