Pennsylvania has a rich, vibrant history and is most well known today as being the place where the U.S. Constitution was drafted and signed. Although Pennsylvania is a common destination for tourists, many fail to understand the issues that plague the residents of this state. For those currently renting or contemplating renting here, it is important to understand the rights of tenants, especially when it comes to mold exposure in rentals. Mold is a biological contaminant that can have adverse effects on human health, and as a tenant it is helpful to know the steps one should take if mold is present, or suspected to be present, in a home.
Several states have begun to pass legislation that deals primarily with the detection and removal of mold from rental units. Pennsylvania, unfortunately, is not one of these states. However, certain standards do exist that indicate the damaging effects of mold exposure. For example, the court case McKinney v. PHA (Philadelphia Housing Authority) involved a young girl who had been exposed to large amounts of toxic mold that exacerbated her asthma and caused a massive asthma attack. The girl was without oxygen for an extended period of time, resulting in permanent brain damage. PHA had known about existing leaks in the home where the young girl resided, and it is these leaks that lead to extensive mold growth throughout the residence. The parents of the girl filed a lawsuit, stating it was PHA’s negligence that led to their daughter’s asthma attack. Had the PHA allowed the family to move into a new rental, the plaintiffs claimed, the tragic asthma attack would not have occurred. A judge decided in favor of the McKinneys and awarded them nearly $12 million for the injuries their daughter sustained as a result of her stay in the mold-infested home.
Mold is present just about everywhere; however, certain classes of mold can be more damaging than others. Stachybotrys aspergillus is one of the molds deemed to be toxic mold, and can secrete dangerous mycotoxins that, when inhaled, can make an individual ill. The key to mold growth is the existence of excessive moisture in a structure. If a structure is tightly sealed and proper ventilation is not in place the building can provide an ample foundation for the rapid growth of mold. Some of the symptoms of mold exposure include watery or irritated eyes, nasal congestion, rash, skin sensitivity, nose bleeds, throat irritation, cough, and flu-like symptoms. Some of the more severe reactions include damage to the kidneys, immune system, nervous system, brain damage, and even death. Those with compromised immune systems, existing respiratory illness (asthma, bronchitis etc.), the elderly, and children are more susceptible to severe reactions. This is why it is imperative that proper testing and removal occur if mold is in fact present and growing in a home.
A task force was developed in the state of Pennsylvania to study the effects of mold on human health and how it should be tested for, and properly removed from, a building. The task force’s objectives included acquiring a better understanding of mold and how it can be more damaging to a person’s health in an indoor environment. The second objective was to attempt to reduce the negative effects of mold assessment and remediation done by individuals who do not have the necessary qualifications or experience to accomplish the job. Their findings supported the claim that mold does in fact cause adverse health effects in humans. The task force noted that nearly “10 percent of the entire population and greater than 40 percent of asthmatic individuals are genetically predisposed to fungal allergies.” They went on to state that upper respiratory issues were not the only result of mold exposure and that people with previously-compromised immune systems were more susceptible. They also concluded their report with recommendations regarding the health effects, proper testing, and removal of mold. The report indicated that proper education of the public on the damaging effects of mold should be done via brochures, telephone information lines, a mold information website, and public service announcements. Not only that, but in terms of the proper testing and removal of mold they felt the adoption of the 2000 New York City Department of Health & Mental Hygiene Guidelines on Assessment and Remediation of Fungi in Indoor Environments (NYC Guidelines) was necessary. They viewed the NYC Guidelines as minimum standards. Accordingly, if the mold situation required more attention only a professional should be used to do assessment and oversee remediation. These findings were then presented to the General Assembly of Pennsylvania; however, no legislation has been passed in support of the Mold Task Force’s claims to date.
In Pennsylvania, the Tenant/Landlord Handbook states that there is an “implied warranty of habitability,” which is an agreement among the tenant and landlord indicating a mutual understanding between the two parties concerning rent and a safe living environment. This agreement indicates that it is the obligation of the tenant to pay rent and the landlord’s obligation to keep the unit habitable (safe, sanitary and fit for human habitation). Now it should be noted that this information is purely for educational purposes and should not take the place of contacting an attorney in the event that mold is thought to be, or known to be, present in a rental. If you suspect mold is present, you must make your landlord aware of the issue. Make sure to put the complaint in writing and send the letter via certified mail to ensure receipt of the complaint by the landlord. Document the visible mold problem, leak, ventilation issues, and any other circumstance that may have caused the mold to grow. If there is in fact a leak, water intrusion or ventilation issue in the unit, it is the landlords’ responsibility to fix the problem in a timely manner. For instance, if the landlord refuses to fix such problems within a 10 day period of time, the tenant may have the right to withhold rent until the repairs are made. This of course requires the tenant to make the landlord aware of the problem and their plan to withhold rent if the proper repairs are not made. As for mold testing and removal, it is at the discretion of the landlord if they will allow you to withhold rent to pay for such repairs or to repair it themselves. This will most likely not be the case, and contacting a lawyer prior to taking any further action is advised. Make sure to keep copies of all documents sent to the landlord and record all phone calls made to the property manager in case going to court becomes necessary.
It is clear that mold exposure can be detrimental to an individual’s health; however, in the state of Pennsylvania it can be tricky to have the problem properly taken care of, especially for a renter. It is important, however, to have the proper testing and removal of the contaminated material done so that further contamination and exposure does not occur. It is imperative to understand that as a tenant you have the right to a safe, habitable environment for yourself and your family.