Mold is one of the newest environmental hazards causing concern among renters. Across the country, tenants have won multimillion-dollar cases against landlords for significant health problems -- such as rashes, chronic fatigue, nausea, cognitive losses, hemorrhaging, and asthma -- allegedly caused by exposure to "toxic molds" in their building.
If you suspect there is mold in your rental unit, learn what to look for and when your landlord might be liable. Even better, take steps to prevent mold before it becomes a problem—or clean mold up before it does become a problem.
Mold comes in various colors and shapes. The villains -- with names like stachybotrys, penicillium, aspergilus, paecilomyces, and fusarium -- are black, white, green, or gray. Some are powdery, others shiny. Some molds look and smell disgusting; others are barely seen -- hidden between walls, under floors and ceilings, or in less accessible spots, such as basements and attics.
Mold often grows on water-soaked materials, such as wall paneling, paint, fabric, ceiling tiles, newspapers, or cardboard boxes. Humidity sets up prime growing conditions for mold. Buildings in naturally humid climates of Texas, California, and the Southern U.S. have experienced more mold problems than residences in drier climates. But whatever the climate, mold can grow as long as moisture is present.
For more information, see the Nolo article Toxic Mold Basics.
Mold is also among the most controversial of environmental hazards. There is considerable debate within the scientific and medical communities about which molds, and what situations, pose serious health risks to people in their homes. There is no debate, however, among tenants who have suffered the consequences of living amidst (and inhaling) mold spores.
Keep in mind, however, that most mold is not harmful to your health -- for example, the mold that grows on shower tiles is not dangerous. It takes an expert to know whether a particular mold is harmful or just annoying. And it's very tricky to find out whether a person who has been exposed to mold has actually inhaled or ingested it. New tests that measure the presence of a particular mold's DNA in a blood sample are the only way to know for sure whether the mold is present in the body.
For more information, see the Nolo article Toxic Mold: Health Risks of Mold Exposure.
With a few exceptions, landlord responsibilities regarding mold have not been clearly spelled out in building codes, ordinances, statutes, or regulations. Below is a discussion of the few states and cities that do have mold laws, and an explanation of how landlords can be held responsible for mold problems even absent specific laws governing mold.
For details on your liability for mold and other environmental hazards,
No federal law sets permissible exposure limits or building tolerance standards for mold in residential buildings.
Only a few states have taken steps toward establishing permissible mold standards. California, Indiana, Maryland, New Jersey, and Texas are among the few that have passed laws aimed at developing guidelines and regulations for mold in indoor air.
For example, California's "Toxic Mold Protection Act of 2001" authorizes the state's Department of Health Services (now called the Department of Health Care Services) to set permissible levels of indoor mold exposure for sensitive populations (like children, or people with compromised immune systems or respiratory problems). The California law also allows the DHCS to develop identification and remediation standards for contractors, owners, and landlords and requires landlords to disclose to current and prospective tenants the presence of any known or suspected mold. For a preliminary report on the implementation of the Act, see the DHS 2005 Report to the California Legislature, Implementation of the Toxic Mold Protection Act of 2001.
A few cities have enacted ordinances related to mold. For example:
For information on mold rules and regulations in your state. check with your state department of environmental protection (find yours at the federal EPA website) or your state department of public health (the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has a list).
To see whether your state is considering mold-related legislation that might affect residential rentals, see the website of the National Conference of State Legislatures and type “mold” into the search box on the home page. Look for the link to the “Environmental Health Legislation Databases Guide,” and once there, filter by “All States” and “Indoor Air Quality—Mold.”
For local mold-related rules, contact your city manager or mayor’s office or local health department. Check out State and Local Government on the Net (www.statelocalgov.net) for finding local governments online.
Even if your state or city doesn't have specific mold laws, your landlord may still be liable for a mold problem in your rental. Here’s an overview of the issues. To learn more about the landlord's duty to repair, see the Nolo section Repairs and Maintenance, which includes articles on getting your landlord to make repairs, and your options such as rent withholding, under state law.
Landlords in all states but Arkansas are responsible for maintaining fit and habitable housing and repairing rental property, and this extends to fixing leaking pipes, windows, and roofs -- the causes of most mold. If the landlord doesn't take care of leaks and mold grows as a result, you may be able to hold the landlord responsible if you can convince a judge or jury that the mold has caused a health problem.
The liability picture changes when mold grows as the result of your own behavior, such as keeping the apartment tightly shut, creating high humidity, or failing to maintain necessary cleanliness. When a tenant's own negligence is the sole cause of injury, the landlord is not liable.
Some landlords include clauses in the lease that purport to relieve them from any liability resulting from mold growth. At least one court (in Tennessee) has refused to enforce such a clause, ruling that to do so would be against public policy. More cases from other parts of the country are sure to arise as mold litigation makes its way through the courts.
A smart landlord will try to prevent the conditions that lead to the growth of mold -- and tenants should be the landlord's partner in this effort. This approach requires maintaining the structural integrity of the property (the roof, plumbing, and windows), which is the landlord's job. You can help by preventing mold problems in your home in the first place and promptly reporting problems that need the landlord's attention.
For more information on how to limit costly mold repairs and legal problems, see Mold and Your Rental Property: A Landlord's Prevention and Liability Guide.