WEST CHESTER TWP. OH- Residents of one of Greater Cincinnati’s largest apartment complexes may have been exposed to potentially dangerous toxic mold as their landlord prevented health officials from helping.
Butler County Department of Health representatives described the mold infestation at Woodbridge on the Lake apartments as one of the worst they had ever seen. An estimated 1,000 people – many of them low-income families – live in the complex.
Woodbridge tenants were not told about county and township inspections – initially encouraged by the owner last month – that revealed mold contamination in vacant apartments in two of the complex’s eight buildings. The complex houses 492 apartments in all.
West Chester Township and Butler County officials confer outside the Woodbridge complex after an emergency inspection of its buildings last month. But days later, according to a July 10 Butler County Health Department memo obtained by the Enquirer through an Ohio Public Records request, health officials said they were told by officials of Metro Prop Realty Inc. that “public funds were being poorly spent” in trying to evaluate the potential hazards of mold infestation in the Woodbridge complex.
The memo also stated that health officials were told they were “officially uninvited” from the property, canceling their scheduled June 11 inspection.
“In 31 years with the health department, that was a first for me,” said Butler County Health Director Patricia Burg, who inspected the apartments and said she was shocked to find major mold infestation on apartment and hallway walls, ceilings and floors fed by leaking water and raw sewage. “Conditions in the apartments were deplorable.”
An internal memo, obtained via a public-records request from the West Chester Township Planning and Zoning Department, notes that a township enforcement officer at the Woodbridge site stated that sewage and potentially toxic black mold were found in some apartments. Barry Tiffany, a West Chester building-code enforcement officer, said he believes mold infestation is “widespread throughout the complex and there is potential for toxic mold in every building.”
Some tenants said they are concerned and curious about the mold remediation work – which requires workers to wear air-tight suits and respirators – going on in some Woodbridge buildings.
To date, no building-code violations have been issued from the township to Metro Prop, based in Blue Ash, which purchased the 35-year-old apartment complex in March.
Bruce Hellman, president of Metro Prop, said Thursday he was confused about how county health officials came to the conclusion that they were not allowed to return to the property.
But Mr. Tiffany, who accompanied health officials June 11, said it was made clear to county health inspectors they were no longer welcome on the property.
On Thursday, however, Metro Prop officials said they are now eager to work with the same county health officials.
Tom Ferris, Metro Prop vice president, said, “We are remediating any mold that we find,” and said Metro Prop is working hard and spending hundreds of thousands of dollars to improve Woodbridge.
Though Woodbridge officials have hired a mold-removal company to work on five mold-infested apartments, they said Thursday they have not informed any tenants of the inspections done or scheduled, or solicited any information about whether any residents are suffering mold-related illnesses.
They said they have not yet conducted air-quality tests to determine whether any of the mold is toxic, and said they have no plans to do air-quality testing of remediated apartments to see whether the mold was successfully removed.
Sadly, neither the state nor the government have failed to set any standards regarding mold levels and health standards. Sweeping federal legislation was proposed in the U.S. House of Representatives last month and is now under study in House committees.
Without permission of the property owner, and no legal power to intervene or even advise residents what to do if they suspect mold-related illnesses, Ms. Burg said, Butler County health officials “are powerless.”
“It’s frustrating,” she said. “It could certainly be a problem to their health.”
Thousands of harmless molds exist in nature and within human-made structures, but a handful are considered dangerously toxic to both healthy individuals and those whose immune systems might make them more sensitive to less-dangerous types of mold.
Molds have been linked to several illnesses and they are the primary suspect in a tripling asthma rate over the past 20 years.
A 1999 Mayo Clinic study pegged nearly all of the chronic sinus infections afflicting 37 million Americans to mold.
A few, more dangerous, toxic molds can cause serious symptoms, including a flu-like feeling, chronic fatigue, memory impairment, dizziness and bleeding in the nose and lungs.
Nationally more reports of mold-infested apartments are following in the wake of a rise in reports, and litigation, from private homeowners.
Locally, in Bond Hill, the owners of the financially troubled Huntington Meadows apartments have announced the closing of the complex in August – forcing the eviction of hundreds of residents – while citing in part unspecified mold problems.
Brian Elliff, director of planning and zoning for West Chester, vowed that his department would do what it can in ordering Metro Prop to remove mold problems.
“That’s not acceptable,” Mr. Elliff said of Metro Prop’s actions toward county health officials. If Metro Prop is taking that approach, then that is a message that we need to start being more aggressive.
“We want these properties to be safe.”