While the snow fell heavily outside her apartment in Windmill Village II, a Section 8 apartment complex on Accabonac Road in East Hampton, Helen Miley recounted how she and her partner, Victor Heacter, always have to sleep with the windows open to keep out the smell of mold.
Daily, Ms. Miley scrubs her walls, doors and baseboards with bleach to get rid of the mold that she said reappears regularly.
On top of her daily cleaning routine, she said she has to put up with bad headaches and a nasty cough that doesn’t seem to go away.
“I can’t breathe and there ain’t a God-damn person who cares anything about anybody,” she said about the mold situation at the complex. “I used to go into town 10 times a day. I would ride my bike. I’m 64 but I’ve aged 100 years since moving here.”
An ongoing issue with mold at Windmill Village II, one of East Hampton Town’s low-income housing complexes, came to a head this week as residents’ complaints, including Ms. Miley’s, captured the attention of town officials.
At Tuesday’s work session, managers of Windmill Village II, which houses mostly senior citizens, presented the board with what they have done to remediate the mold and how they plan to fix the issue in the long term.
Michael DeSario, the chairman of the Windmill Village LLC board, which oversees management of the complex, started off by saying there are many misconceptions about what has been done.
Last spring, the management told residents in a letter to pack up their stored belongings in plastic containers by the beginning of July to keep mold from spreading in the basement. They said that anything that was not secured would be thrown out.
Thanks to the letter, some of the newer tenants learned that there was a mold problem in the basement, and they didn’t take too kindly to the order.
By then, the managers had hired Insight Environmental of Patchogue to assess the problem and form a plan for remediation. Sheetrock covered in mold was removed from the basement and whatever mold was left was sprayed with a chemical moldicide. New Sheetrock was painted over.
The basement has remained locked and accessible by appointment only since then.
This was the second time the apartments had undergone mold remediation. Since its construction in 2002, water from plumbing had built up and trickled down into Sheetrock placed on the basement ceiling to meet fire code requirements. More than three years ago, the housing board members said they spent more than $80,000 to take down the Sheetrock and eliminate the mold.
Tom Ruhle, East Hampton Town’s housing director, said money had been withheld from the Windmill II LLC board until it addressed the issue, although he said he did not know how much money was withheld. He said every landlord who doesn’t do what the housing authority thinks is necessary is in danger of having rent withheld. He added that it was too early to say whether that would be the case with Windmill Village II because its mold remediation is ongoing.
Some residents said that initial work done to remove the mold was ineffective, and that numerous medical conditions have cropped up or have gotten continually worse because of mold spreading through their apartments.
Joan Holden, a resident of number 29, said she has suffered daily headaches, arthritis, asthma and a fogginess of mind since she moved in. Whenever she spent time away from the apartment for an extended period of time, her condition would improve, she said. She currently lives with a friend, away from Windmill Village II.
“There was so much inflammation in my body. There wasn’t a joint that wasn’t so painful that the only thing to diminish the pain and bring it down was steroids,” Ms. Holden said. “I was so ill leading up to October 6 that I had to be put on steroids three times.”
A few of the tenants were convinced the mold had a part to play in their illnesses, so they hired Mildew Busters of Shelter Island Heights in August to take samples of the air in their apartments. Ms. Holden said she had the greatest amount of mold spores in her apartment—720,000 spores per cubic meter of air—and it was the bad kind: penicillium/aspergillus.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, while aspergillus is one of the most common household molds, people can come down with aspergillosis, a disease caused by this fungus that usually occurs in those with lung diseases or weakened immune systems. The spectrum of illness includes allergic reactions, lung infections and infections in other organs.
Bill Smith, who took the samples for Mildew Busters, said that amount of mold is probably the highest number the company has ever seen.
“When looking at the basement ceiling, it looked like a rain forest,” he said. “These levels are alarming enough, but when molds mix together, they create a synergistic effect and become even more powerful and also become a substance that nobody is really quite sure what they do.”
He said that tenant Eleanor Cobb, who rented apartment numbers 15 and 33 before moving to another housing complex, Avallone Apartments in Montauk, had an extreme level of aspergillus, too—150,000 spores per cubic meter in apartment 15 and 350,000 spores per cubic meter in apartment 33.
Ms. Cobb said before the testing was done she was very sick. No longer could she get out of bed before 10 a.m. and swim laps at the pool. She lost hair, got a lung infection, suffered two heart conditions and got mold in her eyes, she said, in addition to always being fatigued and having recurring headaches.
She said instead of completing her move to apartment 33, when she found out how much mold was in the air, she went to live with family instead.
Ms. Cobb has letters from doctors saying that she needed to get away from her apartment and that some of her symptoms were caused by the mold.
Ms. Cobb and Ms. Holden hired attorney Frank Pelligrini to represent them in a lawsuit they hope to file against the Windmill Village LLC board and management.
In September, Insight Environmental did its own testing in the buildings where there had been complaints—buildings three, four, five and six—and found that aspergillus was present and that remediation and decontamination were needed. According to the report, for example, in buildings three and six, just before the second remediation, the company recommended reconstruction of the basement and installing a dehumidifier and portable air purifier.
Mr. DeSario said that has been done.
According to another report, buildings four and five, where Ms. Holden lives, were still in need of remediation after the mold had been taken out of the basement.
Mr. DeSario said that after remediation all buildings tested have been found to be within normal, safe ranges. He said according to Insight Environmental, the mold that was detected was not the serious type of mold that can cause medical issues, but that testing would likely continue.
“This is something we are concerned about and we’ve been dealing with this for a couple of years,” he said, explaining the board had spent over $80,000 a few years ago to revamp and redirect gutters to fix the moisture problem. “We thought this was never going to happen again.”
But tenants said nothing changed.
“I go to work with a headache,” said Dennis Snyder, who temporarily lives at Windmill Village II with his family. “We wake up in the morning and have to take two Fioricet. There is something wrong and the complaints fall on deaf ears.”
Mr. Snyder’s wife, Nancy Snyder, suffers from Parkinson’s disease and lupus and needs 24-hour care, he said. Even though he scrubs the floors and walls to get rid of the mold, he said his wife has ended up in “respiratory distress,” was in a coma for few days and spent a month in Southampton Hospital. He said after all the testing that was done, the doctors couldn’t find out exactly what had caused her illness and asked if they had a mold problem at home.
Mr. DeSario said it was tough for him to say if these reported illnesses had anything to do with the mold at Windmill Village II.
“We have to go by our expert’s advice,” he said. “We can’t go by something subjective and go power-wash the inside of a building. We need to find out what’s really happening, factually.”
Ms. Holden and Ms. Cobb both say that management and the board refuse to acknowledge the problem, and that they handled the remediation incorrectly by removing the Sheetrock haphazardly and simply spraying the mold down with bleach, which they said doesn’t kill it.
But Mr. DeSario said they relied very heavily on the advice from Insight Environmental in terms of what the problem was and how to remediate it. In the long term, Mr. DeSario said the plan is to remove the Sheetrock and satisfy the fire code requirement with a sprinkler system. That way, the Sheetrock culprit is eliminated. He said there will be weekly inspections of the basements there as well.
East Hampton Town Supervisor Larry Cantwell suggested that heads of the housing authority and Windmill Village II, as well as tenant representatives and the mold experts, get together and discuss what to do going forward and create a timetable for getting those goals accomplished.
As far as Ms. Miley is concerned, what has been done so far isn’t enough. She said she wants answers about why she is still sick after what they have done about the mold. She said every time she attends a meeting with management, she is thrown out for her questions and that is afraid of being evicted because she won’t keep quiet.
Mr. DeSario said that in the history of Windmill Village I and Windmill Village II, a total of 25 years, only one person has been evicted.
“At this point a lot of talk goes around,” he said. “We can’t stop rumors and talk from going around, but in terms of putting procedure in place, we have very clear guidelines set up if there is an issue. Residents can call the office and register a complaint, and if it’s not being taken care of correctly, they have a social services coordinator or tenant advocate, Virginia St. John, who is paid through a grant.”
Until something is done about the mold in her apartment, however, Ms. Miley will continue to wash down her walls and baseboards.
“I cough like I’ve got TB,” she said. “I used to be able to stay up from 4 a.m. to 4 a.m. the next day, and now I huff and I puff. I’m scared if I say something they’ll throw me out.”