Is your building sick?
October 1, 2009
You may not be aware of it. You don’t live there, and even if you did the thing that is completely innocuous to one person can put another in the hospital. We’re not talking about physical dangers, but rather environmental hazards.
These crop up in all sorts of places, including some you would not think about. What follows are things to watch for which could make your tenants sick.
Heating System: A dirty furnace and ductwork can harbor an army of bacteria, molds, dust and other allergens. Probably the most famous case is Legionnaires Disease.
The disease takes its name from an outbreak at the Pennsylvania American Legion convention held at the Bellevue-Stratford Hotel in Philadelphia in July, 1976. Thirty-four people died—29 Legionnaires or family members and five other people who had been near the hotel. The disease was diagnosed for the first time after 221 people contracted the illness in Philadelphia.
The bacterium believed to be responsible is found in soil and grows in water, such as air conditioning ducts, storage tanks and rivers.
Lawsuit material is here, in spite of the fact that the hotel had no knowledge of any problem with the HVAC system. The reason is that some states are what’s known in law as A Strict Liability. That is liability that is imposed without a finding of fault (as negligence or intent). In other words you need not have done anything wrong or have had knowledge of the problem to be held liable for it. Check with your attorney to find out if your state is a “strict liability” state.
Other things get caught in a heating system, such as dust, spores, bacteria other than the Legionnaire’s kind, and animal dander. You can do two things to keep your heating system cleaner and less apt to cause health problems for your tenants: one, change the filter in the furnace regularly, or put in an electrostatic filter or lifetime filter which should be cleaned once a month; and two, have your ductwork vacuumed out every year or two by a company which does that sort of thing.
Building too tight: In our efforts to save energy, we can create other problems, in this case a lack of fresh air or oxygen. A building where air does not refresh itself fairly regularly can create health problems. The standards are different for different buildings and uses. Of course, it is unlikely that you would have any way of measuring, but if a home does not have a complete change of air at least once an hour, you will notice a buildup of carbon dioxide and/or other pollutants, such as tobacco smoke, which can make people light-headed, sleepy, disoriented and worse. They could forget to pay the rent. A too-tight building will also exacerbate any other indoor pollution potential.
Your building may not be insulated that well. But if it is, just be sure that there is some available avenue for fresh air to enter the building. And do not allow a tenant to block it up. If they do, and then they get sick, guess who would get the blame.
Paint: The most recent paint bugaboo is the lead-based controversy. Lead-based paint can cause a decrease in mental faculties in both young and old, say some experts. In the young it is said to cause permanent brain damage.
Briefly, what you want to watch out for is flaking and chipping lead-based paint when young children are present. Also, when you sand lead-based paint it puts lead dust into the air. It is important that all the paint dust be removed from the building before you allow it to be occupied.
You also must disclose the presence, or possible presence, of lead-based paint to new tenants and provide them with a government-issued pamphlet explaining before 1978.
Paint fumes are noxious to some people who have allergies or respiratory problems. Usually prospective tenants are aware of any problems they have in that regard, but it doesn’t hurt to ask. Paints are available which don’t have the allergens in them, or you can use some techniques to get the paint odors out of a building.
You would think that it would be up to the tenant to let you know if he or she has a paint allergy, but don’t count on it. If your tenant has one, limit your liability by confirming that painting with regular paint is okay.
New carpet: Here you thought you were being a good landlord and making the property nicer and able to fetch higher rent by putting in new carpet. Then you find that new tenant is sensitive to the smell of new carpet. New carpets often have the same difficulties as fresh paint in that they will kick up some people’s allergies. Time and fresh air work wonders in getting rid of the smell. Ask your carpet dealer how long the smell will take to drop to “safe” limits.
Outdoor pollutants that come indoors
Pesticides: A good pesticide applicator should not cause you any problems. However, witness the sad case of some county employees in Iowa who worked in a 100 year-old office building which had been remodeled, only to find out that it had a serious infestation of fleas, in addition to some other air problems which we need not go into here.
A pest control firm was brought in for a spraying program. It began by applying an organophosphate solution in cracks and crevices monthly. In addition, the company applied chemicals to the carpet while workers were still in the building; offices were sprayed without removing papers employees were using; and employees were allowed to return to the building before the carpet had dried from the spray.
Despite numerous complaints, little or nothing was done to correct the situation. A doctor eventually recommended that the carpet be removed. Even after several months it tested positive for pesticide residues. The county shampooed the carpet to no avail.
Several workers were treated by doctors for respiratory and immune ailments, brain damage, and urinary and fecal incontinence. A neurologist diagnosed two of the workers as suffering from chronic organophosphate poisoning. 500 N.W.2d 1 (Iowa 1993)
That, of course, is not the only instance where pest control operators have been negligent. In hiring one, treat them just as you would any other contractor, get bids and references.
For some three decades the scientific debate has raged: How dangerous are the electromagnetic fields (EMFs) that emanate from every wire through which current runs?
Nine years ago researchers from Sweden’s prestigious Karolinska Institute reported finding up to a fourfold higher leukemia rate among Swedish children living near power lines. Another study released at the same time by the National Institute of Occupational Health in Sweden showed that male workers exposed to approximately the same levels of EMF had three times the rate of a certain kind of leukemia.
Other studies have found no unusual health problems among exposed workers.
Whether EMFs cause health problems or not is immaterial at this point in dealing with property. Perception is everything. In the October, 1993 issue we reported on the case in New York State where property owners had to be compensated because of lowered property values resulting from the state’s allowing power lines to be placed over a number of properties. Although there was no proof of health hazard, as long as people believed there was a hazard and property values were lowered as a result, damages were due the property owners under the “Takings” Clause of the US Constitution. There are similar court cases in Florida and California.
A tenant could bring a similar action against a landlord. It would be a stretch, but stranger things have happened in our courts. If a tenant contracted leukemia, he could claim that you as the landlord were somehow responsible, possibly because you failed to disclose the possible danger of EMF radiation to the tenant.
The asbestos suits which sent some major corporations into bankruptcy should be evidence enough. Until very recently, there was thought to be no health hazard from asbestos, but the manufacturers were successfully sued for producing a product they had no way of knowing was dangerous when it was manufactured.
Your best defenses are first, to not purchase a property near high-tension power lines. Second, fight tooth and nail any attempt by utilities to put string high-tension power lines near your property. Third, if they are already there, disclose to prospective tenants that there is some controversy over the dangers of EMFs and that they rent at their own peril.
A landlord’s best defense against problems is taking action before the tenant brings it up. Eventually we may see companies spring up which will certify buildings to be allergen-free and health-hazard free, but not yet. Until that happens, check your buildings for health hazards and ask the right questions of tenants so you can alert them of situations on the property they might want to be aware of.