Open building wall risk?
April 30, 2013 11:41 PM   Subscribe

Is an exposed, cracked concrete wall with open drywall a health issue on its own?

Asking for my friend. She and her kids live in an apartment she owns and have moved out temporarily because they got sick and discovered some problems there. The property management firm thinks there is a building envelope issue, potentially. About a week ago, a drywall team opened the drywall (following asbestos abatement procedures, because it has asbestos in the drywall) and just left it open (there's a cement wall back there, but they didn't tape off the drywall edges or anything). Now the property management firm has a company testing to see if they can get water to go through the wall or come in from elsewhere, as they try to figure out where the water came from. There's also a big crack in the wall and there's now no carpet in the room (bare concrete). Her doctor is a bit freaked out and advised them not to go back yet (one of them has now developed asthma and these are kids, of course). The property management firm did an air test for mould and it was lower than counts for outside, although maybe it is enough and that was before they opened the wall - and one of the moulds was the kind associated with building moisture problems, although it was a low reading. The drywall team didn't drape the room or anything like that - there's no plastic sheeting up or anything.

Is this creating any potential issues? (Could mould or something go through the wall? Will asbestos get disturbed and fly around? One of the contractors pulled out a piece of foam from the wall today - would that create an asbestos issue?) She is worried about keeping her kids safe, but it's also stressful to be living in hotel. The contractors seem to think she is paranoid, but she thinks they are being dismissive, since they've said they've seen some pretty bad stuff elsewhere. It's the asthma and small kids that have her worried. Her doctor is concerned that something might come through the wall or that mould may not have shown up on the air test or that there could be stuff like fungi or yeast that wasn't part of the mould test. She would really like to go back home, though, and isn't sure what to do.
posted by Chaussette and the Pussy Cats to Health & Fitness (6 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
I'd be more concerned about the psychological effects of living in such a crummy environment. Asthma and anxiety symptoms can both be worsened by the stress of being somewhere that you don't feel is particularly pleasant or safe; compounded with her worry over the kids, I could see this having serious health implications.

There's not really enough information there for anyone to make a judgement about the problems with this particular hotel without (a) being qualified to assess all of the potential issues you've mentioned, and (b) carrying out a thorough inspection of the accommodation. Any answers are likely to be anecdotal at best.
posted by pipeski at 12:48 AM on May 1, 2013 [1 favorite]

Mould is generally overrated as a threat -- there were some bad studies (retracted in 2000 after a review) that led to its becoming a bogeyman, but most mold is pretty benign as a rule. Also, you can pretty much FIND mold everywhere in living environments if you're testing for it.

I also doubt there's anything to worry about -- they may have been cautious about opening up the drywall, but if they found asbestos they wouldn't (under current legal situation) be leaving things in that state. So probably no asbestos, and they're risking beaucoup legal sanctions if they're lying about it.

Really, drywall and concrete are pretty stable and aren't going to be tossing scary stuff into the air all on their own. If drywall gets wet it CAN harbor mold, and would normally be removed and replaced, but that doesn't sound like the case here. If they're just testing and haven't found a problem yet (I mean, why were they poking around in the first place?) I personally don't see a reason to panic -- there are people living in drywalled concrete basements everywhere in the US.

Normal remediation for cracked concrete, with a risk of moisture, is going to be filling the crack with hydraulic cement, perhaps adding a moisture barrier, which would require stripping off the drywall. From the information given, including the test results you're reporting, I personally don't see a reason for concern and I have no idea why her doctor is "freaked". If there is a valid, actual-not-potential health concern, then an independent testing laboratory is the only next step I can see.
posted by dhartung at 3:01 AM on May 1, 2013 [1 favorite]

I agree with Pipeski -- it's impossible to give an opinion here because there just isn't enough information without actual sampling reports/photographs. (Also, I am not your environmental consultant.)

(following asbestos abatement procedures, because it has asbestos in the drywall)

Can she get a copy of an actual abatement report or laboratory sampling report? If so, that could give her a higher degree of comfort that they are managing the asbestos properly. In my experience asbestos in actual drywall is rare, but it shows up in joint compound or wall texture.

There is a wide degree of variability in asbestos compliance. I would not assume they are managing things properly just because there's a law. (OH THE STORIES I COULD TELL... but won't. Just trust that yes, even in 2013, even in states with good enforcement and good regs, people still don't follow asbestos procedures.)

I can't say anything about the foam. There are way too many things that could be.

Her doctor is a bit freaked out and advised them not to go back yet (one of them has now developed asthma and these are kids, of course).

The biggest factor for mold and health affects is whether you're a sensitive receptor. Different people have totally different responses to the same levels of mold. If her kid has asthma, that suggests they may be more than typically sensitive to mold. This is one of the reasons why it's so tough to set standards on mold: the mold that bugs one person will be totally fine for most people.

If they are in Texas or NYC, there are regs or guidance docs for mold that she may want to check out.

One other issue: If this is in the US and the building is pre-1978 (which seems like a possibility if they're sampling for asbestos), and she has at least one kid under the age of six, she also needs to be aware of the RRP rule, which is an EPA program to control lead paint dust exposure. The contractors should be Lead-Safe Certified under RRP. (They also should be following all state regs, which may be more restrictive.)
posted by pie ninja at 5:42 AM on May 1, 2013

Response by poster: The building is from the mid 70s, they tested the drywall and found asbestos, and the asthma is believed by the doctor to have been triggered by the air quality in the home. They had only just moved in and then they all got very sick. Not sure if that changes anyone's opinion here.
posted by Chaussette and the Pussy Cats at 8:07 AM on May 1, 2013

I'd be concerned about the asbestos in the drywall if I were there; is there an asbestos abatement contractor they can talk to about the situation? It's hard to say more without actual reports, photos, etc.

On the fact that they got sick when they moved in: It could be a mold issue (and it sounds like they are at least fixing the water intrusion issue?) But given that they recently moved, there are a lot of other things that could be causing the allergies/illness that aren't mold.

If there are wall-to-wall carpets, it could be carpet cleaning chemicals, or dust mites or pet allergens from a previous tenant. If the walls were painted, they could be reacting to the paint. They could be reacting to other cleaning chemicals. If there are central air ducts and/or an outside HVAC unit, it could be dust and/or mold in the ducts or HVAC. Maybe they bought new feather/down bedding and they developed an allergy (I know that one is a long shot, but this actually happened to me).

It might be worth talking to the doctor about allergy testing to help narrow down the potential causes. (That's how I figured out the feather allergy -- it was a sudden onset and I never would have worked it out without allergy testing.)
posted by pie ninja at 8:55 AM on May 1, 2013

Response by poster: Thanks. She ended up talking to the government authority that is supposed to oversee this and it sounds like they have now stepped in. The mould levels in her home are higher than outside, so that is a concern now.
posted by Chaussette and the Pussy Cats at 11:29 PM on May 20, 2013

« Older Do I send my real W2 to a tax accountant?   |   Suggest some pretty places near Barcelona for a... Newer »
This thread is closed to new comments.