Staten Island, NEW YORK (PIX11) — “Everyone is getting sick. There are many cases of pneumonia, many cases of infection. People are saying it’s allergies. But it is the same symptoms of toxic mold syndrome,” said New Dorp Beach resident Dee McGrath who says she came down with pneumonia for the first time this year.
McGrath happens to live next door to two homes that have been neglected since the storm, inside the walls are covered with mold.
Nearby resident Nicole Romano-Lev worries about her youngest son who has asthma and her oldest son who never had any allergies until Super Storm Sandy hit.
“He ended up with hives and welts over his body, for good six weeks after the torment because high concentration of mold. We had him skin tested and he had severe allergy to mold,” said Romano-Lev.
Yet, NYC’s Health Department told PIX 11, “Mold in an abandoned home does not generally pose a health risk to neighbors.”
“Should we really trust the Health Department?” asked McGrath.
Fellow Staten Islander and leader of the non-profit WhereToTurn.Org Dennis McKeon says no way.
“The Health Department says there’s no problem because they want the people back in their houses. They want everybody to think everything is fine. Same thing happened after 9/11. [The city] came out seven days after towers fell and told everybody that ‘everything was fine, there was no danger with people going down there to work.’ Hundreds of people have died since 9/11 because of cancers they got because air quality was so bad,” said McKeon.
Since the city doesn’t seem to support them, McGrath said, that’s why she’s spear-heading the effort to protect her own community.
“We started keeping track of all the properties in the neighborhood,” said McGrath, who recently founded Beacon of Hope New York.
They go from one abandoned house to the next, taking pictures and volunteering to remove the mold at the homeowners’ permission.
Local politicians have done their best to help, like State Assemblywoman Nicole Malliotakis who sent a letter to the Mayor’s office back in January, urging the city to take up the issue. Malliotakis has worked with banks to get inside some of the abandoned homes to remove the mold.
But now as of this week, these folks have a federal leader on their side.
US Congressman Michael Grimm is now calling on New York City’s mayor to take action by first declaring these homes a health risk.
PIX11 got a draft of the letter Grimm will send to Mayor Bloomberg on Monday, that reads, “We have reached a point where the health and recovery of our constituents in these neighborhoods are being seriously jeopardized by these still-neglected structures…it is my understanding, that the City may be able to take stronger action if the Department of Health and Mental Hygiene classified these abandoned, mold-infested homes to be a threat to public health.”
Someone who knows how mold festering in neighborhoods after a major storm, can hurt the public, is Tina Marquardt. She heads Beacon of Hope in New Orleans, a non-profit group created after Hurricane Katrina.
“Our health department said there was no concern but no one determined it was high levels. And it is high levels, it can be toxic,” adding that mold inside an abandoned home can indeed hurt a neighbor because, “Mold spores can travel. Let’s say it goes right outside to the sidewalk. Then you walk your dog on sidewalk and walk your dog back into your house. It can travel on pets, it will travel on shoes. We had mold travel nearly six miles months after Katrina. We know that because the French Quarter initially tested low for mold, but months lat, it tested very high. And that is because the mold traveled from neighborhoods that were significantly more flooded.”
And if that’s true, to think of how widspread this problem could become for all of New York’s Sandy-stricken neighborhoods, McKeon says, “It’s gonna make 9/11 look like nothin’ because people are not just working here. Kids are growing up here. People live here.”
The city’s Build It Back program does offer free mold removal. But leaders say the tough part with abandoned homes is that the city must have permission to enter a property before doing any remediation on it’s own unless the Health Department declares it a public health risk.
If you have mold inside your home and want it removed, you can get more information for the removal service by calling 311.