Op-Ed: A four-point plan to combat mold after Sandy

New Yorkers with the infamous “Rockaway Cough” know that mold has become a major problem after Hurricane Sandy. It’s a pervasive health hazard that plagued the city’s buildings even before the storm struck, contributing to health problems like severe respiratory distress, nose and throat irritation, and the worsening of asthma conditions. But after Sandy, an existing problem grew even worse – and it will continue to do so if left unaddressed by the city.

Extensive flooding – the kind Sandy caused – greatly boosts the likelihood of mold contamination in buildings. According to the Centers for Disease Control, half of New Orleans’ homes were contaminated with mold after Hurricane Katrina. If we were to see similar levels of contamination in New York City, thousands of homes could be at risk. The CDC also warns that buildings that have been wet for more than 48 hours will spur extensive mold growth.

Mold exposure poses a tremendous health hazard, especially for New Yorkers with chronic respiratory problems like asthma and emphysema. It can lead to shortness of breath, allergic reaction and acute respiratory distress. In a city where one in eight children has asthma, mold can render homes both unhealthy and unsafe.

Despite these public health threats, FEMA does not reimburse homeowners for mold remediation. To make matters worse, the city’s Rapid Repair program doesn’t offer homeowners complete mold removal. The end result? Many homeowners try to deal with the problem on their own, contacting private companies that charge up to $20,000 for mold removal.

The city’s response has been underwhelming: “While mold in homes can exacerbate asthma, it can be successfully managed by homeowners and contractors. But when I talk to distraught residents in hard-hit neighborhoods, that’s just not the case.

To tackle this escalating health crisis before it spirals out of control and threatens the health of even more New Yorkers, we need an aggressive, city-backed initiative to manage mold contamination in homes and businesses inundated by Sandy. New York City needs a comprehensive approach to inspecting, removing and verifying the eradication of mold. That’s why I propose a four-point plan, which calls on the Bloomberg administration to:

•Expand inspections by licensed mold specialists who can assess the problem and assist with remediation. Automatic re-inspections should verify successful mold removal;

•Launch a hotline that is staffed by mold and public health experts to answer questions about mold’s health risks and how to remove it successfully;

•Develop a health monitoring network through which individuals who have faced respiratory issues resulting from Hurricane Sandy can receive evaluations and information; and

•Secure funding from the Federal Emergency Management Agency to support these initiatives.

We all recognize the limited resources at the city’s disposal after the devastation inflicted by Hurricane Sandy. But if we take swift steps now to prevent the spread of mold in our buildings, we can avert a larger health crisis down the road. This will save us resources and revenue in the long run. I encourage you to join me in pressuring the mayor to act now.

Bill de Blasio is New York City public advocate.

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