Mold center of complaints at housing complex

Emedio Cerasale, left, and Sherrill Whitelaw look at an old Bible and some shoes covered in mold at Whitelaw’s apartment in Oak Terrace. - LARAINE WESCHLER

NAUGATUCK — After years of living in a moldy apartment, a resident of Oak Terrace is finally moving out.

Sherrill Whitelaw, 69, said she’s been dealing with mold since she moved in to the state senior and low-income housing complex in 2006.

Sitting on her couch earlier this month, Whitelaw showed off items covered in green mold — an old bible and several pairs of heels. A brown stain seeps into the tub, even though she cleans it with bleach every week, and a slimy black substance lines her faucets. Behind the refrigerator, a black mold coats the wall and the stench wafts up from the carpeted floor.

“I get used to it, the smell, but my friends won’t even come in,” Whitelaw said.

Whitelaw, who suffers from congestive heart failure, said the mold has contributed to her poor health. She’s on two atomizers and nose spray to help with seasonal allergies, but since she moved into the apartment, Whitelaw said she has allergies all the time. She said she has a hard time breathing and her lungs hurt. Sometimes, she says she wakes up in the middle of the night.

“I get a panic attack like I can’t breath,” Whitelaw said.

Whitelaw said she started complaining about the problem shortly after moving in.

Whitelaw wrote letters to Naugatuck Housing Authority Executive Director Kevin Knowles, but she said those complaints were ignored.

According to Burgess Laurie Taf Jackson, who is the burgess liaison to the Naugatuck Housing Authority Commission and former chair of the commission, records show that the housing authority discussed putting in a dehumidifier in December 2008. She wasn’t sure if it was installed at that time.

Maintenance Supervisor Sam Behuniak could not be reached for comment.

According to a record maintained by Whitelaw, the dehumidifier wasn’t installed for months after it was promised. Once she got it, Whitelaw said she didn’t use the dehumidifier at first because it made her apartment too cold. Instead, she kept her windows and doors open to let fresh air into the house. The housing authority gave her another dehumidifier in December 2010, which Whitelaw now uses, but it hasn’t helped much, she said.

Jackson said she didn’t find any other records of calls from Whitelaw after 2010.

Emedio Cerasale, a construction project manager retired from the Bridgeport Housing Authority, took up Whitelaw’s case after hearing about it from another Oak Terrace resident who ended up moving to another housing complex after years of dealing with similar issues.

“Emedio is the one that really got this started for me to find a way out of this mess,” Whitelaw said.

Cerasale, who lives in the adjoining neighborhood on Birch Lane, styles himself as an ombudsman and community activist. He formed a neighborhood association under his consulting company to help Naugatuck residents with various issues.

Since hearing about Whitelaw’s problems, Cerasale wrote letters and e-mails to Knowles and addressed the Housing Authority Commission at its Dec. 14 meeting. He also said he called the Naugatuck Valley Health District and the Connecticut Department of Health and sent letters to the Attorney General’s Office and Connecticut Department of Economic and Community Development about the mold problem.

On Jan. 19, a health inspector from the Naugatuck Valley Health District came to inspect Whitelaw’s apartment and determined she should move out as soon as possible.

Knowles said that Whitelaw has had several issues over the years, which he said were addressed as they came up. Most recently, Knowles said he met with Whitelaw two weeks ago, at which point he told her she needed to move out.

“We told (Whitelaw) that we’re going to need to move her out of that unit and we’re going to have to go in and find what the issue is and remediate it and take care of any of the other issues,” Knowles said.

Knowles said there have been a few problems with mold since he became executive director five years ago, but the maintenance department always checks on the situation as soon as they hear about it.

“If we find something, we take action to deal with it,” Knowles said.

Rita Fazzino of the Naugatuck Valley Health District said she couldn’t discuss an open case. She said she only has one complaint from Oak Terrace at the moment, but if anyone in state housing has mold, they should first discuss it with the responsible party.

“If it’s not being taken care of, they of course, call the health department and discuss it with me,” Fazzino said.

Fazzino described the protocol when dealing with a mold issue.

“You find the moisture problem, you repair that, you take the offending material out, you scrub the hard surfaces with detergent and water, rinse, it then you either use bleach … or you use an anti-mold and follow directions,” Fazzino said.

Once everything’s dry, Fazzino said new components should be put back in the home.

Sharon Hebb, a retired physical therapy nurse from Visiting Nurses Association, said mold has been an ongoing problem in the Oak Terrace apartments.

“You can pretty much tell when you walk through the door, you can smell it,” Hebb said.

A few years ago, she said she treated a man with a foot wound, which wouldn’t heal for months. After the housing authority tore out the carpeting and painted the unit, Hebb said the man’s wound finally healed. She felt it was mold under the carpets and behind the refrigerator was keeping the wound open.

Hebb said it’s not enough to simply wash off a moldy wall because mold imbedded in the wall will just come back. Hebb felt part of the problem is that Oak Terrace is built on swamp land with a high water table. The damp creeps up through the concrete floors with no basement, causing mold under the carpets.

The Oak Terrace apartments were built throughout the 1960s through the 1980s, Knowles said.

Knowles said mold could have a number of causes.

“It could be a variety of things, including the practices of the tenants,” he said.

As tenants move out of their apartments, Knowles said the maintenance staff is replacing their carpets with vinyl composition tile, which is easier to maintain and causes less problems for people with allergies.

“We try to accommodate any of those concerns,” Knowles said.

However, Cerasale said that is not enough. He is pushing for all carpets in the complex to be replaced immediately.

Until a few years ago, Oak Terrace was only an elderly housing complex, and many elderly residents still live there. Hebb said many people there have health issues.

“Mold is very, very dangerous. It’s an insidious thing. If it’s there, it’s something that they’re breathing every single day,” Hebb said.

She said mold can exacerbate problems for people who already have a compromised pulmonary system.

“Many people feel they don’t feel well, but don’t know why. The core problem is the mold,” Hebb said.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, for people who are sensitive to mold, it can cause nasal stuffiness, eye irritation, wheezing, or skin irritation and some people may have more severe reactions, including fever, shortness of breath, and mold infections in the lungs.

Even though Whitelaw is moving out of her apartment, Cerasale said he was concerned that other Oak Terrace residents are dealing with similar issues but are afraid to speak up.

Hebb said Oak Terrace residents are afraid to report anything because they feel either it’s ignored or they’ll face retaliation.

“It’s sad. It’s very, very sad,” Hebb said.

Jackson said that the residents of Oak Terrace usually come to commission meetings to talk about their issues. When she was chair, Jackson said she strived to make sure people felt safe and comfortable talking to her.

“If they’re afraid, I’m sorry to hear that. I’m the first one that wants to help there,” Jackson said.

She urged anyone else with ongoing mold problems to call the commission.

“If we don’t know about it, how are we going to fix it, if we don’t know it’s an issue?” Jackson asked.

Cerasale encouraged anyone with a problem to give him a call at (203) 217-5133.

Whitelaw said she was happy to have his support.

“This time, I’m getting results. … Everything is working out very well,” Whitelaw said.