Q: We live in a multifamily rental community that provides playgrounds and sandboxes for the residents’ children (including ours). The sandboxes are not covered when not in use, and I’ve seen cats "do their business" in them. I’ve asked management to provide covers, and I’m especially concerned now that I’m pregnant with our second child — I don’t want to be exposed to diseases. They have refused. Is there anything I can do? –Bertha B.

A: It’s a shame you’re running into resistance from management at your rental. What you’re asking for is reasonable and prudent, for yourself and for all other residents and kids. Perhaps a little gentle education will change their minds.

Your concern is with the possibility of contracting toxoplasmosis, a disease caused by a single-celled parasite. The parasite can be accidentally ingested through cat feces that contain it, though it is also commonly transmitted by eating undercooked, contaminated meat (or eating food that was contaminated by knives, utensils, or cutting boards that had contact with contaminated meat), and drinking infected water. According to the Centers for Disease Control (the CDC), pregnant women (and people with compromised immune systems) can suffer serious health complications if they have a toxoplasma infection.

The CDC, and every other reputable source I could find, has commonsense recommendations for women who are pregnant and have cats. First, because the cat himself becomes infected by eating raw, contaminated food, it’s best to keep one’s cat indoors (eliminating the chance that he’ll eat an infected rodent) and feed him only canned or dried commercial food, or very well cooked meats.

Women are urged to turn over the chore of cleaning the cat litter to someone else, or if they do it themselves, to wear disposable gloves and wash their hands thoroughly after cleaning. Daily litter cleaning will remove any contaminated feces before the parasite becomes dangerous (it takes several days to develop). And most tellingly, the CDC says to keep sandboxes covered.

So much for background — now let’s give you some talking points to raise with management. As you can see, all of the CDC’s recommendations pertain to a family’s management of their own cat. You, on the other hand, are dealing with others’ cats (and perhaps strays), who are outdoors cats, possibly eating contaminated meat or rodents, and clearly using the kids’ sandbox as their litter box, which you don’t control. In this context, you have no way to implement the CDC’s safety precautions.

But you do have the ability to bring the situation to the attention of other renters, and to present a united front. The dangers of toxoplasmosis do not stop with pregnant women: No parent will want their children exposed to it, even if they are not immune-compromised. Get together with other families, do some research (start with the CDC article referenced above), and present your requests to management. Faced with an army of residents who are asking for a relatively simple and inexpensive fix, management would have to be very shortsighted to refuse you.

In the event that you get nowhere, you’ll want to consider your next move. From a legal point of view, by allowing a sandbox to be used as a litter box by unknown cats, management is arguably tolerating a dangerous condition on the property. If this danger makes the common areas unfit for use, you might be able to break your lease and leave without responsibility for future rent, just as you could if, for example, management refused to deal with a serious roof leak, lack of heat or hot water, or any other problem that makes the rental unlivable. That the issue is in a common area does not matter; you’re entitled to safe conditions in every aspect of your rental.

When renters encounter unfit conditions, many states also give them the options to withhold rent or to repair the problem and deduct the cost from the rent. But in this situation, even if your state gives you these tools, you may not be able to use them. That’s because withholding and repair and deduct often have caps, or limits, as to how much you can withhold or spend. When the problem is with a common area, the cost to fix it is likely to be beyond what the statutes will allow. But if your state doesn’t set caps or gives you a way around the limits, you might be able to use them.

For example, you and other families might be able to pool your individual repair and deduct limits.

Q: My tenants have alerted me to a water leak in their apartment. It must have been there for some time, because there’s a lot of mold under the sink. They’ve measured the amount of mold in the airspace, using a kit they bought, and are telling me that the levels are high and may have made them sick. What should I do? –Albert C.

A: The first thing you should do is to advise your tenants to keep the cupboard doors shut under the sink, to contain the air.

Next, you need to find the source of the water leak. You may have a burst or leaking pipe or pipe fitting; or moisture under the floor from poor drainage; or a leak in your gutter system, allowing rainwater to penetrate the walls. You may need to tear out the wall or do other work to get your answer. If the wall is soaked with mold, it will definitely have to be replaced.

You mention that your tenants have "measured" the mold levels using a commercial product. You should know that the trustworthiness of such products is uncertain.

According to the Centers for Disease Control, "Measurements of mold in air are not reliable or representative." While there may be a potential health risk when mold is visible or can be smelled, it’s not possible to gauge that risk using kits like these. Moreover, individuals respond to mold differently; what may irritate one person might have no effect on another.

An allergic reaction to mold — including sneezing; throat, nose, and mouth irritation; nasal congestion; and red or watery eyes — is the most common response among people who are sensitive. Of course, these problems can be caused by other factors, such as pollen and other environmental triggers (natural and man-made). For this reason, it is very difficult to know for sure whether the cause of an allergic response is the presence of mold (or more precisely, the toxins that some molds produce) or something else entirely.

Your tenants haven’t given you enough information to enable you to know whether their "sickness" is the result of the mold under the sink. They would need to consult with a doctor at the very least; even then, the doctor would probably not be able to say with certainty whether the mold under the sink accounts for their issues.

That’s not the end of the story, however. Just because it’s difficult to pin some health problems on mold doesn’t mean you should not take your tenants’ report seriously. For good tenant relations alone, listen to them and consider underwriting a night or two at a local motel while your workmen deal with the leak and remove the moldy building materials. This will not only demonstrate your good will; it’s good business sense, too. Tenants who feel they have a good faith problem that the landlord is ignoring are the ones who march off to find lawyers.

Although it’s doubtful that these tenants could ultimately pin their health complaints on the mold, they can certainly make you spend time and money dealing with their claims (and your insurance company).

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