PITTSBURG — For those living in the Pittsburg Highlands housing development, located on Wild Red Road just south of Atkinson Ave, mold issues have become a major concern. Some in the neighborhood suspect they could be causing health problems for residents — some of whom have recently died.
On Saturday, neighborhood resident Donald Rohrbaugh, 79, passed away from complications related to pneumonia. While Rohrbaugh had other health issues — including having previously had kidney cancer, according to his wife Patricia — family members suspect mold and moisture issues at his home on Wild Red Road may have affected his health.
In recent weeks, Rohrbaugh was hospitalized and put on a ventilator after experiencing breathing problems “and he steadily got worse and worse, and so they decided to move him to KU,” said Patricia Rohrbaugh, who went to Kansas City to be with Donald at the hospital.
“In the meantime, management came on into my place — they didn’t call me, they didn’t send me a notice, they didn’t text me,” Patricia said Monday. “They came in and they left this machine, which is an air cleaning machine, and then they put a (de)humidifier in my bathroom.”
Pittsburg Director of Community Development and Housing Quentin Holmes said Monday that the presence of mold at Pittsburg Highlands had not been confirmed. He said that mold causing health problems for residents in the neighborhood was speculation on the part of a resident — apparently Rohrbaugh — who had been in touch with both the city and the property manager of Pittsburg Highlands because of a moisture issue.
Holmes said there has been standing water at one of the Pittsburg Highlands properties, but he did not know if other houses were affected. Holmes said Housing Residential Management Services (HRMS), the developer and property manager of Pittsburg Highlands, is working to remedy the situation in the housing addition and the city is making sure the company has the proper permits to do so.
In response to an inquiry from the Morning Sun, Deb Giffin of HRMS said in an email Monday that the company “only recently learned of a mold issue in some of the homes and since that time have been doing remedial work such as installing sump pumps, setting dehumidifiers and regrading some areas of the land to redirect rain runoff.”
According to Giffin the company is “working with an environmental consultant to implement the most effective plan going forward. We have been in the housing development business a long time and we are committed to taking care of the situation. We will continue with our efforts until we have been advised that the situation is remedied.”
Also while Rohrbaugh was at KU Med, she had the company ServiceMaster look at her house.
“The gentleman at ServiceMaster says there’s a lot wrong under our house,” Patricia said. “There’s a lot of construction problems. And then the barrier — there’s supposed to be a plastic barrier — that’s all messed up, that’s not intact.”
The Rohrbaughs’ grandson, Larry Large Jr. — who lives in Council Bluffs, Iowa — also recently went under their house on Wild Red Road and took photographs.
Large was only under the house for about 15 minutes, but a moisture problem became “pretty apparent because I was sick for about three days afterwards, and I’m never sick,” he said. “So just congested, just probably from breathing the bad air. But to be honest with you, I didn’t put a face mask on because I didn’t think I would find anything worth anything.” Instead, Large was “surprised to find two inches of water” underneath the house, he said.
“We own rental property in Iowa, and I’ve done a lot of maintenance over the years, I do all my own maintenance of the house, so I’m familiar with what the codes are for Iowa,” Large said. “I don’t know what they are here, but in my opinion there are some code violations, but I can’t confirm that because I don’t know what Kansas codes are.”
It also seems possible that mold under houses in Pittsburg Highlands, if confirmed, could be a cause of health problems for residents.
“Exposure to damp and moldy environments may cause a variety of health effects, or none at all,” according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). “Some people are sensitive to molds. For these people, molds can cause nasal stuffiness, throat irritation, coughing or wheezing, eye irritation, or, in some cases, skin irritation. People with mold allergies may have more severe reactions. Immune-compromised people and people with chronic lung illnesses, such as obstructive lung disease, may get serious infections in their lungs when they are exposed to mold.”
The CDC further notes that “In 2004 the Institute of Medicine (IOM) found there was sufficient evidence to link indoor exposure to mold with upper respiratory tract symptoms, cough, and wheeze in otherwise healthy people; with asthma symptoms in people with asthma; and with hypersensitivity pneumonitis in individuals susceptible to that immune-mediated condition. The IOM also found limited or suggestive evidence linking indoor mold exposure and respiratory illness in otherwise healthy children.”
Aside from Donald Rohrbaugh, another Pittsburg Highlands resident, Robert Drennen, 80, recently passed away, although it is not clear if his death was related to suspected moisture problems at the housing development.
Patricia Rohrbaugh said Monday she is not currently making accusations against HRMS or the City of Pittsburg.
“I’m not accusing anybody of anything or anything like that at this time,” she said. “I’m just saying that we have mold and it definitely needs to be taken care of for the health of everybody around. I have to feel that maybe it contributed partly to our problem, but you know, unless I have other professional advice or people that know more than I do, I would not accuse anybody of anything.”
The Rohrbaughs are not the only family in the neighborhood, however, with concerns about mold potentially affecting their health. Sarah Engledow, who lives next door, said she has also had mold issues at her home.
“I actually tried getting ahold of our site manager months ago about it,” Engledow said, adding that her children have not had any apparent health problems from the mold, but she suspects she may have.
“I’ve been the only one that has had an ongoing sickness lately that we’re still trying to figure out what it is,” Engledow said. “Like I constantly feel like I can’t breathe, or I actually have this feeling where I cough so hard I start dry heaving.” She said she has seen a doctor, had a pulmonary test done, and set up an appointment in August to schedule an endoscopy to try to determine what condition she is suffering from.
Like Rohrbaugh, Engledow said HRMS installed a dehumidifier in her home without notifying her that they were doing so. After a recent break-in attempt, she said, her father had been checking up on the house while she was out of town to make sure doors and windows remained locked. Last weekend, Engledow said, her father called her “saying that when he got in the house there was this big machine in the house, and he said that he was pretty sure it was a dehumidifier.”
Engledow, who has lived at Pittsburg Highlands for nearly a year, said this wasn’t the first problem she’s had with HRMS.
“One of the biggest issues that I’ve had with them is I have told them things that are wrong and I get no response back or they say they’ll look into it,” Engledow said, but the company has not always followed through on fixing problems.
That may be changing, as HRMS seems to now be moving to resolve problems at Pittsburg Highlands. Residents received letters Monday informing them that the company Sunbelt Environmental would be in the neighborhood on Wednesday to perform air quality testing.
The latest measures the company is taking, however, are coming “a little too late, in my opinion,” Large said.