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UC students sue regents over mold

By Ben Lumpkin Daily Planet staff
Thursday May 24, 2001

A class action lawsuit filed in Alameda County Superior Court Wednesday alleges that more than 800 UC Berkeley students may have been exposed to harmful levels of airborne mold in their university housing units. 

At issue are the University Village Apartments in Albany, about 1,000 units reserved for UC Berkeley students who are married and/or have children. Of these units, 400 were built in the early 1960s, and 150 date back to the 1940s, said Robert Jacobs, director of housing facilities for UC Berkeley. 

The lawsuit, filed by the Concord law firm Kasdan, Simonds, Epstein & Martin, alleges that the university failed to provide effective waterproofing and weather protection for some of the older units, leading to high levels of mold and fungi.  

“We believe that the university and the Regents have an undeniable responsibility to ensure that the housing they rent to students, or anyone else, is clean and healthy,” Kenneth Kasdan, a partner in the Kasdan, Simonds firm, said in a press release Wednesday. “As far as we are concerned, they grossly ignored their responsibility.” 

A University of California spokesperson declined to comment on the lawsuit Wednesday. 

The suit was filed Wednesday morning on behalf of UC Berkeley student David Garcia and his 18-month-old son, Elias Garcia, both of who have been treated for cough, congestion, eye irritation, fevers and breathing problems over the last six months, allegedly caused by the high level of mold in their rental unit. 

The list of plaintiffs in the suit had grown to include three children and three adults by the end of the day Wednesday, Kasdan said in an interview, adding that he expected more to join the suit soon. 

“We believe as all the health data comes out that it’s going to be shocking,” Kasdan said. 

Along with compensation for plaintiffs’ medical costs, the suit demands a university-sponsored cleanup of the mold and medical monitoring to determine if other residents have been affected. 

“We want these houses remediated so that they are safe to live in,” Kasdan said. 

The mold problem was originally identified by the university itself, after it hired outside consultants to go over the units last summer in preparation for a restoration project. 

The university had slated the older units for demolition, according to Jacobs, but it opted to restore the units instead in response to a student group’s concern that the loss of old units would mean the loss of affordable units. 

While the older units rent for around $700 a month, newer units cost around $1,100 a month, Jacobs said. 

In studying what it would take to restore the old buildings, the Pleasant Hill-based MECA Consulting company surveyed the levels of air-born mold in 52 randomly chosen units, Jacobs said. Most of the units showed elevated levels of air-born mold compared to the outside air. In two units the levels were so high that the university told the inhabitants they must move out. 

The mold is a result of “systematic problems” such as leaking walls and windows, Jacobs said. 

The university convened meetings with University Village Apartments’ residents and health experts earlier this month to go over the potential health risks cause by mold and to tell residents what they could do to reduce the level of mold in their units, Jacobs said.  

According to a handout distributed to residents of the Albany apartments by UC Berkeley’s University Health Services, most people have no reaction when exposed to molds, but too much exposure can “cause or worsen” asthma, hay fewer and other allergic reactions. 

Jacobs said it is difficult to know how to respond to the situation because there are no state or federal guidelines as to what constitutes a dangerous level of airborne mold. 

“If you live in an old house, you’re going to have mold,” he said. “We’re really tried to be as proactive as we can.” 

Prior to Wednesday’s lawsuit, Jacobs said the university had received complaints from students in only four units about health problems attributed to the mold. In these cases the residents were offered the opportunity to move into newer units, Jacobs said, but only if they were willing and able to pay the higher rents for these units. 

Jacobs said the university will convene a panel of experts in June to determine the next step in dealing with the mold problem. 

Kasdan said the university has had six months since it publicly announced the mold problem and in all that time it has taken no actions to reduce the levels of airborne mold. 

“What makes this case even more egregious is that the housing where Mr. Garcia and the other Berkeley students have lived caters to families with young children,” Kasdan said. “These children can become extremely ill from continuously living and playing in a mold infested environment.”