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Environmental Irritants Managing Allergens & Indoor Air Quality

For nearly two years now, the pandemic has dominated just about every corner of multifamily community management—particularly when it comes to indoor air quality, circulation, and filtration. But even before anyone had ever heard of COVID-19, pet dander, pollen, smoke, cleaning and pest control chemicals, mold, and other allergens had the capacity to make life miserable for residents and staff sensitive to such irritants. 

When those issues arise in a single-family home, the solution is clear: rehome the cat, remove the plant or bush, kick the habit, and use gentler, more hypoallergenic products for cleaning and exterminating. In a multifamily residential community such as a co-op or condominium, however, eliminating those irritants can be more difficult. The pet may belong to your neighbor; the landscaping choices may not be your domain; and the chemicals used by the exterminator may be out of your control.

But difficult or not, condo and co-op boards have just as much responsibility to address—and ameliorate, if at all possible—residents’ environmental sensitivities as they do a person’s need for a wheelchair ramp or large-print meeting minutes. And these days, with the pandemic dragging on as we head into months of colder temperatures and increased holiday traffic in common areas, keeping the air in your building or HOA as clean as possible has the added benefit of helping to reduce the spread of COVID and other illnesses. 

Is Sensitivity a Disability?

According to Ellen Shapiro, an attorney specializing in community law and a partner at the law firm of Marcus Errico Emmer & Brooks, PC, in Braintree, Massachusetts, “Multiple chemical sensitivity in itself is considered a disability. The Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) administers all these issues. Their position...is that what they refer to as ‘environmental illnesses’ are legitimate conditions. The definition of a disability under HUD—and that’s the definition we use—is a condition that substantially limits a major life activity. HUD rules apply nationwide. States may expand upon them, but not diminish them.”

The legal framework under which we consider disabilities is further defined under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), explains Mark Hakim, of counsel at New York-based law firm Schwartz, Sladkus, Reich, Greenberg & Atlas. “The Americans with Disabilities Act, as amended from time to time, is a federal law protecting those with legal disabilities,” he says. “Under the ADA, a person with a disability is someone who has a physical or mental impairment that seriously limits one or more major life activities, or who is regarded as having such impairments. [It] includes impairment that substantially limits one or more of a person’s major life activities such as breathing, seeing, hearing, walking, sitting, standing, sleeping, caring for yourself, lifting, or learning. It also requires having a record of an impairment and/or being regarded as having an impairment. Asthma and allergies are generally considered disabilities under the ADA. Respiratory and other conditions caused or exacerbated by smoke and chemicals may also constitute a disability under the ADA.”

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