By RONDA KAYSEN MAY 14, 2016
My building is being repointed, and seven of the 11 windows in my apartment are on walls undergoing work. For the last six weeks or so, I have been experiencing tightness in my chest, some wheezing and a deep cough. Otherwise, I am not ill. Have respiratory problems among apartment dwellers ever been linked to this type of masonry work?
Some days, it seems like the dust is inescapable — another indignity New Yorkers endure during this era of rampant construction. “The dust is everywhere: It’s in the hallways, it’s in the windows,” said Samuel J. Himmelstein, a Manhattan lawyer who represents tenants. “There could be different kinds of irritants in that dust.”
Pointing involves grinding mortar joints to remove the damaged mortar. Then new mortar is installed. The grinding can generate mineral dust fine enough for you to inhale, which could inflame your airways, said Edward Olmsted, the president of Olmsted Environmental Services, an industrial hygienist. If waterproofing materials were inserted behind the brick, chemical vapors could seep into your apartment, irritating your respiratory system and causing headaches and sinus problems.
If you and your neighbors inhale silica particles found in the dust, you could experience short-term and even long-term respiratory problems, said E. Neil Schachter, the Maurice Hexter Professor of Pulmonary Medicine at the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai.
An otherwise healthy person may experience coughing, shortness of breath and mucus. The dust could also exacerbate underlying health conditions like allergies, asthma or cardiovascular disease, requiring treatment that could outlast the pointing work. And if water seeps into cracks in the brick and infiltrates the building, bacteria and mold could grow, leading to chronic allergic conditions, Dr. Schachter said.
Pointing work can be done safely, but you need to compel your landlord to act. A lone complaint from one disgruntled tenant will probably be ignored. So enlist your neighbors, particularly those whose windows face the work. If they are reluctant to join the fight, educate them about the health risks they face. As a group, hire an expert to inspect the work.
“It’s one thing to say that you’re having these symptoms; it’s another thing to send it to a lab to have it tested,” Mr. Himmelstein said, referring to the air sample such an expert would take.
Once you’re armed with that information, insist that the landlord make safety improvements. The pointing work might be necessary, but that is no excuse for jeopardizing your health.