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Dealing with Environmental Irritants

Real Estate Legality

Unlike living in a single family house, co-op and condo residents have to make certain compromises to deal with their neighbors. For instance, a pet-free building may still permit emotional support and service animals, and contractors may make disturbing noises during the day. However, how should co-op and condo residents deal with environmental irritants that interfere with the use and enjoyment of their own homes?

Although ordinary allergies may not constitute a handicap, the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) constitutes Multiple Chemical Sensitivity Disorders (MCS) and Environmental Illnesses (EI) as disabilities.[1] MCS is defined as a “condition that causes a person to have severe hypersensitive reactions to a number of common substances”, and EI as a “condition that causes a person to have any type of severe allergic reaction to one or more substances.”[2] The Americans With Disabilities Act also addresses physical and mental impairments, which encompasses asthma, allergies and other respiratory problems brought on by smoke or chemicals, that substantially limit major life activities.[3] Therefore, in order to avoid conflict and litigation, it is important that co-op and condo boards are aware of any environmental irritants and ensure they rectify the issue in a timely manner.

Second-hand cigarette smoke is one of the most common environmental irritants. A number of co-ops and condos have no smoking policies, which can be found in the building’s governing documents. As of August 28, 2018, New York co-ops and condos have been required by Local Law 147 to adopt written smoking policies to establish where smoking is permitted and prohibited.[4] Although many buildings adopt no smoking policies in common areas, residents may still be able to smoke in their own units, which has the potential of disturbing their neighbors. Residents should bring this concern to building management. If the building does permit smoking within the unit, and if the building manages the HVAC system, residents may urge the board to put in filters to prevent the smoke travelling through the vents.

Another common problem is mold. Depending on where the mold is from, either the unit owner or shareholder or the board will be responsible to eliminate the mold from the property. Typically the board will be liable to remedy the situation if the mold is in a common area, or in the walls and pipes. However, if the mold is in the unit, it will generally be the responsibility of the resident. Although mold is a serious concern, it is less likely to spread through units at the same rate as chemicals. Chemicals used during construction or for insect, rodent and pest control can be harmful to residents’ health. The use of chemicals may be necessary, however, to prevent it from becoming an environmental irritant, buildings may use environmentally-friendly chemicals that are particularly safe for children and pets. If there are no alternatives for harsh chemicals, then board members should alert the residents beforehand so that they may make other accommodations during this time.


[1] Wilson, C.W. (March 5, 1992) “MCS Disorder and Environmental Illness as Handicaps.” Legal Opinion: GME-0009. Available at: https://www.hud.gov/sites/documents/GME-0009LOPS.PDF. Accessed on Aug, 31, 2018.

[2] Ib. p.1.

[3] Id. p.5; Sidransky, A.J. (Sept. 2018) “Environmental Irritants.” The Cooperator. Available at: https://cooperator.com/article/environmental-irritants/full#cut. Accessed on Aug. 31, 2018.

[4] See “Co-ops and Condos Must Adopt Smoking Policies This August.” Available at: http://guzovllc.com/co-ops-and-condos-must-adopt-smoking-policies-this-august/.

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