Dateline   |  January 06, 2014

'Breathless' part 4

After a repair visit to Javier's apartment  NYCHA says it fixed Javier's mold problem. But he believes the fix is only a temporary. In his quest to prove it, Javier turns asthma detective, visiting several neighbors to see if their apartments have asthma triggers.

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This content comes from Closed Captioning that was broadcast along with this program.

>> reporter: january 2013 . three months after javier sepulveda's daughter had that first asthma attack on the basketball court , an attack he blamed on the mold in his bathroom.

>> at this point, it was war. you just caused harm to my family, to my daughter.

>> reporter: when nycha took him to court for withholding rent, he countersued.

>> i'm asking the judge to not only give me a total abatement of all rents due, which equates to about $21,000.

>> reporter: today a small victory. the housing court judge ruled the case couldn't go to trial until nycha removed the mold in javier 's bathroom.

>> i go home, and i can report to my wife that we live to see another day.

>> reporter: javier agreed to let "dateline" undercover cameras capture nycha repair visits.

>> our job is just to clean the mold and paint.

>> right.

>> and clean the vent, whatever he can do.

>> as far as it's gonna return, the mold. you want a clean apartment, where it's not gonna return? i can't guarantee that.

>> reporter: apparently finding out exactly what was causing the mold and fixing that seemed to be beyond this nycha crew's job description .

>> cosmetic.

>> cosmetic.

>> reporter: javier says that even though the workers told him the mold could return, in court the housing authority claimed they had removed it permanently. javier set out to prove it wasn't so.

>> we have moisture back there.

>> oh, you do. up to 8300.

>> reporter: on advice of the asthma experts he had been consulting with, javier invited bill southern, a respected industrial hygienist and mold removal specialist to check moisture readings in the bathroom.

>> max.

>> reporter: southern was convinced the mold would return.

>> it's just a matter of time.

>> reporter: then, hoping to show at trial that his was not an isolated case, javier turned asthma detective. he decided to investigate what was going on in the apartments above him and below him. well, you don't have to be sherlock holmes to guess what he found.

>> wow. this is as bad if not worse than mine. now, this is apartment 11b, which is right above me.

>> reporter: and an apartment four floors below javier , the same story.

>> you can see -- wow -- the mold which is consistent. the mold. you see the roaches. i have the same issue with roaches. they're coming out the vents.

>> reporter: there are 748 apartments in javier 's building. "dateline" found that in 2012 , the number of repair requests for problems that could cause or exacerbate asthma was 788. javier once thought his daughter was the only one in the building with asthma . not anymore.

>> do you have a child with asthma ?

>> yeah, my daughter.

>> do you know that mold is considered an asthma trigger?

>> no.

>> reporter: armed with photo evidence, javier was prepared for his day in court. but while he was hopeful the housing court judge would rule in his favor, across town in brownsville, roseanna was losing all hope nycha would ever make her bathroom asthma safe for amanda .

>> and at this point, i got paperwork from my daughter's doctor that she's real sick because of this condition in my bathroom.

>> reporter: finally, roseanna 's persistence seemed to pay off. a mold removal technician showed up, but he quickly realized that what had to be fixed before anything else was the leak in the ceiling that was causing the mold. his supervisor suggested a band-aid solution instead.

>> all right. listen. why don't we do this. we don't we clean it, scrape it, all right? and scrape this little bit down gently, and let's just hit this real quick. i'll get some paint. we'll hit this up so at least it looks decent.

>> reporter: breathing mask on, the workers sprayed bleach on the ceiling and walls. the door was often wide open . the chemical smell was so strong, roseanna feared it could trigger one of amanda 's asthma attacks. on hidden camera , a "dateline" producer approached the worker as he was waiting for the paint to arrive.

>> i don't know why they say this is a hot job.

>> they call it had a hot job? what does that mean?

>> i think there was a complaint. i don't know. i think there was something about a tenant in a meeting.

>> yeah.

>> reporter: this hot job soon turned into a no job.

>> we're just going to leave it.

>> they left me a stinky, smelly bathroom and a mess. they just came in and did it so they could oh, let's do something so she can shut up, and i continue calling and monitoring.

>> reporter: two weeks later, amanda had to go to the emergency room again. she missed another day of school. the 11th day she had been absent this year already.

>> my teacher noticed i have been absent a lot. and my mom explained that i have asthma . and then when i go back to school, there's a lot of homework at my desk because i miss it.

>> reporter: studies have shown that if elementary school kids miss more than 18 days a year, they were more likely to drop out of school later on. but it wasn't only amanda who was falling behind. nationwide, adults affected by asthma miss more than 14 million working days a year. roseanna couldn't afford to miss even one. after yet another phone call , nycha notified her that it was sending yet another crew. so she worked a double shift in order to be there.

>> i work monday 9:00 to 5:00, came home, cooked for my kids, and went back to work from 10:00 to 8:00 in the morning today. and here i am. exhausted, tired.

>> you guys are --

>> we're here to take care of the mold and the mildew.

>> okay.

>> reporter: it was january 15th , 11 months since roseanna turned to nycha for repairs after amanda 's asthma diagnosis.

>> your whole ceiling came down. the last time they painted, it all came down. it was all wet.

>> reporter: and listen to this. clearly this nycha crew had encountered cases like roseanna 's before, and they were on her side.

>> you really have to get 'em in here for the leak, the plaster and the paint. and if they give you a date for 2015 , tell them it's not good enough.

>> she knows. she's got 2014 already.

>> really? so you be rude and nasty and go in there and say, listen. i'm not livin' like this. it's got to get fixed. i pay my rent on time. you know, i work hard. my kids are sick. blah, blah, blah. whatever you've got to tell them. this is unacceptable. fix my house.

>> reporter: the mold appeared gone, at least to the naked eye . but roseanna knew that if the leak in her ceiling was not fixed, it would come back in no time. unfortunately, none of this was new to these guys.

>> and this other piece?

>> make note of that.

>> everything is falling apart.

>> in housing people have asthma . they're everywhere.