Ask NCHH About Asthma

I’ve been diagnosed with allergic asthma to dust mites. My allergist/immunologist has advised me to modify my apartment to limit dust exposure. Since dust is the carrier of dust mites and wall-to-wall carpeting gathers dust that can never be totally removed, do I have the right under the ADA to ask for hardwood floors, though they aren’t in any other apartments in my complex? If not, do I have the right to install at my own expense, a floating wood floor (the type that’s installed over existing carpeting, without using glue or nails)?

This is a bit complicated, unfortunately. A lot depends on the state and city where you live.

Although the federal Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) may come into play in cases of where your breathing is permanently and seriously compromised—such as severe uncontrolled asthma and COPD—there’s not much legal precedent for enforcement for these conditions. However, we’re not legal experts, so you’d be better served by consulting an attorney or Legal Aid if you want to pursue that course of action. You may be able to find help from this website:

The first strategy for addressing exposures is to be sure that you have minimized dust reservoirs in the home. Therefore, our initial questions for you would be the following:

  1. Do you vacuum regularly (daily, weekly, monthly)?
  2. How old is your vacuum? Is it a higher-quality vacuum (versus an economy model)?
  3. Does the vacuum have a HEPA filter, and do you clean or change the filter regularly?
  4. Do you damp-dust regularly (daily, weekly, monthly)?
  5. Do you dust before or after you vacuum?
  6. How old is the carpet and padding?
  7. How old are the pillows and mattress, and do you have allergen-blocking covers on them?
  8. What’s the condition of your apartment otherwise? Is there much clutter? Does it smell musty?
  9. Do you use an electronic air cleaner that does not produce ozone by-products?
  10. Are pets allowed to sleep on beds or upholstered furniture?
  11. Does anyone smoke in the apartment, or do neighboring apartments have smokers in them?
  12. If you have gas- or wood-burning appliances, and if so, are they properly vented and filtered?
  13. Do you use fragrance-free cleaners and avoid perfumes or air fresheners?

Asthma is usually triggered by multiple factors, so it is important to determine whether you are allergic only to dust mites, or are there other things inside or outside your home that are a problem? Carpeting can trap dust mite particles and other allergens (such as pet dander, insect debris) or irritants (especially particulates from cigarette or other smoke), but so do curtains, bedding, horizontal surfaces, and clutter. Generally, our recommendation is to clean regularly and to keep all surfaces as smooth and cleanable as possible.

So, please consider those questions above. All of those options are cheaper and less difficult to undertake than tearing out your carpet.

Okay, so let’s assume that your only known trigger is dust mites, that the apartment is very neat and tidy, that all appliances are vented properly, that you clean regularly with a vacuum in good working order with a clean HEPA filter, and that there are no pets, smokers, or fragrances. If this is the case, then I would ask the landlord first if there are any units with hardwood or linoleum flooring. (Sometimes the units designated for the disabled are free from carpeting, but the landlord/property manager may not understand that asthma can be a disabling condition.) If there are units available, you could request to move there based on the doctor’s diagnosis.

There’s no harm in asking for the floors to be replaced, although your landlord may expect you to pay for it. (Here’s why it would be good for you to have talked with an attorney first.) Also, the landlord may consent to replacing old carpets with new or with vinyl flooring but not with hardwood due to the expense. If you’re determined to get a washable floor surface, you might offer to pay for half the installation cost—this shows that you’re serious about the need. Also be aware that there may be reasons (such as sound-dampening between apartments) that are involved in why the carpets are there in the first place.

If the owner agrees to your putting in floating flooring over existing carpets, you need also to be sure that this won’t cause an uneven surface that increases your risk of falling. There may be liability issues for the landlord or your own insurance.

If, after discussing the matter with an attorney, it’s determined that you are eligible for an accommodation for your disability; but the landlord won’t budge, you may want to try consulting your state or county’s housing departments or the offices that set standards and issue occupancy permits for rental properties. If you believe there is a violation of current regulations, you may also compel the landlord to act by escrowing your rent with the court. Be sure to research rent escrow thoroughly before you make that decision, as the rules may vary from state to state. If there is no housing court in your jurisdiction, you may have to consider a civil court action.

Finally, if none of these options work for you, can you discuss with your landlord the ability to break your lease for this reason and not experience a penalty or loss of security deposit? This may also be cheaper than the price of new flooring.

Additional Resources

NCHH Blog: ERMI Data Used as a Predictor of Asthma
NCHH Blog: A “Little Bit” of Asthma