Earlier this month, Durham Housing Authority executive director Anthony Scott confirmed the presence of yet another toxic substance inhabiting McDougald Terrace. Joining the likes of carbon monoxide—which led the DHA to evacuate 280 families to area hotels in January—lead, mold, and sewage problems, the city’s oldest and largest public housing complex also had asbestos. (The first six families returned to McDougald on Friday.)

Here, we take a look at what science says about the conditions and potential hazards they’ve been living with for, well, who knows how long—and what happens when indifferent officials at all levels of government allow these complexes to fall into disrepair.   

Carbon Monoxide Poisoning

Caused by: Incorrectly installed or poorly ventilated household appliances, which emit CO. 

Leads to: Headache, dizziness, weakness, upset stomach, vomiting, chest pain, confusion, flu-like symptoms; loss of consciousness or death at high levels; those sleeping or drunk may die before experiencing symptoms. More than 400 Americans die each year from accidental CO poisoning.

Mold Exposure

Caused by: Damp and moldy environments.

Leads to: Stuffy nose, wheezing, upper respiratory infections, red or itchy eyes or skin; more intense reactions for those with allergies or asthma; potential link to asthma in some children; hypersensitivity pneumonitis for those susceptible; sometimes no effects.   

Sewage Issues

Caused by: At McDougald Terrace, a corrupted manhole leaking raw sewage and a stormwater pipe that has reportedly been leaking raw sewage into Rocky Creek since 2017. Residents have also long reported backed-up toilets.

Leads to: Gastroenteritis, with symptoms including nausea, vomiting, abdominal pain, diarrhea, cramps, fever, and dehydration; exposure in homes has been linked to hepatitis A.

Lead Poisoning

Caused by: Lead-based paint and lead-contaminated dust common in older buildings. Lead builds up in body over months or years.

Leads to: Fatal at high levels. In children, causes learning difficulties, irritability, loss of appetite; in adults, high blood pressure, mood disorders, miscarriage, stillbirth, premature birth; childhood exposure linked to violence in young adulthood in some studies. 

Violent Crime

Caused by: Lots of things, including exposure to violent crime; also, possibly, lead. 

Leads to: Childhood trauma, destabilization, trouble sleeping, PTSD, desensitization to violence, myriad behavioral, psychological, and physical issues, academic failure, alcohol and drug abuse, adult criminality, early death by violent crime. 


Caused by: Evolution.

Leads to: Cockroaches: allergic reactions and asthma symptoms; spread bacteria, parasitic worms, and other pathogens. Bedbugs: sometimes severe allergic reactions; secondary skin infections. Both: mental health issues including anxiety and insomnia.

Asbestos Exposure

Caused by: Dust from a group of naturally occurring minerals with soft, wooly fibers resistant to heat, electricity, and corrosion, sometimes used in drywall and cement. 

Leads to: Cancers of the lung, larynx, ovary, as well as mesothelioma, a rare, aggressive, and fatal tumor. Worst effects stem from intense concentrations or regular exposure over a long period of time. 

Contact staff writer Thomasi McDonald at tmcdonald@indyweek.com. 

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