Tenants who moved into a new house said they suffered insomnia and headaches so they engaged an expert to test for formaldehyde off-gassing then took a case against the landlord.
Lee-Anne Ngaretta Ingram and Byron Brent Ingram went to the Tenancy Tribunal against Watson Real Estate for lease termination and compensation claiming "formaldehyde being released into the environment of the new build tenancy".
The Ingrams asked the tribunal to let them escape their one-year fixed-term tenancy and sought financial compensation in respect of the lease running from September last year to September this year.
They wanted $21.42/night for 93 nights sleeping in their lounge as they couldn't sleep in the master bedroom.
Shortly after moving into the new home on Ward St, the Ingrams would "wake with headaches and their sleep was poor". They were worried about an odour coming from the master bedroom so slept in the lounge.
They raised the issue with the landlord who had painting done but that did not resolve the problem for them, so the master bedroom V-groove wall panels were removed and replaced with a new product, Quickline, the tribunal said.
They moved back into the master bedroom in October "but after two to three nights could not tolerate sleeping in the bedroom further and moved back into the living room to sleep".
The landlord engaged NZ House Surveys to assess the dwelling, got a report the same day and that concluded Quickline would not present any risk of formaldehyde off-gassing.
But the Ingrams were dissatisfied.
Worried about the situation, they engaged Rick Lewer of Direct Hazmat Consultants to test inside and he found formaldehyde levels "three times above the recommended level for sensitised persons".
Lewer's report recommended the Ingrams should stay away from the master bedroom till the issue was resolved. A contractor should strip out and remove the master bedroom MDF wall. Formaldehyde levels should be lowered.
The room should then be re-tested, Lewer recommended.
Occupational Safety and Health Administration data suggested it took about two years for formaldehyde to off-gas from new furniture and many household products. Substances in those products including glues, paints, coatings, lacquers and finishes, paper products, particle boards and plywood, the tribunal heard.
Lewer said he was not certain what products would have caused the formaldehyde release.
"It is normal for a new build house to have chemicals present that are not ideal in a dwelling but those chemicals would dissipate over time as off-gassing occurs," the tribunal said of his oral evidence.
Under cross-examination, Lewer confirmed he was not aware of any New Zealand standards on formaldehyde in residential situations. It is possible that sensitisation could have occurred in the workplace, he said.
The landlord asked how Lewer determined the tenants were sensitised to formaldehyde.
Lewer said he was not a doctor and could give no evidence of how such a determination was made.
The landlords also pointed out the high level of the gas recorded in the bathroom and asked him how that was, given there were no MDF panels there. Lewer said the gas could have come from other products like glue in cabinets.
The Ingrams told the tribunal they had no prior health problems or sleeping issues which only occurred after they moved in. They had 90 days sleeping in the living room and did not think the landlord had done enough to help.
But the landlord said the Ingrams had been offered alternate premises and had declined to move so which was inconsistent with their expressed concerns.
The tribunal found no evidence of materials in their new house which were hazardous or non-approved. Nor was it clear why they could sleep in the lounge when testing showed that room had high levels of the gas.
The Ingrams had failed to establish that the landlord did not comply with obligations. New Zealand had no prescribed level at which formaldehyde could be present in homes. No breach of any such level had been established either.
There would be no basis for the landlord being liable for the testing that the tenant privately commissioned.
So the tribunal dismissed the case, meaning the Ingrams did not get their money. But it noted the landlord had consented to the tenancy agreement being varied to allow the term to end early.