The recent tragedy involving two-year-old Awaab Ishak who died of a respiratory condition caused by exposure to the mould in his flat has brought the issue of Britain’s social housing dilapidations to the public’s attention. In giving the decision, the Coroner, who relied on extensive expert evidence, stated:
“I find as a matter of fact that the development of Awaab’s severe respiratory condition which led to him going into respiratory arrest was entirely due to the prolonged exposure he had to mould in his home environment.”
The inquest was told that Awaab showed severe granulomatous tracheobronchitis, a condition which is extremely rare in young people and that would take time to develop, usually weeks or months. Giving evidence at the inquest, Dr Lumb, a forensic Home Office pathologist concluded that the distribution fitted the pattern of something “entering the airways and causing the granulomas.” He went on to conclude that “this fitted with fungal infections and together with the history and circumstances and with the post-mortem findings the only explanation, in his opinion, was that the death was due to chronic exposure to fungus.”
Awaab Ishak’s death and the subsequent Coroner’s ruling may lead to an increase in housing claims. Therefore, solicitors, barristers, and others involved in this process need to understand how dampness and mould affect human health.
What causes damp and mould in homes?
Condensation is the most common cause of mould developing in residential properties. Everyday activities such as cooking, showering, and drying clothes cause moisture to build up which can lead to mould developing, especially if tenants do not adequately ventilate the property.
Two other common types of damp are penetrating damp and rising damp. The former is caused by water leaking through walls and floors. Rising dampness, which is normally a feature of older homes, is the result of groundwater soaking up into the structure of the property.
What is mould?
Mould is a fungus and black mould, the type most commonly found in damp homes, releases spores. These spores, which are allergens, can damage the health of residents.
How does mould damage health?
According to the NHS, people who live in a damp and mouldy home have a higher risk of respiratory infections/problems, allergies, and asthma. Mould spores can also compromise the immune system. Some people are particularly vulnerable, including:
- babies and children
- older people
- those with existing skin problems, such as atopic eczema
- those with respiratory problems, such as allergies and asthma
- those with a weakened immune system, such as those having chemotherapy
For people who suffer from allergies, breathing in or touching mould spores can cause severe reactions, including asthma attacks, fever, and shortness of breath. Others can suffer from a runny nose, red or itchy eyes, and irritated skin.
How can expert evidence assist the court in a damp/mould case?
One of the trickiest aspects of a case involving damp and mould is whether or not the presence of these factors caused the complainant’s health issues. Often multiple occurrences must be considered and their impact on causation weighed up. For example, on 19 December 2020 Awaab was taken to Rochdale Urgent Care Centre after spending two weeks short of breath. The Centre subsequently transferred him to Royal Oldham Hospital. The inquest heard that Royal Oldham Hospital, who discharged him after diagnosing croup, should have admitted the toddler into the children’s ward to allow his condition to be better assessed. It may take several expert witnesses to analyse not only the property but also the medical response to the health problems complained of to be able to provide the court with helpful information.
The death of Awaab Ishak illustrates the desperate conditions many people are forced to live in, despite the fact that England is considered a wealthy country. There is no doubt that chronic damp and mould damage human health, however, establishing causation in such cases is often far from clear cut. Expert witnesses provide the court and/or Coroner with the information required to reach a decision and, in cases where negligence is established, help prevent further tragic consequences linked to inadequate housing.
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