The answer is, very dangerous. Families across New Zealand have been reeling this week after hearing about little Emma-Lita Bourne. Emma-Lita died at Starship Hospital last year at the age of two. In the week before her death she was otherwise seemingly happy, healthy and going to kindy each day. She was loved very dearly by her mumma Latisha. Latisha’s little girl went from having a runny nose to having diarrhoea, vomiting blood, seizing and dying all in under 48 hours. The coroner’s report states that the conditions of the home likely contributed to Emma-Lita developing a bacterial abscess in her lungs that killed her over a shockingly brief period; her life was ended by a brain bleed. When she died her mum was at the same time dealing with the fact that one of her other children had rheumatic fever. As a parent of a 2 year old in a house that is covered externally in black mould which has had a significant negative impact on our health – mould we battle daily to eliminate – I could not help but be moved to tears for Emma-Lita’s mum Latisha. What she went through is a kind of suffering no parent should ever have to endure, what’s worse Emma-Lita’s death was entirely preventable. She’d informed housing New Zealand of the problems with the house and they essentially ignored her.
The report mentions nothing about mould, however mum Latisha said “there was mould on the walls and floor.” What is interesting is the World Health Organisation (WHO) specifically mentions a pneumonia-like illness and brain-bleeds as being a particular condition that arises from mould exposure along with a huge host of terrifying health complaints. The WHO also states that children are particularly susceptible to mould and its effects due to the way mould specifically attacks rapidly growing lung tissue. I cannot say that mould specifically killed Emma-Lita, as it was likely a combination of factors that made the house a hazard for a little person; however we have to look at the impact of mould and decide – when will mould be taken seriously? You see the thing about mould is, it’s an almost untouchable topic here and overseas. Mould was the cause of billion dollar lawsuits in the US and has become a heavily politicised issue since the leaky homes crisis that cost the industry in New Zealand about 11 billion dollars.
What is alarming is the degree to which the government and associated authorities downplay the significance of “mixed mould” exposure. When authorities talk about homes, they mainly talk about moisture – not mould. If they do approach mould they say things like “mould causes asthma, respiratory issues and occasionally other things.” Mould is painted as an irritant and little more. This is terribly misleading according to recent studies and educational material produced by the World Health Organisation. Most parents who see mould in their homes would be shocked to know that mycotoxins are so dangerous they can be refined and used as chemical warfare agents.
This is what the World Health Organisation (WHO) has to say on mould in literature produced to educate health professionals on the poorly understood issue of mycotoxins (the toxins produced by various moulds):
“Disease associated with exposure to mycotoxins is known as the “Great Masquerader” of the 21st century because of its complex natural history involving different tissues and resembling different diseases at each stage in its evolution. It can present with a variety of nonspecific clinical signs and symptoms such as rash, conjunctivitis, epistaxis, apnea, cough, wheezing, nausea, and vomiting. Some cases of vomiting illness, bone marrow failure, acute pulmonary hemorrhage, and recurrent apnea and/or “pneumonia” are associated with exposure to mycotoxins. Familiarity with the symptoms of exposure to the major classes of mycotoxins enables the clinician to ask pertinent questions about possible fungal exposures and to remove the infant or child from the source of exposure, which could be contaminated food(s), clothing and furniture, or the indoor air of the home. Failure to prevent recurrent exposure often results in recurrent illness. A variety of other conditions, including hepatocellular and esophageal cancer and neural tube defects, are associated with consumption of foods contaminated with mycotoxins. Awareness of the short- and long-term consequences of exposures to these natural toxins helps pediatricians to serve as better advocates for children and families. (Etzel RA).”3
Registered Nurse Michael Brenndorfer says: “I see so many little ones coming in to see the doctors because of illnesses of poverty and poor housing. We treat them, stabilise them, and then send them back into the same houses that contributed to their illnesses to begin with. It is heart breaking when we see them back with exactly the same problems, because we can’t write a prescription for better housing.”
And that’s not all, mould exposure was shown to triple the risk of low IQ in Polish children and it’s not just kids at risk; adults are also at risk from mould. Multiple studies have shown adults exhibited cognitive impairment in “multiple domains” that was similar to a “mild traumatic brain injury” along with depression. A study published by the Archives of Environmental Health concluded that exposure to moulds in water-damaged buildings increased the risk for development of neural autoantibodies, peripheral neuropathy, and neurophysiologic abnormalities in exposed individuals. Another study linking mould exposure and health showed impairment in susceptible individuals, including deficits in visiospacial learning, visiospacial memory, verbal learning and psychomotor speed, along with depression. Given this it is no surprise that mould exposure has been linked to developmental defects of babies while in utero; let’s not forget the risk of death.
The government have an obligation to adequately inform and educate the public based on information provided by the WHO, so that we can help ourselves. We have a right to an honest appraisal of mould from our health authorities; this means an honest attempt for them to make homes safe and published information on how to use our own resources to best protect our families. Education on this issue also helps us safeguard our own homes through our own efforts as well along with theirs, without access to this information, children remain at risk.
Whilst mould is a complicated scientific issue, it is clear a causal relationship can be established. Mould arrives in your body through various means, there is a certain amount on your food and will be a certain amount around your home at all times – normally it is not troubling – but when it overgrows it can cause a variety of health concerns. When it overgrows in an indoor environment you are not just breathing it, you’re eating it and drinking it too; it’s not usually an issue if you’re exposed to it once – the issue is exposure to a certain amount of mycotoxins over time that poses the most risk to health, along with other factors that support your susceptibility. What is even more irresponsible and shocking is that the National government claims climate change could offer some “benefits” to homes by making them “warmer” – which is a profoundly disturbing untruth. What they are intentionally ignoring is that the WHO claims climate change is going to be a big, upcoming risk to the health of children. In this regard climate change will foster conditions that result in overgrowth of mould in domestic homes and also in food crops worldwide. Mould will come to be a major expense to international food producers and specifically in the housing domain. The issue of mould on food crops has been well studied by academics.
There is a growing body of evidence stacking up against mould – particularly the black stuff that covers almost all of our homes in winter. Why won’t the government and associated agencies discuss mould transparently and why do their websites downplay the impact of mould? To understand why we have to look at the last decade of political activity on the topic:
The politics of mould issue is an enormous national and international issue and one that will become increasingly problematic if the World Health Organisation is correct about the climate change link. You see, mould has a massive cost to clean up and manage. It was the focus of billion dollar law suits in the US and huge law suits here because of the leaky building scandal. What happened was the building industry started using materials – such as glues – that provided ‘food’ for moulds to grow and this resulted in big-money law suits because of how many new buildings were subsequently destroyed. There were so many in fact that in the US in 2008 there was an attempt to prove that a causal relationship between mould and ill health could not be established.
“Four years ago, a key appellate court decision in Manhattan blocked millions of dollars in legal claims for damages for health effects of mold in buildings, saying that the scientific evidence that mold caused illness was in dispute. But a few weeks ago that conclusion was overturned by a split 3-2 decision by another five-judge panel in the same court that found that the scientific literature was now “indicative of a causal relationship.”
For a moment there in the US, the ability to be able to connect health issues and mould was almost blocked in order to diminish the impact of lawsuits. Thankfully this was overturned; however preventing legal action likely remains one of the biggest focuses of New Zealand’s building industry.
Level – an organisation in New Zealand developed by BRANZ group – is owned and directed by New Zealand’s building and construction industry. When Level instructs the industry on dealing with mould it is treated like a highly contaminated and dangerous area, and this is presumably to avoid dealing with employee lawsuits, pay-out recuperation by ACC and in order to ensure buildings are not overtaken by the stuff. What struck me was reading just how much effort goes into the personal protection of staff dealing with what Level call a “small area of mould.” Level absolutely know how dangerous it is. Landcare Research, the New Zealand Housing Commission and the Ministry of Health would have us believe that this stuff is low-key health risk to families living in it and our government expects people to live, sleep, breathe and eat in these homes.
But take a moment to read Level’s recommendations for ‘removing and cleaning up procedures for toxic moulds’:
- When toxic mould is found, it usually affects a significant area of the building and employing a specialist contractor to carry out the removal is recommended.
- For small areas, the mould may be removed provided the workers undertaking the removal follow these procedures:
- Seal off the space from other parts of the building by taping up all openings.
- Wear a respirator with a P1 filter (minimum protection).
- Wear protective clothing that is disposable or easily washable.
- Remove any materials from which the mould cannot be removed such as wallpaper, timber products, ceiling tiles, gypsum board, carpet, drapes and furniture (carpet that is contaminated may be difficult to clean completely).
- Place removed materials in plastic bags that can be sealed.
- For materials such as glass, plastic and metal from which the mould can be removed completely, clean the affected area using hot water and chlorine bleach, then rinse and allow to dry completely.
- Use a stiff brush on rough or uneven surfaces.
- On completion, thoroughly vacuum all surfaces of the sealed area using a vacuum with a fine particulate (HEPA) filter. Once this is done, the room seals can be removed.”
I realise that there are a huge amount of reasons the building industry have in order to keep new buildings free of mould, but a significant amount of this expensive and time-consuming effort is dedicated to protecting employees from mould that produces toxins. If you consider just how much money the building industry spend getting rid of this stuff, and how much money was tied up in the international legal actions on the issue of mould, it shows what a dangerous and expensive scourge it is, and the associated cost is one big motivation for all government agencies to avoid real-talk about mould.
Little Emma-Lita is far from the first precious child to die in New Zealand and this is far from the first time Housing New Zealand have been obtuse, indolent and almost totally denied any responsibility they have when it comes to mould. There are numerous media reports that I have linked to below, in fact, this issue has been ongoing. If they start taking responsibility they could have a hell of a costly issue on their hands. I mean, we live in a country where 2/3rds of the houses were built before 1977 when there was no requirement for insulation.
If the government remains inactive then we have to work together to ensure this doesn’t happen again. It’s time to start sharing our stories about mould. We need to make the connection between mould and health and take action, and we have to take on board the advice of international agencies such as the WHO. So I say, document your mould, document your family health, share your stories about mould in the comments or even start a community or street-based mould action group. If lawsuits are what the government and organisations fear the most – and the only thing determining their participation – we need to make them participate by demonstrating they do have a responsibility to people in government homes; we have to make them realise we have a right to proper public education on how to mitigate one of the big dangers of the household environment.
I think prosecution by community action groups is exactly what is needed, because whipping vulnerable people into a warm home after their child has died is nothing but a sickening bribe of silence. The government knows those houses are dangerous. They don’t care because of who it affects – poor people, brown people – and if they won’t care, we need to make them care.
- Spread the word
- Start a mould action group. Document your mould. Document your health issues
- Write to your MP, tell your friends, blog about it, make a noise
- Hold a community meeting, make contact with other communities
- Find out about taking legal action
- Have a community mould and dampness task force, pool resources, work on each other’s houses to fix the issues as best you can, first-thing’s-first, correct or remove structures that are causing wetness. Try to keep your home over 18 degrees and if lots of people have to sleep together in a room try to keep it both warm and ventilated (many people in a room will increase the condensation and moisture). In coming days I will post a second bog with links and practical information on things you can do to keep your family safe. Share information with your neighbours about mould control and the impact on health. Be wary of weird smells, check carpet, wooden structures, ceilings, furniture and more.
- Hold Housing New Zealand and the government to account for repairs
- Hold Housing New Zealand and the government accountable to educate and inform everyone on the major dangers of mycotoxins and bad housing
- Demand cheaper electricity. If families have to spend up to $80 a week to be dry in winter this high cost disproportionately effects low-income families
- Support Phil Twyford’s Health Homes Guarantee Bill (this is like a Warrant of Fitness for homes). You can sign the petition here
Bill English is against the idea. If you want to know who didn’t vote for the Healthy Homes Guarantee and who to personally email, have a read. Listed here are all of the MPs who voted against making homes safer for children. I’ve included a list of their email addresses here so you can copy-paste that into an email and tell them exactly what you think about the issue of mould:
In response to Emma-Lita’s death National has said they’ll make sure homes are a bit better, but so far they haven’t bothered to keep Housing New Zealand in line despite all of the previous issues so the issue of faith in the government is important here. Their response feel like an ongoing attempt to make it appear like they’re doing something when they are not committed enough. They’ve rejected attempts at making homes healthier by the Greens and Labour, and without a lot of public pressure I have little faith that we’ll get the kind of support our communities need because of the associated cost. This just feels like another tactic from National who have continually denied to admit the size of the problem. A bit of insulation is not gonna cut it. The New Zealand government needs to start talking frankly about the impact of mould and to ensure that all health providers understand the consequences of mould on family health. Mould is something doctors, midwives and nurses should be asking about; it’s something we should all be looking out for. We are a country particularly prone to mould and we should take our cues from the WHO.
An Invercargill mum in a toxic Housing New Zealand Home:
Another family in a Housing New Zealand house dealing with toxic mould:
Damp Homes & Dodgy Landlords:
Kids forced to learn in mouldy classrooms:
Both Housing New Zealand refuses to acknowledge the impact of mould, the Ministry of Health downplays the risk:
Housing New Zealand ignores and denies the significance of mould, Landcare Research downplays the impact of mould:
“2013 Landcare Research mould specialist Eric McKenzie said black mould had been linked to the deaths of some babies in the United States about 20 years ago.
While there was little evidence to support this, “there’s probably some truth to the sickness attributed to it”, he said.”
That is a very casual response given the amount of available evidence in 2013 around the impact of mycotoxins in homes. The WHO produced their report in 2011 and one of our foremost advisors on the issue is somehow ignorant of their concerns? Why is the Landcare Research mould specialist downplaying the risk?
Housing New Zealand sat on details of dangerous spores:
Baldo, J., Ahmad, L., & Ruff, R. (2002). Neuropsychological performance of patients following mold exposure. Applied Neuropsychology, 9(4), 193-202. doi: 10.1207/S15324826AN0904_1
Campbell, A., Thrasher, J., Madison, R., Vojdani, A., Gray, M., & Johnson, A. (2003). Neural autoantibodies and neurophysiologic abnormalities in patients exposed to molds in water-damaged buildings. Archives of Environmental Health, 58(8), 464-474. doi: 10.3200/AEOH.58.8.464-474
Crago, B., Gray, M., Nelson, L., Davis, M., Arnold, L., & Thrasher, J. (2003). Psychological, neuropsychological, and electrocortical effects of mixed mold exposure. Archives of Environmental Health, 58(8), 452-463. doi: 10.3200/AEOH.58.8.452-463
Etzel, R. A. (2006). What the primary care pediatrician should know about syndromes associated with exposures to mycotoxins. Current Problems in Pediatric and Adolescent Health Care, 36(8), 282-305. doi: 10.1016/j.cppeds.2006.05.003
Gordon, W., Cantor, J., Johanning, E., Charatz, J., Ashman, T., Breeze, J., …Abramowitz.S. (2004). Cognitive impairment associated with toxigenic fungal exposure; a replication and extension of previous findings. Applied Neuropsychology, 11(2), 65-74. doi: 10.1207/s15324826an1102_1
Kelman, B., Robbins, C., Swenson, L., & Hardin, B. (2004). Risk from inhaled mycotoxins in indoor office and residential environments. International Journal of Toxicology, 23(1), 3-10. doi: 10.1080/10915810490265423
Rankine, J. (2005). Housing and health in Auckland. Retrieved from Auckland Regional Public Health Service website: http://www.arphs.govt.nz/Portals/0/Health%20Information/HealthyEnvironments/HealthyHousing/HealthyHousing-FullReport2004.pdf
World Health Organisation. (2011). Mycotoxins: Children’s health and the environment. World Health Organisation training package for the health sector [PowerPoint slides]. Retrieved from www.who.int/ceh/capacity/mycotoxins.pdf