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Rain and floods spark black mould warning as victims beg for national standard

Wed, 19 Jan 2022 20:00:08

When Dale Smith moved his family into their new home in Geelong in 2016, it was supposed to be the start of an exciting journey. 

The house had only just been built — a "dream home" fit for the large family.

But just weeks later, a destructive deluge hit the region at the end of January and the home was flooded.

Across the coastal city, cars became submerged and dozens of homes were inundated with water.

"Our home had about … 500ml running through the site," Mr Smith recalled.

"Our house was what our insurance company called 'remediated', and it was handed back over to us."

Five months later when Mr Smith's children and his wife began experiencing various degrees of illness that led to a trip to a hospital, doctors knew something was wrong.

His youngest child was just 12 months old.

"Three of my kids started to present with pneumonia-like symptoms, and my wife developed shingles … all at the same time," he said.

Mr Smith, the director of environmental and occupational hygiene company SCAADA Environmental Consultant Services, was determined to find the cause of his family's illnesses.

"I opened the re-investigation into the house myself … there was 8,000 times the international standard of mould spores located within our ducted-heating vents.

"And underneath our sub-floor we had around 40,000 times greater than what the international standard for mould should be.

"I moved my family out of the house and we never returned."

There are fears the recent spate of wet weather could be worsening the mould issue in parts of Australia — creating extra concern for the health of people with vulnerable respiratory systems during the pandemic.

According to a 2018 federal government report on an inquiry into biotoxin-related illness in Australia, the prevalence of indoor dampness may affect between 10 and 50 per cent of indoor environments across the nation.

Dampness can feed a mould spore, creating a wet environment for it to thrive in.

Call for laws to protect homebuyers, tenants 

Mr Smith is calling for Australia to create its own national mould standard, to measure appropriate levels in houses and to ensure renters and home owners alike can stay safe and healthy.

"My youngest had about the next two years of health issues, respiratory issues, and my wife continues to have issues with shingles," Mr Smith said.

"We're trying to judge ourselves against something that doesn't exist … So, to hold someone to account when they don't do it properly is near-on impossible."

Australia has seen flooding and wet summer weather in recent weeks, prompting the environmental scientist to issue a warning.

"We see so regularly … it's an issue for renters," Mr Smith said.

"Real estate agents sometimes just paint over the top of the mould, or they scrub it, so you can't see it."

A 2018 Tenants Victoria Biotoxin Inquiry report notes that mould "is an extremely common issue faced by tenants, be it in private or public housing" — however, there are no laws to address the problem.

Tenants Victoria has long argued that legislated minimum health, safety and energy efficiency standards for rental properties in the state's Residential Tenancies Act 1997 (RTA) would address many of the issues faced by tenants.

It says these standards should include the prevention of mould formation such as insulation, adequate ventilation, heating and cooling.

Minimum standards have already been established in Tasmania.

COVID sparks extra fears for vulnerable

A Bacchus Marsh-based industrial services company, GMA, has seen an increase of black mould reports in recent weeks.

General manager Gary Williams said it was a particular concern during the pandemic.

"Obviously we are in this extraordinary time of COVID-19 and respiratory infections are one of the things that may make someone more susceptible to the toxins produced by mould," he said.

Mr Williams said evidence showed that the elderly and vulnerable were more susceptible to illnesses created by mould toxins.

"Typically, black mould has a black and splotchy appearance — it tends to have a musty odour," he said.

The signs of black mould illness included "coughing, dry skin, itchy eyes, nose and throat, or just a runny nose and sneezing — flu-like symptoms".

Fighting for awareness and change

Victoria University built environment lecturer Dr Tim Law was one of the experts invited to give public testimony at the Biotoxin Inquiry.

"The purpose of the Biotoxin Inquiry was really to raise awareness about mould," he said.

Dr Law recently completed a research project entitled 'Scoping study on the nature and extent of moisture damage in houses & apartments in Victoria'.

"I think it is more common than we would like to acknowledge," Dr Law said.

"It actually became more common … when we put in energy-efficient standards in buildings…"

"It's not that you can't be energy efficient – it's just that often the cheapest way to be energy efficient is not the healthiest way."

Dr Law says illnesses from Stachybotrys chartarum, black mould, "really [are] the stuff of nightmares".

"The colour isn't that important — it's about the genus and species … and they can actually change colour through time," Dr Law said.

"[Black mould biotoxin] has a higher toxicity than mustard gas. It can make a variety of illnesses.

"Under Victoria's residency laws … homes need to be so-called 'mould free' … I don't like the phrase 'mould free.

"One of the best legislations is in Canada … they say the house should be 'free from mould that is visible or concealed'."

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