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Housing

Toddler’s death from mould exposure in home is an ‘absolute disgrace’

Two-year-old Awaab Ishak died due to exposure to mould at his home in Rochdale, a coroner ruled on Tuesday. Activist Kwajo Tweneboa said the case is sadly a “damning indictment” of the state of social housing

Leading housing campaigner Kwajo Tweneboa has said the tragic death of a toddler in a mouldy flat is an “absolute disgrace” and called for urgent change for social housing tenants.

Two-year-old Awaab Ishak died in December 2020 from prolonged exposure to mould at his family’s home in Rochdale, Greater Manchester, an inquest into his death concluded on Tuesday.

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Coroner Joanne Kearsley said the case “should be a defining moment for the housing sector”. The state of social housing has been under the spotlight in the last 18 months following campaigning from activist Tweneboa.

Following the verdict, Tweneboa told The Big Issue: “This story of Awaab is a damning indictment of the current state of social housing in this country. The level of neglect it is receiving and the way in which tenants are treated and ignored.

“More than five years on from Grenfell, it’s an absolute disgrace that another innocent little boy has lost his life at the hands of neglect by their social landlord.

“It happens time and time again. He is just one of many across the country who has suffered in inhumane conditions and unfortunately he has paid the ultimate price. To the housing provider it’s a learning experience but to his parents they have lost their son.”

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Rochdale toddler death Ayaab Ishak
Awaab Ishak died not long after his second birthday in December 2020. Image: Family handout

The mould in the one-bedroom flat meant Awaab’s coughing fits would last two to three days, the inquest heard. His parents, Faisal Abdullah and Aisha Amin, said they felt “absolutely trapped” by the situation – unable to take their son outside due to the fits but knowing keeping him indoors was harming his health.

Awaab’s family told the coroner they were “anxious and fearful” about the impact the mould was having on the toddler’s health.

The family complained several times to Rochdale Boroughwide Housing (RBH) between July and December 2020 about the state of their home. RBH said a legal disrepair process prevented them from carrying out repairs.

The toddler went into respiratory arrest the day before his death but was later discharged from hospital, the coroner was reportedly told. He later died after suffering a cardiac arrest.

Kearsley recorded a narrative verdict, citing the cause as environmental mould exposure. She also said she would be writing to housing and health ministers about her findings and also called for the government’s Decent Homes Standard to be strengthened to include damp and mould. Kearsley said: “How in the UK in 2020 does a two-year-old child die as a result of exposure to mould?”

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Following the hearing, a statement from the family, read by family solicitor Kelly Darlington said they “didn’t feel RBH actually cared about us”  and that their treatment left them feeling “absolutely worthless”.

The family added: “We still cannot get our head around the fact that, despite all the complaints we made to Rochdale Boroughwide Housing in addition to the information RBH received from an NHS member of staff expressing their concern for Awaab due to the mould at the property, they did absolutely nothing to rectify the severe mould in our property.”

The family, originally from Sudan, also accused RBH of discriminating against the family because they did not come from the UK. The family added: “RBH we have a message for you. Stop discriminating, stop being racist, stop providing unfair treatment to people coming from abroad who are refugees or asylum seekers, stop housing people in homes you know are unfit for human habitation.”

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Racial equality charity Runnymede Trust echoed the family’s concerns, describing Awaab’s death as a “heart-breaking, totally avoidable loss”. The charity added: “Substandard social housing is dangerous, and acute. It is not a coincidence that this is where over half of Black people live in the UK.”

In response RBH chief executive Gareth Swarbrick said the case “needs to be a wake-up call”.

“I am truly devastated about Awaab’s death and the things we got wrong. We know that nothing we can say will bring Awaab back or be of any consolation to his family. We have and will continue to learn hard lessons from this,” said Swarbrick.

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“We must make sure this can never happen again. Awaab’s death needs to be a wake-up call for everyone in housing, social care and health. We agree with the coroner that the tragic death of Awaab will be and should be a defining moment for the housing sector.”

Housing secretary Michael Gove has summoned Swarbrick to explain how the tragedy was allowed to happen.

Gove, who is introducing the Social Housing Regulation Bill to improve social housing standards, said: “It’s already the case that this tragedy has shone a light on what needs to change in social housing.

He added: “This tragedy should never have occurred. There is no way that a young child being brought up in a home with damp and mould of this kind can be considered to be in a decent home. 

“It’s already the case that the standards that the housing association should have upheld have been breached and that’s why I’ve asked the guy in charge to come to this department to explain himself because this is simply an unacceptable tragedy.”

Poor housing can have a huge impact on the NHS – earlier this year the Public Accounts Committee found conditions in the private rented sector cost the NHS an estimated £340 million every year.

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