The tragic death of Awaab Ishak, the toddler who died in 2020 from the effects of mould in his family’s Rochdale home, has put the effects of damp and mould in the public spotlight.
The UK has some of the oldest and draughtiest housing stock in Europe and that creates ideal conditions for damp and mould. Almost a million households are living with the issue in their homes, according to the English Housing Survey.
That has huge impacts on health. Research from ITV found last year that the NHS spends £38m treating people for the effects of damp and mould.
It also contributed heavily to the Public Accounts Committee’s assessment that the conditions in private rented homes cost the NHS an estimated £340m a year.
But it speaks volumes that when the Housing Ombudsman investigated damp and mould last year it titled the report ‘It’s not lifestyle’. The watchdog said blaming tenants should be “banished from the vernacular of landlords when discussing damp and mould”.
What is damp and mould?
Damp and mould is caused by a buildup of moisture.There are a few reasons why it might happen: some are as a result of how people live in their homes, others are down to faults with the property.
Condensation can lead to moisture settling on surfaces. It happens when steam or moisture hits a cold surface, for example, if you have a hot shower and the steam is not ventilated properly the moisture can settle and lead to mould on the walls.
This issue can become worse in winter when people are less likely to open windows while showering or drying clothes due to cold temperatures. However, poor insulation and a lack of proper ventilation can be a cause too, while poor heating can lead to cold temperatures where mould and damp can thrive.
It might be easy to see the cause of condensation but it can be trickier to see where penetrating damp or rising damp is coming from.
Penetrating damp occurs when water leaks through walls or roofs while rising damp means parts of the building are absorbing moisture, whether it be the bricks on the property’s exterior or the concrete in the building’s foundations.
What happened to Awaab Ishak?
Awaab Ishak lived in a house infested with damp and mould in Rochdale when he died in December 2020 at the age of two. An inquest into his death in November 2022 found prolonged exposure to the damp and mould in his home contributed to the toddler’s death.
Awaab’s family had complained to landlord Rochdale Boroughwide Housing (RBH) several times before his death and the case put the effects of damp and mould in the public spotlight.
The response to the two-year-old’s death has seen the government formally adopt Awaab’s Law as part of its Social Housing Regulation Bill. The legislation will force social housing landlords to investigate and fix damp and mould in their properties within specified timeframes.
The regulator found tenants were often blamed for problems within their homes, with the landlord using lifestyle and cultural barriers as key reasons for issues arising.
The ombudsman said it had found evidence of maladministration in 10 out of 15 of the cases against RBH it had investigated between 2019 and 2023, with three findings classed as severe.
One of the cases identified by the ombudsman saw an RBH resident complain her young son had developed chest problems due to suspected damp and mould in her home, much like the situation with Awaab.
Meanwhile, the residents who moved into the property where Awaab and his family lived also twice reported problems with leaks at the flat and had reported mould problems in March 2022 – 15 months after the toddler died there.
“Our investigation found reoccurring instances of residents being treated in dismissive, inappropriate or unsympathetic ways. In some instances, the language used was derogatory.
“It is highly unlikely that this endemic behaviour of ‘othering’ is isolated to a single landlord and the social housing sector should consider whether they also need to turn over the stone and do a deep dive into their culture and whether they are living their social purpose.”
How many homes have damp and mould?
The full extent of how many homes are affected by damp and mould is unclear.
The Regulator of Social Housing (RSH) said its ‘best estimate’ showed between three and four per cent of the four million social homes in England have at least some notable damp and mould. That amounts to between 120,000 and 160,000 homes.
The RSH said fewer than 0.2 per cent of social homes – around 8,000 homes – have the most serious damp and mould problems while between 1 and 2 per cent – between 40,000 and 80,000 homes – have serious damp and mould in the property. But the regulator admitted that the full picture is incomplete, meaning the figures are likely an underestimate.
The Housing Ombudsman saw a 77 per cent increase in the number of enquiries and complaints relating to damp, mould and leaks between 2020/21 and 2021/22 – up from 1,993 enquiries and complaints to 3,530. More households have already been in contact with the ombudsman in 2022/23 with 3,963 enquiries and complaints as of December 2022.
The most recent English Housing Survey found private rented homes were more likely to have damp and than other tenures. The survey, which took place across 2021 and 2022 and used modelling due to Covid restrictions, found 11 per cent of private rented homes had dampness compared to 4 per cent of social rented homes and 2 per cent of owner occupied homes.
Almost half of England’s private renters are struggling with either damp, mould or excessive cold in their properties, according to Citizens Advice. That means 2.7 million households are living with at least one issue, including 1.6 million children.
Part of the problem is the number of homes in the sector that are energy inefficient. Tenants living in homes with an Energy Performance Certificate (EPC) rating of D-G are 73 per cent more likely to be living with damp than those living in an EPC rating A-C property.
Poor insulation and damp homes cause renters to pay an extra £350 a year on heating with that rising to an extra £950 for those in the least efficient properties. Once energy bills rise in April, that £950 will become £1,190 more a year, Citizens Advice warned.
Around 40 per cent of renters told the advice charity they have felt stressed as a result of damp and mould and excessive cold while 36 per cent said it made them feel anxious.
Gillian Cooper, head of energy policy at Citizens Advice, has called for the changes made for social housing tenants as part of Awaab’s Law to be extended to private renters
“Improving energy efficiency in privately rented homes has never been more urgent. It’s the step needed to keep people’s essential bills low, while also helping to protect their mental and physical health,” said Cooper.
The number of homes affected is even harder to determine in Scotland and Wales.
Freedom of information requests submitted by the Sunday Post revealed 22 Scottish councils received 14,451 reports of mould or dampness in 2021/22 – 19 per cent higher than the previous year.
As for Wales, the most recent Welsh Housing Conditions Survey report was published in 2020 and revealed 7 per cent of Welsh homes had damp with private rented dwellings most likely to suffer from the issue.
Can you get ill from mould and damp?
Yes, damp and mould can pose a danger to health.
NHS advice warns that people living in mouldy and damp homes are more likely to have respiratory problems and infections as well as suffer from asthma and allergies, while the issue can also affect the immune system.
Babies, children and older people are particularly vulnerable, as are those with existing skin and respiratory conditions or a weakened immune system.
Sarah Woolnough, chief executive at charity Asthma + Lung UK, said: “Exposure to mould and damp can be very harmful to our lungs, as mould releases spores that can be breathed in, causing symptoms like coughing, wheezing, sneezing or watery eyes. Mould and fungi are a major trigger for asthma attacks and can worsen symptoms for those with other lung conditions, leave them fighting for breath. Babies, small children, older people and people with allergies are more likely to be affected.
“There is a link between poor housing and asthma, because of things like mould and damp. Mould and damp in houses are worse when temperatures drop in the winter, and cold and flu viruses, which can cause respiratory infections, can also thrive in colder temperatures and poorly ventilated, damp environments.
“Asthma + Lung UK is warning people, particularly those with lung conditions, to be vigilant against mould and damp, including keeping your home well ventilated.”
How do you get rid of damp and mould?
It’s best to deal with damp and mould quickly before the problem has a chance to get worse.
For tenants, any issues with damp and mould should be reported to landlords or property managers and contacting the local authority’s environmental health department for a housing assessment should also be an initial course of action.
If it’s possible to track the cause of the mould and it’s not over a huge area – Asthma + Lung UK recommends less than a square metre – it may be the case that the mould can be dealt with immediately. If it doesn’t cause any breathing or asthma problems, it may be possible to wipe off the mould.
However if the mould has been in place for some time or is over an area of more than a square metre, it might not be possible to deal with the issue without the help of a mould removal specialist.
What can you do to prevent damp and mould?
Prevention is better than having to deal with removing damp and mould – it can be difficult to fix if it’s hard to trace the source of the problem.
Ventilation expert Professor Cath Noakes recommends looking for obvious leaks outdoors, for example, problems with guttering that mean liquids are running down walls.
The University of Leeds academic also said shorter showers, removing condensation from windows in the morning and opening windows intermittently during warmer days can help to prevent moisture build-up.
“Some materials are more prone to moisture damage than others,” said Prof Noakes. “Tiled surfaces tend to cope while soft furnishing wallpaper suffers. Try to keep moisture generation to rooms that cope better, and try to keep furniture away from cold external walls”
A dehumidifier may also help if moisture is a real issue, Prof Noakes added.
Asthma + Lung UK has five top tips to prevent damp and mould building up:
Open windows and doors (but be mindful of high pollen or pollution days)
Try to avoid drying clothes indoors, but open a window if you have no other option
Use extractor fans in the kitchen and bathroom or open a window when cooking or showering
Close the door of the room you’re in when cooking or showering to prevent condensation in other rooms
Keep rooms at a minimum of 15 degrees to ensure they don’t get too cold
Asthma + Lung has a UK helpline available on 0300 222 5800 from Monday to Friday, 9am to 5pm for advice and support on how to tackle the issue.
What rights do tenants have if they live in a home with damp and mould?
It’s the responsibility of the landlord to make sure homes are “fit for human habitation”.
That means landlords should keep homes safe, healthy and free from things that can cause serious harm. It is up to the landlord to fix any problems with the property that may make it unsafe as quickly as possible. That includes tackling damp and mould or anything that could cause it such as leaks or problems with heating.
The responsibility for private landlords, local councils and housing associations in England to ensure homes are suitable comes from the Homes (Fitness for Human Habitation) Act, which came into force in March 2019.
It sets out how tenants can take their landlords to court to carry out repairs or put health and safety problems right if they refuse to do so. Courts can also make landlords pay compensation to tenants through the act.
For council and housing association tenants, the advice is to follow the complaints process for the housing provider and to escalate the complaint to the Housing Ombudsman if it is not dealt with adequately.
In Scotland, it’s the landlord’s responsibility to ensure homes meet the tolerable standard – a basic level of repair to make it fit to live in that covers damp as well as ventilation and a number of other factors.
If a landlord fails to hit that standard and refuses to carry out repair work then a tenant can report them to the Housing and Property Chamber. A tribunal at the chamber will look at the property and decide whether repairs need to be carried out.
Landlords in Wales are also responsible for repairs and that includes tackling damp and mould. Tenants can contact councils’ environmental health department if a landlord doesn’t fix the damp problem.
The Renting Homes (Wales) Act 2016 came into force on December 1 2022. This means renters will be given an occupation contract by landlords setting out their requirement to make the home fit for human habitation.