Sitting on the bed of a local hotel at the end of last year, I did something I hadn’t done in years – breathed freely.
After more than a decade living in a London flat caked in thick, black mould, I’d almost forgotten the feeling of taking a deep breath and my lungs fully expanding.
I had reached the stage where I’d lost control of my asthma, and my chest was tight every single day and night. Moving into the hotel even temporarily just restated what I already knew: that my home was putting me and my four children in grave danger.
Having one asthma attack is a terrifying experience. Having them nearly every day is nothing short of a living hell. I truly thank God that I am still alive, because there were days during lockdown where I felt like I was dying – I had to teach my children how to ring for an ambulance, in case I got too sick to call one myself.
My 12-year-old son regularly complained of chest pains; my other son would wake up with his eyes stuck closed shut and red.
My children have had to take time off of school because they weren’t feeling well. When they attended, it was embarrassing for them because their uniforms would smell of mould.
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My daughter even told her teacher that she didn’t want to leave school because she didn’t want to be in the flat – it hurts me more than words can say.
The problems with mould in my flat, maintained and managed by my local council, have been going on for about 10 years. Despite my asthma being well-controlled since I was a child, my lung health took a very dramatic turn for the worse during the Covid-19 lockdown months.
As well as myself, my children, aged 14, 12, seven and six, had to stay indoors for almost 24 hours a day, breathing in mould spores.
I felt like I was breathing in poison. I was gasping for breath at night time. My nose was constantly blocked and there was rarely a day that went by that I didn’t find myself clutching my chest, gasping for breath. Thankfully, none of us caught Covid – it could have been even worse.
I wish I could up and leave my flat, but it’s easier said than done – it’s hard to find the money to cover the moving costs, and to leave my support system
Mould is dangerous because it produces allergens and irritants that can cause coughing, wheezing, sneezing and watery eyes. Mould is also a major trigger for many people living with asthma, like me, with 27% of children and 49% of adults surveyed by Asthma + Lung UK reporting that damp and mould trigger their asthma, putting them at risk of life-threatening asthma attacks.
With the cost-of-living crisis making it more difficult for people to keep their homes warm, even more people may be forced to live in mouldy, damp homes that could damage their lungs.
But in my experience trying to get my council to take this issue seriously has been like pulling teeth.
After years of living in nightmare conditions, we were moved into a hotel a few months ago, funded by the council while they carried out a much-needed refurbishment. It wasn’t ideal – we were living on top of each other, and away from the friends and family we love. But at least we could breathe – the kids were so thankful.
I want to believe that this round of maintenance work fixed the mould once and for all, and that my children and I can move past the nightmare of the last few years.
But I’ve been in this position before, in the same flat and feeling hopeful for the future after work has been done, and then the mould has grown back, worse than before.
I wish I could up and leave my flat, but it’s easier said than done – it’s hard to find the money to cover the moving costs, and to leave my support system and local community.
More than anything, I worry about the impact this is having on my children’s health.
That’s why my heart sank to my stomach when I heard the news of Awaab Ishak, a two-year-old toddler who died of respiratory failure after growing up in a mouldy flat.
It is tragic and so, so unfair that such a young life was cut short.
I know how it feels to live and breathe in mould, day in, day out – the only difference between Awaab and I is that I am alive to tell the story.
And that’s what I want to do, to warn people about the dangers of mould because mould can and does kill in extreme cases. This issue needs to be taken more seriously by local councils.
Asthma + Lung UK is the lung health charity fighting for everyone’s right to breathe. For information and support visit asthmaandlung.org.uk or call the helpline on 0300 222 5800.
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