A two-year-old boy’s death was caused by “extensive” mould in his family’s flat, a coroner has concluded in a case that should be “a defining moment” for the housing sector.
Awaab Ishak died shortly after his second birthday in December 2020.
Joanne Kearsley, the coroner, found that he “died as a result of a severe respiratory condition caused due to prolonged exposure to mould in his home environment” and “action to treat and prevent the mould was not taken”.
Describing the property, which was owned and managed by Rochdale Boroughwide Housing, the coroner said it “was not equipped for normal day-to-day living activities, which led to excess damp and condensation”.
She concluded the hearing at Rochdale Coroners Court by asking: “How does this happen? How in the UK in 2020 does a two-year-old child die due to exposure to mould?
“This issue is not simply a Rochdale problem, nor is damp and mould simply a social housing problem, it is a significant issue in private sector too.
“There is little doubt that the tragic death of Awaab Ishak will and should be a defining moment for the housing sector.”
After the hearing, his family described how the toddler’s coughing fits would sometimes last up to three days and they felt “trapped, anxious and fearful of what the mould was doing” to him.
“We cannot tell you how many health professionals we’ve cried in front of and Rochdale Boroughwide Housing staff we have pleaded to, expressing concern for the conditions ourselves and Awaab have been living in,” they said.
“We shouted out as loudly as we could, but despite making all of those efforts, every night we would be coming back to the same problem. We don’t feel Rochdale Boroughwide Housing actually cared about us.”
Family accusations of racism
The family accused the housing association of racism, saying they have “no doubt at all” they were “treated in this way because we are not from this country”.
“Rochdale Boroughwide Housing 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,” they said.
Gareth Swarbrick, chief executive of the housing association, said he is “truly devastated about Awaab’s death and the things we got wrong”.
“We didn’t recognise the level of risk to a little boy’s health from the mould in the family’s home. We allowed a legal disrepair process, widely used in the housing sector, to get in the way of promptly tackling the mould.
“We must make sure this can never happen again.”
Addressing racism accusations, he added: “As a community owned organisation we support the diverse communities of Rochdale. We are proud of the work we do with all our tenants.”
However Michael Gove, the housing secretary, has said it “beggars belief” Mr Swarbrick is still in a job – and has summoned him to his department for a meeting.
Speaking to broadcasters on Tuesday evening, he accused the chief executive, who he claimed was earning “north of £150,000”, of “hiding behind procedure”.
“Honestly, it beggars belief that this guy is still in office. He is coming here in order to explain to me why it was that this tragedy was allowed to happen,” he said.
Fungi found in lungs and blood
Awaab was rushed to hospital on 19 December 2020 after struggling to breathe but was discharged the following morning, the coroner was told.
He returned the next day and died after suffering a cardiac arrest brought on by respiratory failure.
His throat, windpipe and other airways were so swollen and congested that breathing would have been made difficult, Dr Phillip Lumb, who carried out the post-mortem examination, said.
Fungus was found in his blood and lungs, with such severe inflammation suggesting an allergic reaction to it, he said.
He gave the cause of death as “environmental mould pollution”.
Professor Malcolm Richardson, a mould and fungi expert, supported these findings, saying there had been “extensive mould” on the walls and ceilings of the kitchen, bathroom and bedroom for “some considerable time”.
‘Happy, smiley baby’
Awaab’s father Faisal Abdullah arrived in the UK as an asylum seeker from Sudan in July 2015 before his wife Aisha Amin joined him in February 2018.
Awaab was born prematurely and suffered repeated bouts of colds and viral respiratory infections in his short life, but he was otherwise healthy, the hearing was told.
His first health visitor described him as a “happy, smiley baby”.
Mr Abdullah moved to the flat, on Rochdale’s Freehold estate, in August 2016.
He noticed “black dots” of mould in the kitchen in October 2017 and was told to “paint over it” by property managers.
It had returned by October 2018 and by May 2019 Mr Abdullah was making frequent complaints and had asked to move home, the coroner was told.
Mother said ‘disgusting’ flat made her feel sad
Giving evidence, his wife said: “When anyone came to the flat they said it was disgusting and I felt sad about it. I would rather visit my friends than have people visit the flat.”
Mr Abdullah pursued legal action and his case was picked up by Anthony Hodari Solicitors in June 2020.
The housing association said that despite complaints it was its policy not to do work to a property that was subject to a legal complaint until it had been approved by solicitors.
Daniel McVey, a surveyor at Rochdale Council, who visited the flat, said it was “unfit for human habitation”.
Greater Manchester Police also told the inquest several properties on the same estate had damp and mould, but they did not meet the evidence threshold for criminal proceedings against the housing association for gross negligence manslaughter or corporate manslaughter.
Asked to describe conditions across social housing, Prof Richardson said that half of properties suffer mould and that the overall situation was “dire”.
The coroner concluded: “I find as a matter of fact that the development of Awaab’s severe respiratory condition, which led to him going into respiratory arrest, was entirely due to the prolonged exposure he had to mould in his home environment.”
She said she would write to Steve Barclay, the health secretary, and Lucy Frazer, the housing minister, to raise the issue and help prevent similar deaths.
In the House of Commons later on Tuesday, the family’s Labour MP Sir Tony Lloyd called on the appropriate ministers to act on the coroner’s findings.
Lack of government funding ‘no excuse’
Mr Gove said that local authorities and housing associations have a “basic responsibility” to ensure people have “decent homes”.
He said they could not blame a lack of government funding for the death of the two-year-old, which he called an “unacceptable tragedy”.
“We all know that local authorities are facing challenging times when it comes to finance but, frankly, that is no excuse,” Mr Gove said.
“When you have got a situation where you have a young child in a house that is unfit for human habitation, it is a basic responsibility of the local authority – but particularly the housing association – to make sure that people are in decent homes.
“All this what-aboutery, all this ‘Oh, if only we had more government money’ – do your job, man.”
Shortly after Mr Gove’s comments, Mr Swarbrick, the chief executive of RBH, said: “I can confirm I have received a letter from the secretary of state for levelling up, housing and communities today and will meet to discuss his concerns at the earliest opportunity.”
Source : BBC News