The cause of the billion dollar price tag for NZ's next big health epidemic: Leaky buildings and hidden mould

Dean Derwin's leaky Newlands home was demolished in 2016.
KEVIN STENT/FAIRFAX NZ

Dean Derwin's leaky Newlands home was demolished in 2016.

Dean Derwin is adamant his respiratory condition has been caused by his leaky home as experts warn that despite major changes to the building sector, leaky homes are still being built. 

He is one of a growing number of people with health problems that appear to be linked back to mouldy, damp homes built to shoddy standards.

Experts agree that leaky homes are still being built in New Zealand, and the health costs from them could reach into the billions – yet very little study has been done into the looming health crisis.

Professor Philippa Howden-Chapman, director at the He Kainga Oranga/Housing and Health Research Programme, has done ...
ROSS GIBLIN/FAIRFAX NZ

Professor Philippa Howden-Chapman, director at the He Kainga Oranga/Housing and Health Research Programme, has done extensive research into the link between damp homes with mould, and the illnesses associated with it.

Derwin's leaky home, in the Wellington suburb of Newlands, was demolished in 2016, marking the end of years of legal wrangling and the beginning of the businessman's return to health.

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Mould found inside a leaky home.
SUPPLIED

Mould found inside a leaky home.

Medical professionals were reluctant to directly link his sarcoidosis – described by the United States National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute as a "disease of unknown cause that leads to inflammation" – on his lungs to his leaky home.

Likewise, they couldn't conclusively say the five days in hospital with pneumonia was caused by the place he and his wife once called home.

But to Derwin, his sickness and associated stress were the direct result of the damp and mould.

From outside the building looks fine but peel back the cladding and the effects of leaky home syndrome are obvious.
SUPPLIED

From outside the building looks fine but peel back the cladding and the effects of leaky home syndrome are obvious.

New Zealand's leaky buildings, which have been widely attributed to lax building regulations and sub-standard materials, include schools, prisons, and government buildings, as well as an estimated 100,000 New Zealand homes.

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Thomas Wutzler, a registered building surveyor from Wellington company Helfen, said changes to the Building Code had gone a long way toward fixing the problems, but homes were still being built "that are leaking and need significant remediation".

"The consequences of not dealing with it are going to be bigger on health-related issues."

A builder was told to install a vent but when the leaky home was investigated the vent went to nothing more than a piece ...
SUPPLIED

A builder was told to install a vent but when the leaky home was investigated the vent went to nothing more than a piece of wood.

He knew of children who no longer used ventilators after moving out of mouldy homes, as well as a person who went through three operations before realising his problems were down to mould in his walls.

A considerable portion of the world's 300 million cases of childhood asthma can be attributed to the exposure of indoor dampness and mould, according to the World Health Organisation.

Sean Edwards, from Auckland University of Technology, who wrote a dissertation on the experience of living in leaky homes, said there needed to be more research into the problem.

This led to situations where doctors were reluctant to draw conclusions that a health problem was directly down to a leaky building as the evidence was anecdotal.

He said the financial cost of the problem was going to be "significant".

Director of the He Kainga Oranga/Housing and Health Research Programme at Otago University in Wellington Professor Philippa Howden-Chapman said there were no health studies carried out about the impacts of leaky buildings, but her group had done a lot of work on the subject of damp homes with mould.

"We seem to find it difficult to make old or new buildings dry.

"The worse the damp and mould is, the worse the health effects are."

Howden-Chapman said the health cost of leaky buildings was estimated to be equal to the cost of the Christchurch earthquake.

"This is a serious issue that we're unable to resolve because it remains one of those things that governments don't want to touch."

Wutzler said two types of mould – stachbotrys and penicillium/aspergillus – were often a danger to people's health.

The full cost of the leaky building saga, sometimes estimated at $11 billion, was probably much higher than that – while the ongoing health costs were expected to be higher still.

A literature review into the air quality of New Zealand homes and schools, released in January, found about six percent of housing stock - around 100,000 houses were leaky.

The BRANZ review also found there were many leaky schools.

In was concluded in the report that "numerous New Zealanders have had their health negatively impacted by this massive failure."

One of the authors of the review, Massey construction Professor Robyn Phipps, said the leaky building saga had forced some positive changes to building rules, but agreed that there were still buildings being built that would leak.

She pointed to the fact that most local authorities did not make eaves on new buildings mandatory. This meant owners had to rely on a sealant in the hope that it would keep water out. 

A spokesperson for the Ministry of Business, Innovation & Employment said "changes made to the Building Code in the mid-2000s introduced stronger requirements for the design of residential buildings to ensure they are weathertight".

MINISTRY OF HEALTH APPROACH:

While the Ministry of Health has not done any work looking specifically at the health effects of leaky buildings, it has done a lot of related work on how the health of homes relates to human health. This includes its Rheumatic Fever Prevention Programme in 11 health boards. This targets families with children at risk of getting rheumatic fever who are living in crowded households. This was expanded in last year's budget with a $18 million boost over four years, to broaden it to also look at warm, dry, healthy housing for vulnerable newborns to five-year-old children. It also has a "Keeping Kids Healthy" strategy to reduce hospital admissions for children with respiratory conditions.

 - Sunday Star Times

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