Health risks lurk in post-quake homes

OLIVIA CARVILLE
Last updated 05:00 27/04/2013
Shelley Johnston
JOHN KIRK ANDERSON/ Fairfax NZ
HOUSE SICK: Shelley Johnston and children Marshall and Sia are often getting sick.
Kendra Street
JOHN KIRK ANDERSON/ Fairfax NZ
WINTER IN HELL: Kendra Street and son Luke, 4, are in for another cold, miserable winter.
Samantha Smith
DEAN KOZANIC/ Fairfax
PARALYSED: Samantha Smith was wrongly diagnosed with MS after earthquake related stress made her freeze in public.

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In the past week The Press has spoken to several TC3 residents about their plight and their associated health issues.

Those health problems span from colds, tummy bugs and rashes to panic attacks, hair loss and paralytic episodes.

Canterbury District Health Board (CDHB) medical officer of health Dr Alistair Humphrey said it was internationally documented that cold, damp homes have ‘‘an actual physical effect on your health’’.

It is also well-understood that ntsGphysical health overlaps with mental health and that ‘‘people living in a stressful environment often present with physical manifestations’’.

‘‘Uncertainty is anxiety-inducing and cold winters in cold homes can genuinely cause real physical problems,’’ Humphrey said.

Physical health issues usually start once the temperature inside a house drops below 16 degrees Celsius.

People suffering from stress or anxiety felt pain easier and Humphrey said TC3 residents who were ‘‘stressed out because of insurance or EQC difficulties would feel more pain’’.

The physical manifestations of stress can lead to psoriasis, which is an immune-mediated disease that affects the skin and can lead to a ‘‘whole collection of illnesses’’, he said.

Humphrey said the Earthquake Commission (EQC) had assured him Cantabrians with health issues would have their claims prioritised.

He urged TC3 residents suffering serious health problems to seek medical advice and ask their GP to contact the EQC.

The CDHB Allright? wellbeing survey also indicated a link between living in a TC3 home and feeling stressed, tired, anxious and insecure, public health specialist Dr Lucy D’Aeth said.

Of the 800 Cantabrians surveyed, 10 per cent lived in TC3 homes and said they were uncertain about the future and had difficulty concentrating.

‘‘Given the importance of home ownership within the Kiwi psyche, prolonged uncertainty about our homes, damage and resale values will inevitably take its toll on people’s mental health,’’ D’Aeth said.

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ANOTHER WINTER IN A HAZARDOUS HOME

Shelley Johnston suffered a  panic attack when she opened a letter from her insurance company saying her TC3 home would be a repair.

It was the ‘‘straw that broke the camel’s back’’ for the 33-year-old mother-of-two who has seen her family’s health deteriorate over the past two years.

Her 5-year-old son Marshall caught pneumonia last year and mould grows faster than she can clean it off her 2-year-old daughter’s bedroom windows.

Her husband, Mike, used to be immune to illness but ‘‘always gets sick now’’.

The whole family have been hit with colds and tummy bugs and for Johnston, the stress piled up until she hit breaking point last year.

She started hyperventilating and crying after reading a letter from her insurance company saying her house would be under cap.

‘‘I just burst into tears and thought I can’t handle this any more. And I couldn’t stop crying.’’

Mike Johnston had to come home from work to look after the children while Johnston’s mother took her to the doctor, who prescribed her with nte sleeping pills and advised her to see a counsellor.

When she returned home, her husband, who is a builder, told her the letter had incorrectly listed the size of the house, its roof materials, its number of rooms and completely excluded the massive damage to the foundations.

The house has since been pushed over cap and the rebuild is scheduled for 2016.

Johnston, who is a swim teacher, said she used to be positive and friendly but was now on anti-depressants.

She attended her first  protest alongside other frustrated TC3 residents and feels like ‘‘I have failed my children because I can’t do anything to keep them safe’’.

There are cracks in every room of the house, most of the window-sills have broken, the property floods with the lightest rain and the toilet exploded three times last year, firing raw sewage down the hallway.

She pasted bubble-wrap over the bathroom windows last winter to try and prevent mould and fears she will have to do the same to the children’s bedrooms this year.

‘‘I am ready for it all to be over. By 2016 we would have had to do six winters in a broken house with young children. We are doing the best we can, but there is not enough you can do to protect them.’

TWO MORE 'WINTERS IN HELL'

Rain leaks into the living room, the carpet is growing mould, the hallway gets as cold as 8 degrees Celsius, the kitchen tap can only be turned on with a wrench and homeowner Kendra Street cries when she thinks about winter.

In the past two years, her 4-year-old son has caught pneumonia and spent four nights in hospital, she has been diagnosed with sjogrens syndrome, an autoimmune disease that can be linked to stress, and has had to seek psychological help ‘‘because I can’t handle it anymore’’.

Their insurance company has said they will be waiting until 2015 for a rebuild ‘‘which means two more winters in hell’’.

Her TC3 Hoon Hay home was ‘‘picked up and cracked like an egg’’ in the February 2011 earthquake, the piles were scattered, the plumbing was warped, the master bedroom almost detached from the house and every door jammed.

When it rains a moat appears around the house and covers most of the driveway, so Street and her husband, Chris,  must either wade through a 15cm-deep puddle or shuffle along the wire gate to open it.

The master bedroom and garage are yellow-stickered so the house is now ‘‘a storage unit’’ with boxes stacked along the hallway.

The 38-year-old Tupperware manager and her husband, who is a shift manager at the Alpine Ice rink, now sleep in their son’s bedroom, and their son sleeps in the sun-room.

Street, who has rheumatoid arthritis goes to bed in thermals, long pyjamas, socks, a beanie and a fleece jacket and said ‘‘it still feels like the Arctic’’.

Last winter the family were hit with ‘‘astronomical’’ power bills, peaking at $700 a month.

‘‘I am miserable. In the summer you can pretend everything is okay but as soon as it goes below 10C, I cry.

‘‘I dread the winter and can feel the tears welling up now just thinking about it,’’ Street said.

The stress of TC3 life has caused Street to become ‘‘pissed off, angry and upset’’, which results in her fighting with her husband and yelling at her son over trivial things.

‘‘We are stuck in a stagnant pool full of dirt and bugs with mosquitoes named Brownlee, Southern Response and EQC buzzing around and making a lot of noise but doing nothing to help. We can only tread water for so long. I’m going under.’’

STRESS PARALYSES HOMEOWNER

The ongoing anxiety of an uncertain future, having to flee a sinking TC3 ‘‘dream home’’ and to fight in a competitive rental market caused one Christchurch mother to become paralysed by stress.

Teacher Samantha Smith was out for lunch with her family last Christmas when she was suddenly unable to pick up her fork.

‘‘Then I couldn’t lift my arm and then I became completely paralysed down my right side.’’

She suffered dizzy spells, memory problems, vision disturbances and felt like rats were crawling inside her leg.

Smith went to an after-hours clinic and was diagnosed with possible multiple sclerosis, but after an MRI scan and an examination by a neurologist at Christchurch Hospital she was cleared of any brain disorder and the paralytic episode was put down to post-traumatic stress.

‘‘The neurologist believed most likely these physical effects are a result of post-traumatic stress and burnout, symptoms she had been seeing in a great deal of Cantabrians,’’ she said

Smith attributed her paralysis to the ongoing stress she has undergone since September 2010, the anxiety of being a TC3 homeowner and the ‘‘humiliation’’ of having to fight for a rental.

The semi-rural Halswell house Smith, her husband and their son, 14, lived in used to be her ‘‘pride and joy’’.

It now sits abandoned, grisly cracks snake up the exterior, the garden is overgrown, most of the doors can no longer open and it is still unknown when or if it can be rebuilt.

The Smiths lived in the broken home for several months. They slept on mattresses in the lounge, couldn’t drink the water and rats ntsGused to nte crawled inside from holes in the foundation.

When they were told the house was not safe to live in, they moved into a rental.

For the past 21 months they have paid rates, mortgage and insurance on an unliveable home and now pay $750 a week in rent because their insurance money has dried up.

They were forced to shift rentals last year after the landlord boosted the rent up to $785 a week.

‘‘The stress of waiting for another rent increase is unbearable and the ritual humiliation of having house inspections by property managers at our age is just hideous,’’ she said. 

‘‘I do not want to have to beg again to be accepted as tenants. It is so demeaning, but when your child is in tears because he does not want to be homeless again, what can you do?’’

‘‘We are good, honest, hard-working people. We have done everything that was expected of us as citizens and Gerry Brownlee, our insurance company, Cera and EQC have let us down badly."

- The Press

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