Mould in Melissa's home was so bad she slept in her car
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Mould in Melissa's home was so bad she slept in her car

The mould in Melissa Harrison's home was so bad she resorted to sleeping in her car to lessen the symptoms of exposure.

Ms Harrison has been in a battle with Housing ACT to be transferred to a different home in the public housing system, saying her current address has made her sick for the four years she's lived there.

Melissa Harrison has been living in public housing with large amounts of mould, impacting on her health.

Melissa Harrison has been living in public housing with large amounts of mould, impacting on her health.Credit:Lawrence Atkin

"I've been diagnosed with pneumonia and have had trouble breathing. I've had other symptoms like my hair falling out in clumps and rashes and severe headaches and bleeding," Ms Harrison said.

"I have to go to the doctors every second day, and I'm constantly in hospital, if not once or twice a week."

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Ms Harrison first moved into the property in 2014 and said since then she's experienced multiple instances of vomiting and chronic fatigue.

It wasn't until she was cleaning mould around window sills that she started to think the mould may have been contributing to her declining health.

Melissa says her three children 
 Ivy, 3, Travis, 8 and Kenley 3, have also suffered symptoms brought on by mould since living at their Gilmore address.

Melissa says her three children Ivy, 3, Travis, 8 and Kenley 3, have also suffered symptoms brought on by mould since living at their Gilmore address.Credit:Lawrence Atkin

"It didn't matter if I had fans running or if I opened windows. It didn't matter what I was doing. When I was around the mould and cleaning it I got sick," she said.

"I was sent off to a lung specialist and found out I was allergic to mould."

Mould from Melissa Harrison's home, which she has tried to clean up, has made her sick.

Mould from Melissa Harrison's home, which she has tried to clean up, has made her sick.Credit:Melissa Harrison

Ms Harrison said the mould issue was so bad her three children - eight-year-old Travis and three-year-old twins Ivy and Kenley - were also affected.

"Travis gets night sweat, rashes, nose bleeds and headaches, and he's had multiple trips to the hospital. My twin girls get random rashes and chest infections," Ms Harrison said.

Her son has suffered chest and sinus infections, severe asthma and headaches.

"He's also had large rashes that appear all over and he's had multiple trips to the hospital as a result," Ms Harrison said.

She believes the symptoms are caused by mould.

The children stayed with relatives while Ms Harrison was sleeping in her car to avoid the mould.

Ms Harrison's home was one of almost 100 public houses in Canberra that were reported to have serious cases of potentially toxic mould last year.

Housing ACT said the department responded to 97 cases of mould in public housing, a figure that's largely remained unchanged for the past five financial years.

A spokesman said the figure represented less than one per cent of Canberra's public housing portfolio.

"Housing ACT is aware that mould can be problematic in Canberra, particularly during winter," the spokesman said.

"Housing ACT's total facility manager assesses all reports of mould by tenants to determine the underlying cause before any rectification work is undertaken."

Health experts said those who are affected by severe mould-related illnesses, also called chronic inflammatory response syndrome, can suffer from symptoms ranging from chronic fatigue, joint pain, bleeding and cramping.

Ms Harrison says she's suffered pneumonia as a resulf of mould.

Ms Harrison says she's suffered pneumonia as a resulf of mould.Credit:Melissa Harrison

Despite telling Housing ACT about the issue in the government home, Ms Harrison said she was dismissed by the government department, telling her it was her responsibility to deal with the mould.

Documents seen by the Sunday Canberra Times showed mould levels in the carpet, walls and ceiling to be more than seven times higher than normal mould levels.

"[Housing ACT] kept having me submit all of my doctor's letters, and this took about a year. At one stage I told them I was really sick and they put me in a hotel but only for two weeks," Ms Harrison said.

Her fight to move to new accommodation has been a long one, languishing on the high needs waiting list for new public housing for several months before moving to a priority list.

While Ms Harrison was eventually cleared to move into a new home free from mould, she said she was told by Housing ACT to clean the rest of the mould from the Gilmore address, despite warning from doctors it would harm her health, or pick up the clean-up bill.

"It was absolutely a slap in the face. I couldn't believe it," she said.

Mould build up in Ms Harrison's Gilmore address.

Mould build up in Ms Harrison's Gilmore address.Credit:Melissa Harrison

"Obviously I'm moving because of the conditions I had to live in, and I can't live there any more because of the mould spores releasing."

Ms Harrison's mother ended up cleaning the mouldy parts of the house.

Ms Harrison said she's been told new residents are set to move into the Gilmore home, and said the threat of mould poses a major risk to its new tenants.

"It's frightening, it's absolutely frightening. I wouldn't wish my worst enemy living there," she said.

"I can't afford to get the house professionally cleaned and I've forked out so much already."

A Housing ACT spokesman would not confirm whether Ms Harrison would have to foot the bill for the clean up, saying it did not comment on individual cases.

"Once Housing ACT receives the keys to a vacant property, a final inspection of the property is undertaken to identify works required to bring the property back to an acceptable standard for another household in need of accommodation," the spokesman said.

"All Housing ACT properties are brought up to a lettable standard prior to the next tenants taking up occupation. At this stage, there has been no decision made on the future of the property."

Housing ACT said it provided tenants with information on how to manage mould growth in the home.

"Housing ACT will relocate a tenant if the extent of the works required would be too disruptive for day-to-day habitation," the spokesman said.

"Housing ACT does not require evidence of health concerns when a tenant reports mould in their home. Documentation may be required if the matter cannot be resolved or issues continue."

Private rental tenants are also facing similar problems with mould.

Tenants' Union ACT principal solicitor Charlie Faulder said mould is one of the most common complaints they deal with in Canberra.

Mr Faulder deals with at least two cases of toxic mould per week, and said tenants are regularly blamed for poor ventilation in homes or previous water damage that is out of their control.

"More common than not, lessors don't want anything to do with it, and often tenants are left for a long time in mouldy conditions," Mr Faulder said.

"There's difficulty in the push back from landlords and agents saying mould is not our responsibility and saying the tenant is responsible, even if they clean the walls and squidgee windows every day to prevent it.

"It becomes concerning for health implications."

Access Canberra received five complaints related to mould in the most recent financial year.

It is not known how many mould issues were heard by the government department in previous years due to a new complaints-handling system being brought in.

An Access Canberra spokeswoman said there was no unit within the department to investigate offences in relation to tenancy laws in the ACT, including mould issues.

"In instances where Access Canberra receives inquiries regarding the Act, members of the public are referred to Tenants Union ACT for appropriate advice concerning the matter," the spokeswoman said.

"In instances where there is a significant mould problem it is suggested tenants photograph the affected area and provide copies to the landlord or homeowner in the first instance to allow them the opportunity to inspect and resolve the issue."

While Ms Harrison said she's relieved to move into a new property at last that's free from mould, she said she hoped that the move would mean the beginning of a long health recovery.

"Living in a house without mould would mean a normal life and a functional one," she said.

This is the first part of a series looking at the effects of mould on health and homes.

Do you know more? Email: andrewbrown@fairfaxmedia.com.au

Andrew Brown is a journalist at the Sunday Canberra Times. Andrew has worked at the Canberra Times since 2016.

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