'The new asbestos': Hidden mould affecting Canberrans on the rise

Health experts are warning of a growing number of patients suffering from symptoms such as chronic fatigue, cramps and joint pain brought on by mould.

Alarmingly, many cases are believed to have been caused by mould hidden in roofs and wall cavities in homes.

Jules Jauregui says she suffers from health issues brought on by hidden mould. Photo: Karleen Minney

Jules Jauregui says she suffers from health issues brought on by hidden mould. Photo: Karleen Minney

Professional mould cleaners in Canberra have reported a surge in call outs in recent months, receiving dozens of requests for help every week. One is calling the issue "the new asbestos".

There are no official government statistics on how many in Canberra and Australia have been affected by mould-related illnesses, also called chronic inflammatory response syndrome.

Specialists in the field have said there has been an increase in patients seeking treatment.

Figures from Australian Chronic Infectious and Inflammatory Disease Society estimate 1172 Australians have either recently been diagnosed with the condition or provisionally diagnosed with some of the main symptoms.

Symptoms brought on by prolonged exposure to mould can include chronic fatigue and chronic pain, muscle cramps, morning sickness, blurred vision, mood swings, joint pain, abdominal pain, sinus congestion and bleeding.

Jules says she started noticing the symptoms during a trip to Queensland. Photo: Karleen Minney

Jules says she started noticing the symptoms during a trip to Queensland. Photo: Karleen Minney

Canberra resident Jules Jauregui first noticed the symptoms brought on by hidden mould during a trip to Queensland earlier this year to house sit.

"The house was incredibly mouldy and within a couple of days my eyes had puffed up and my whole face and body was covered in a rash and there was a lot of fatigue," Ms Jaurequi said.

"Someone else had to drive me back to Canberra because the symptoms were so bad."

The episode in Queensland made Ms Jauregui think back to other times she felt similar symptoms, and all of them were linked to mould.

There was the time she was cleaning mould that had collected on windows in a rental property in Downer. The time she worked in an old government building that suffered many leaks.

"There were days when I was so mentally and physically exhausted that I couldn't function properly," she said.

While Ms Jauregui said she's experienced a multitude of conditions believed to be brought on by mould, finding a diagnosis has been difficult, after she said doctors dismissed her concerns.

Dr Rashmi Cabena, a member of the Infectious and Inflammatory Disease Society, said the range of symptoms can vary from patient to patient.

She said presentations to her clinic have sky rocketed from patients with chronic conditions.

"We're seeing more of it now because people now know what to look for. It wasn't on the radar for chronic-illness patients, and now we know the causes and ask them about mould around the home," Dr Cabena said.

"It's concerning because in a lot of people, they have vague symptoms that impair the function of their life, and a lot of the time they don't know the origin of it."

"There's still a lot of research to be done, but mould can be a contributing factor for lots of illnesses and inflammation in all parts of the body."

Black mould on visible surface areas is more common, Dr Cabena said, but it's often a sign there's hidden mould in the area which can spread to other areas of a home.

"It's possible for toxins produced by the mould in the roof or behind walls to have nanoparticles that can travel through small spaces and into other parts," Dr Cabena said.

"Mould doesn't always have to be visible, it only gets a colour when it reaches close to the surface of an object. White mould, or hidden mould, is also a concern because they produce lots of toxins."

Dr Cabena said little is known about the full effects of mould, with many medical experts not aware of the full range of symptoms.

"We don't have any accurate numbers as to how many people suffer from toxic mould because we don't have the right tests to properly diagnose in Australia," she said.

"There is a lot more research that has to be done. Not everyone is exposed to the knowledge, and it's still developing. When doctors aren't exposed to that, it's difficult for them to understand that."

Bryan Norris deals with serious cases of mould in Canberra on a daily basis through his work as a biological cleaner.

On average, he cleans 15 cases of mould every week.

He said Canberra's cold climate meant the nation's capital is more susceptible to the problem than other areas.

Bryan Norris said he deals with 15 cases of mould removal every week. Photo: Jamila Toderas

Bryan Norris said he deals with 15 cases of mould removal every week. Photo: Jamila Toderas

"Canberra winters are a problem because there's lots of condensation with heating on the inside and cold on the outside, and that triggers a lot of moisture," Mr Norris said.

"Winter is more prevalent, but we do get call outs in summer, especially when there's a storm and there's lots of water damage."

He said increased awareness of the effects mould can have on health and the importance of treating it properly has led to a surge in call outs.

"Mould is the new asbestos. People are starting to treat it more seriously now," Mr Norris said.

"When people start getting warning signs health-wise, that's a sign there's a bad problem in the house."

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

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