Federal member for Robertson and Liberal MP Lucy Wicks knows first hand what mould related issues are like: she’s been sensitised to such an extent she could no longer tolerate shopping centres, meeting rooms – even the then-Prime Minister’s office. But the sceptics are questioning the science.
After years of agitation it looks like the issue of mould has finally hit the federal government radar. Thanks in part to the work of professional bodies such as AIRAH that’s been trying to get the issue on the national agenda, and the work of tenants and health experts.
A recent Parliamentary Standing Committee on Health, Aged Care and Sport inquiry into biotoxin-related illnesses has released its final report on the topic.
Among key recommendations are changes to the National Construction Code, disclosure of potential problems to would-be tenants, rectification of existing mould issues in a property before leasing and research into whether existing building standards and codes are adequate.
One of the issues the inquiry identified was a lack of education and awareness among medical practitioners that sick building syndrome and other manifestations of biotoxin-caused illness really are a problem and can cause a range of symptoms.
Chronic Inflammatory Response Syndrome (CIRS) is one condition that can cause a lasting sensitivity to poor quality indoor environments and other contamination such as vehicle pollution.
Others problems include fungal fragments, mycotoxins, mVOCS (microbial volatile organic compounds), volatile organic compounds from building materials, bacteria and bacterial toxins, viruses, parasites and more.
After release of the inquiry’s findings, ABC reported on the experience of tenants who are generally told to “use the bathroom exhaust fan” and “open windows for ventilation”.
President of the Real Estate Institute of NSW Tim McKibbin questioned the science.
“Where is the science in this? There just isn’t any at this stage,” he’s quoted as saying in the ABC report.
“Provide us with some science, provide us with some guidance as property managers on how we can deal with this issue.”
The sceptical viewpoint is unlikely to wash with federal member for Robertson and Liberal MP Lucy Wicks, who was one of the parliamentarians behind the launching of the inquiry.
Wicks has experienced mould-related illness first-hand and was sensitised by it to the extent she could no longer tolerate shopping centres, meeting rooms – even the then-Prime Minister’s office.
In a speech to Parliament following the release of the report she says the inquiry’s findings are an “important outcome for people struggling with mould-related illness or living in water-damaged buildings.”
She is urging the federal government to carefully consider all seven recommendations of the report and the significant impact they could have to help those suffering from Biotoxin-related illness.
“With the adoption of some of [the inquiry’s] recommendations, we could see a more a widespread knowledge of Biotoxin-related illness, standards of practice around mould in building codes and better health outcomes, both in diagnosis and treatment for people with CIRS-like symptoms.
“This report validates the experiences of the hundreds of people that have contacted me with their stories and experiences suffering with a Biotoxin-related illness. It lets people know who are suffering with is this particular condition that their voice is being heard.”
The inquiry received over 140 submissions and took direct evidence from medical professionals, construction experts and mould remediation practitioners at public hearings.
California has a plan
There is a precedent for tackling the impact of mould on health through regulations specific to rental properties. While there is no Australian jurisdiction The Fifth Estate is aware that in California, visible mould potentially deems a property substandard and unfit for leasing under the California Housing Code.
The issues around mould and building quality will be tackled at AIRAH’s building physics forum in late November in Wollongong, under the heading of, “Do we have a sick, rotten, leaky, condo crisis? Managing design conflict: fire versus moisture.”
President of AIRAH’s Building Physics Special Technical Group, Jesse Clarke will chair the roundtable, which will feature University of Tasmania’s Dr Mark Dewsbury, Mycolab’s Dr Heike Neumeister Kemp, Inhabit Group’s Samantha Anderson, Ignis Fire’s Benjamin Hughes-Brown, Prof. Dr Hartwig Künzel and Terry Brennan from Camroden & Associates.
A recent article about the inquiry’s findings in AIRAH’s HVAC&R News highlights the role of standards in addressing the causes – not only in terms of requirements for new buildings, but also mandatory standards for the prevention and remediation of mould in existing buildings.
It notes that while the Australian Building Codes Board has a non-mandatory guide for condensation in buildings, it is not part of the National Construction Code.
“Prevention is better than cure – or a band aid,” Clarke says.
“This comes back to good design of the building envelope, and includes looking at the moisture storage and vapour-diffusion properties of materials in combination with the chosen HVAC systems for ventilation, heating and cooling set-points and indoor humidity levels.”
The article also singled out a number of practices that can potentially increase mould levels or dampness including some relating to materials choice, build methodology, build quality and operational aspects.