Mould is lurking as a silent killer in more than one-third of all New Zealand homes despite the introduction of housing reforms to improve the health of our houses.
Statistics NZ's latest wellbeing survey found 41.5 per cent of Wellingtonians reported mould in their homes, while 34.9 per cent of Aucklanders reported mould.
Across the country, about 16 per cent of Kiwis reported seeing mould bigger than an A4 sized paper in their homes – the effects of which can be devastating.
On average, Kiwis make about 28,000 visits to the hospital each year as a result of living in cold and damp houses, University of Otago associate professor Nevil Pierse said.
Children who went to hospital for these so-called housing-related illnesses returned for further treatment almost four times more often than those hospitalised for other conditions.
And while the illnesses – including asthma, pneumonia and bronchiolitis – were preventable, many children were dying.
"In the next 15 years, those kids are 10 times more likely to die than kids hospitalised from other causes," Pierse said.
Action is being taken to combat the illnesses, yet it is not coming fast enough for some children, health experts say.
Mould flourishes in cold and damp homes, especially those poorly built, lacking insulation and adequate heating or with water leaking into or pooling around the house.
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Homes that aren't ventilated by having their windows opened regularly were also mould prone.
Renters suffered the most with 33 per cent stating in Statistics NZ's 2018 General Social Survey their home was always or often cold, compared with 15 per cent of owner-occupiers.
To tackle this, the Government has introduced new healthy homes standards to make rentals warmer and drier, Housing and Urban Development's manager of housing quality Claire Leadbetter said.
All rental properties must now be insulated. By July 2021 they must also comply with the new healthy homes standards within 90 days of any new tenancy starting.
These set minimum standards for rentals in relation to heating, insulation, ventilation, draught stopping, and "moisture ingress".
Some home-owners can also secure financial grants to help buy heating and insulation for their family homes.
State homes account for 4 per cent of all New Zealand houses and shelter some of the nation's most vulnerable.
A Kāinga Ora spokesman said all new state homes were now built to exceed current building codes with insulation, double glazed windows, electric heaters and extractor fans.
All state homes older than 45 years had also been through a Warm Dry retrofit programme, with the rest of the Government agency's homes to be retrofitted by 2024.
Gisborne-Hawke's Bay was the country's worst district with 42.9 per cent of people reporting mould in their homes, according to Statistics NZ.
Hawke's Bay District Health Board child health team social worker Alice Peacock said "mould problem is huge".
Her DHB was one of 11 across the country involved in the national Healthy Homes Initiative which focused on improving the living conditions of pregnant women and preschoolers, particularly in low income areas where there is a high incidence of rheumatic fever.
When mothers and children visit doctors or hospitals with housing related diseases, a social worker or nurse from the programme is then sent out to their home to inspect it.
Peacock's Hawke's Bay team had now worked with more than 1000 families, often carrying a mould removal spray of three parts vinegar and one part water, while also putting a "huge emphasis" on teaching them how to ventilate their homes.
Her team also matched families with organisations able to supply things like heaters, curtains and bedding, and worked with landlords to ensure any necessary repairs were carried out.
Pierse – who is deputy director of He Kainga Oranga/Housing and Health Research Programme – released a report in September finding the Healthy Homes Initiative was expected to save about $30 million in health care costs in the next three years.
The report said children had been referred to the programme more than 15,000 times between 2013 and 2018 which had led to 1533 fewer child hospitalisations, 9443 fewer doctor's visits and 8784 fewer medicines issued.
Pierse said the programme had been a cheap way to make major healthcare savings, but more needed to be done.
"Preventable diseases should not be up there competing with terminal cancer as the highest killer of children," he said.
HOW HEALTHY HOMES INITIATIVES ARE HELPING FAMILIES
Auckland mum Ataoletaeao Kelly Tigifagu spent two years living in a mould-infested rental riddled with holes, leaks, rats and fleas.
Despite alerting her landlord to problems with the house, it took years for repairs to be undertaken.
It meant rain dripped through one bedroom ceiling on to a bed where Tigifagu slept with her daughters - aged 6, 3, and 10 months - and damp and mould filled the room.
Tigifagu and her family didn't even use another bedroom in the rental for over a year because it was plagued with rodents, cold and damp due to holes in the window-sills.
However, when Tigifagu's 10-month-old daughter was recently sent to hospital with bronchiolitis and her mother – who was also living with them – was taken ill, authorities stepped in.
The Ministry of Business and Innovation and Employment helped Tigifagu take her landlord to the Tenancy Tribunal where she won more than $22,000 compensation.
In Hawke's Bay, a Child Healthy Housing programme backed by the district health board also helped another family find healthier living quarters.
The rural family, who didn't want to be named, had three of five children repeatedly go to hospital for housing related respiratory conditions, including asthma and bronchiolitis.
It was found they were living in an uninsulated home with no running water, no bathroom, broken and missing window glass, and no curtains and little bedding.
They were quickly given better bedding and thick curtains.
But while the family wanted to stay at the rental, it was found there was no way to get the necessary repairs done.
They instead moved into emergency housing before being supported into a warm, dry state home property where the children's health "greatly improved".