‘Mould in my council house left me fighting for breath and with scarred lungs’

‘Mould in my council house left me fighting for breath and with scarred lungs’

Growing up in foster homes after being put into care aged four, Tasha Clegg couldn’t wait to get a place of her own.

When she was just 17, she was offered a flat through her council and she was keen to move in as soon as possible.

“I needed to get out of the place I was in, but I was adamant I wasn’t going into semi-independent living. I wanted my own place,” Tasha, now 27, said.

But just a teenager at the time, she admits she wasn’t equipped to ask the right questions when she viewed her flat.

“All I thought was, ‘Oh my God, I’ve got a house’. Luckily I had a friend with me at the time to ask a few questions.

“There was a conservatory at the back of the house and I could see there had been a big leak. I brought it up to the council before I signed the tenancy agreement and they said there had been a leak, but it had been fixed.”

Despite spotting a few issues with the flat, 17-year-old Tasha says she was in her “own little world” when she picked up the keys.

But after moving in, she realised there were a lot of problems she’d not noticed before – including power problems and urine stains in the bathroom.

And Tasha’s problems were about to get much worse when a downpour of rain caused the conservatory to leak heavily – a problem she’d been assured was already fixed.

“It literally flooded. I kept putting down towels and mopping but it was no good. The water even started to come through the light fittings,” she explained.

After calling out council repairmen, Tasha was given a range of explanations for the severity of the leak – usually blaming the tenant in the flat above.

“After a while they stopped coming out altogether, I was told there was nothing they could do. It was a ‘put up and shut up’ situation.

“But it was so damp all the time, there was black mould coming through the walls. I was told to just paint over it,” Tasha said.

It wasn’t just the mould causing problems for Tasha. The flat was so damp she had to throw away clothes and furniture which had been destroyed.

“I’d never thrown away a birthday card in my life. I’ve kept them all for as long as I can remember but I had to bin loads because they were ruined.

“There were official documents and school certificates I had to get rid of too. It was really sentimental stuff and it was completely sodden.”

For nearly four years, Tasha lived in the swamp-like flat, blocking off the conservatory and hoping for the best. But eventually she realised she couldn’t ignore the damp any longer.

“I started feeling unwell all the time – headaches, colds and chest infections. I went to the doctors six times with what was thought to be chest infections.

“One December I could barely breathe. I could barely walk – it was a huge effort to get up in the waiting room to walk to the doctor’s room,” she said.

Doctors eventually admitted Tasha and carried out tests for all sorts of illnesses – including HIV.

She said: “I was really concerned because they couldn’t figure out what was wrong. In the week I was in hospital, I didn’t get a diagnosis.”

But then Tasha remembered something the doctors had asked her when she was first admitted: did she live with mould?

“I said ‘no’ when they first asked me because I barely thought about it by then, but I realised it was important and told them.

“They tested the spore rate in my blood and they were really concerned.

“My ribs had been really sore which had been caused by inflamed lungs. It had happened over such a long period of time that my lungs had tears in them, which had formed scar tissue,” she said.

It was then that the seriousness of the situation dawned on Tasha. Her damp, mouldy house had caused serious damage to her lungs. She was told it was unlikely her lungs would go back to normal.

A report from Barnardos shows that, while extreme, Tasha’s experience isn’t isolated.

The No Place Like Home findings, funded by IKEA, show that a lot of care leavers in the UK have been placed in damp, mouldy accommodation, while some others feel unsafe after being placed with addicts or unstable people.

Out of 23 care leavers interviewed, many said they felt they had no choice of where to move after leaving their foster homes and they didn’t feel ready to go out into the world on their own.

The report says the average age of leaving home in the UK is 23 – but for care leavers, it’s just 18.

And facing huge costs in setting up home somewhere else, many young adults leaving care said they felt stressed at having to keep up with the cost of living.

For Tasha, her health had to deteriorate severely before the damp issues in her flat were resolved.

After complaining to her council and demonstrating how her ailments were linked to the mould, the leaking conservatory was finally knocked down.

But she wishes she’d had a responsible adult to rely on when she was viewing her flat.

“You can’t just throw a 16 year old into that situation and tell them ‘you’re out by this date’. Not many 16 year olds would be able to cope with that and know what things to look out for in a new home,” she said.

Along with the report’s recommendations of giving all care leavers £4000 to set up home, improving quality standards for semi-independent accommodation and making it easier for care leavers to stay with their foster carers until the age of 21, Tasha wants all leavers to be assigned a worker to help them get a flat.

She also wants social housing and private rentals to undergo frequent checks to make sure the houses are fit for purpose.

Now, the damp in Tasha’s flat is largely gone, but the damage to her lungs has already been done and it’s irreversible.

“Overall I’m a lot better than I was. I sometimes flare up again and when I do, the hospital wants me to go back. I was signed off two years ago, but the scar tissue won’t heal properly,” she said.

“There was so much I didn’t know when I took that flat. The idea of ‘suitable accommodation’ is more than a roof over someone’s head.”