Last winter Ayaat, four, was “severely ill, coughing all night”, as damp afflicted her family’s temporary council home in Dagenham, east London.
As mould spread, her sisters, Ayesha, six, and Anisa, seven, were sick too, and were regularly prescribed antibiotics. Their mother, Alifjane Begum, 27, has a cupboard full of Calpol but it doesn’t help much. Now she lives in fear of the coming winter knowing her finances won’t stretch to keeping the heating on to keep condensation at bay.
“When we took [Ayaat] to the hospital they said it was because of mould,” she said. “We are worried that when winter comes we’re going to get even more ill. There is only so much a body can take. The GP said if you keep getting ill it will get to the point where your organs and respiratory system become weak.”
“A home should be where your children feel safe and secure and happy,” she added. “They don’t. It’s cold, it’s mouldy and we’ve been ill non-stop since coming here. The children were never on antibiotics before we came here. Now the school complains that they’re missing too many days off sick.”
Their home is in a new prefabricated complex built with metal boxes that resemble shipping containers. It was not meant for long-term occupation but to help homeless families.
A spokesperson for the London borough of Barking and Dagenham said: “Our homeless team have worked with residents, including providing utility vouchers and dehumidifiers as well as education around heating and ventilation.”
The family is just one of millions in substandard properties vulnerable to cold and damp.
Emma Faulkner, 26, a paralegal who lives in a single-glazed, oil-heated Victorian terrace house in Belfast with a leaking roof and mould on the windows, said: “Last year my son was taken to A&E twice with croup and he gets various other chest infections all winter long … I am scared that this year is going to be worse as we cannot afford oil to keep the house warm.”
Both of Romaine Murray’s sons suffer chronic breathing problems from cold and damp in their east London flat. Photograph: Christian Sinibaldi/The Guardian
Romaine Murry, a healthcare assistant who lives in a 1930s social housing flat in east London, said both her sons, Terrell, eight, and Tyrese, 20, have suffered chronic breathing problems from cold and damp.
“It’s really bad,” she said. “A lot of kids are getting sick from it. There are a lot of people out there suffering. I know this winter is going to be worse.”
Romaine recently reduced her working hours owing to a vascular problem made worse by the cold and damp and predicts her energy bills could hit an unaffordable £100 a week.
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“We have unplugged everything in the house and we have to use the TV as a light when we eat our food. I only cook once a week.”
“Terrell has been really bad,” she said. “He was constantly having colds and was on antibiotics until he got allergic to them because he had too much.”
A medical specialist ran sleep tests on him and said his chronic congestion meant he wasn’t getting enough oxygen to his brain.
“It can affect his development, learning and brain function,” she said. She is not alone: her friend and neighbour’s four children all have bronchitis.