“You know things are bad when you paint your walls black”

Ian Preston on the reality of living in a cold home

4 February 2015

I took a call on the advice line last week which brought home to me the reality of living in a cold home.

The caller - we’ll call her Deborah - lives in social housing in Bristol with her two young children who both have asthma, and of whom one has received treatment for bronchitis. She wanted to know what could be done about the damp and mould that covers the walls of her home.

Many homes suffer from a bit of condensation damp, typically behind wardrobes or other furniture that backs onto the colder outside walls. But Deborah was dealing with something altogether worse, large and unsightly black, green and yellow blotches which came back no matter how often she cleaned and bleached the walls, until finally, and in sheer desperation, she painted the affected walls a funeral black.

It hasn’t got rid of the mould, but at least she can’t see it.

I can barely imagine bleaker surroundings, and it’s testament to people’s human spirit that they can endure such conditions.

I suspect the mould and damp in Deborah’s home are the result of under-heating. Deborah told me that she is on means tested benefits, so is likely to be struggling to heat her home adequately, and cold homes are often mouldy homes.

Poor ventilation could also be a factor, and there may also be structural issues that are making the problem worse.

What we know for sure is that living in a cold damp home is profoundly depressing and will have exacerbated, if not caused, her sons’ asthma.

Through our Warm and Healthy Bristol project we have offered Deborah a home visit to identify if there are issues with rising damp or penetrating water. Sonia, one of our energy advisers, will visit her shortly to ensure she’s claiming the benefits she’s entitled to, and see what else can be done to make her home drier and more comfortable. (See what a CSE home visit is like on this short video.)

Sadly, Deborah’s situation is only too common; social housing tenants on low incomes often experience issues with damp and mould.

So what’s the Government doing? Not enough, I’m afraid. In 2013 they managed to cut the numbers affected by fuel poverty from 4.2 million to 2.32 million (England only) - but this was by the simple expedient of changing the definition. At the same time the government is actually cutting the amount of money made available to improve cold homes.

All in all, it doesn’t feel like a concerted effort to help people like Deborah. Perhaps if ministers spent a year or two living in damp homes with walls painted black things would be different? And hopefully Cold Homes Week will help draw attention to the plight of people like her.

But perhaps there is a glimmer of hope. NHS commissioning departments, including here in Bristol, are keen to replace disposable ‘metered dose’ asthma inhalers with non-disposable ‘dry powder’ inhalers in a bid to reduce the quantities of medicine waste that end up in landfill. Our hope is that if health visitors call on asthma sufferers such as Deborah’s sons to introduce them to refillable inhalers, they could at the same time check for signs of damp or mould, and refer the household to organisations like CSE for advice on dealing with this.

And NICE (the National Institute of Care and Health Excellence) is shortly to launch new guidance for the health sector on tackling the health impacts of cold homes. CSE has been closely involved in drawing up the new NICE guidance and we’re now developing a project as part of Bristol 2015 European Green Capital to implement this guidance across the city. This provides an opportunity to create an integrated approach that will help to tackle Deborah’s problems, improve her sons’ health, and reduce the burden on the health service.

Things are maybe moving in the right direction.

[You can encourage your MP to take action on the cold homes crisis here.]

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