It has caused serious respiratory issues and debilitating illness, even sending babies to emergency rooms.
It's not COVID-19, it's mould, and many Illawarra homes are breeding grounds for the insidious fungal growth.
Mould not only affects health, it can cost home owners thousands of dollars in repairs and remediation, and has left some people homeless.
Experts believe the effects of mould - both on people and on buildings new and old - are under-reported in Australia with building regulations "vague" and many medical professionals seemingly unaware of the profound health effects.
The Mercury has spoken with dozens of residents affected by mould, many renting and currently fighting with landlords to get their problems fixed, while others have been forced into Airbnb accommodation while their homes are stripped and repaired.
Several have had young children land in hospital with major respiratory issues, all reporting their health declined in correlation with mould. One infant was placed in intensive care with "respiratory failure" and years later still has issues, while her mother has been left with an ongoing auto-immune disease (a common occurrence according to medical experts).
I go to sleep and wake up coughing and with chest pains.- Renee Ellington
Like most of the renters we spoke with, Renee Ellington was told it was her fault black mould had spread to nearly every room in her Albion Park home and was lurking by her babies cot. The landlord did not believe she was opening windows or using a bathroom fan - a common scenario reported.
The single mother is fed up fighting and is looking for a storage unit to move her belongings to while her family moves in with friends until she can find somewhere safe to call home.
"[One of my daughters] has been in hospital twice since this outbreak with croup [an infection that makes the airway narrower, so it is harder to breathe]," Ms Ellington said, noting one of her sons has developed severe eczema since the outbreak. "We originally thought it was her asthma, but the first question we got asked in the hospital was 'do you have mould in her room'."
Initially black mould was in her bathroom but spread to most other rooms in the house after a bathroom fan broke and then a water pipe began leaking through a wall. She said it took several months for each issue to be fixed, but the mould is still everywhere.
"It's affecting my mental health, especially with lockdown and being stuck in here not being able to leave, I've actually noticed my health get worse," Ms Ellington said. "I go to sleep and wake up coughing and with chest pains."
Simon Burgess of Oak Flats recently chose to move his family to holiday accommodation for the health of his son and then-pregnant wife after his real estate agent also put up a fight.
He said it started in the bedroom of their rental property then slowly spread further and further, until they had to throw out a large amount of clothing, shoes and furniture.
"We had doctor's letters advocating [our health problems] and mould experts using infrared moisture detectors - the house was littered [with it]," he said.
Regardless of the evidence of severe problems Mr Burgess was forced to move into an Airbnb until they could find a new rental in time for the birth of his second child.
Anxiety often goes "hand in hand" with people who sustain a reaction to mould as their limbic system (which links to the endocrine and nervous systems) becomes inflamed and causes the body to produces a fight or flight response, according to Balgownie clinical psychologist Nadine Wright.
Inflammation present in the body is one of many symptoms shown by people reacting to mould exposure, with a parliamentary inquiry in 2018 finding links between mould exposure and Chronic Inflammatory Response Syndrome (CIRS).
"Because CIRS is so new there definitely seems to be a sense of not getting enough validation of their lived experience," Dr Wright said. "It's similar to how fibromyalgia was 10 to 15 years ago - that kind of really unexplained, can't understand it therefore it's not true [mentality]."
She said some people also reported feelings of shame and isolation due to others not understanding mould exposure, as well as feelings of helplessness and loss of control.
Dr Wright said CIRS was often missed in GP referrals and she has now made mould exposure one of her screening questions with new patients.
Both Asthma Australia and the National Asthma Council list mould as a known trigger for asthmatics and say it can worsen other respiratory disorders, while the advice on their websites is for people to wear full protective gear from head to toe to clean mould in the home.
Head of Respiratory Medicine at Wollongong Hospital Andrew Jones said some people could have sensitisation purely to mould although most would be allergic to other common triggers - such as dust mites and pollen.
"If there is mould in the house, every effort should be made to remove it," Dr Jones said. "There's clear evidence in people's respiratory diseases, that proper sanitisation and clean living environments improve overall respiratory health."
Over the years Dr Jones has seen patients with mild asthma whose health has deteriorated in mould affected homes. He believes medication and avoiding triggers (ie. mould exposure) is key.
We are so unaware in Australia ... look at America where they take it really, really seriously whereas here people just don't understand the health implications.- Kym Corliss
Helensburgh's Kym Corliss was diagnosed with CIRS after a mould problem, originally caused by water damage in her home, was left undetected for almost a decade.
Mrs Corliss said her health began declining around seven years ago with unexplained headaches, constant sinus and breathing issues, extreme fatigue, brain fog (trouble recalling names of people and items), anxiety, and skin irritations - all common symptoms reported by sufferers of mould exposure.
Only in the past year has the black mould infestation been uncovered, resulting in the Corlisses remortgaging their home to pay for repairs and move into a rental in the meantime.
"I was completely unaware about mould, the same as my husband ... it's only when I did a bit of research then worked ... with my nutritionist [that I had specialist blood tests]," she said. "We are so unaware in Australia ... look at the UK and look at America where they take it really, really seriously whereas here people just don't understand the health implications."
If the mould is causing a danger to the health of tenants or other occupants, then this may be considered an urgent repair.- NSW Fair Trading
Lindsey (who asked not to use her surname) became ill and her furniture ruined not long after moving into a Wollongong apartment in February.
Despite alerting her real estate agent to a problem with mould, it was left untreated and spread throughout her home and all over her belongings to the point she had to move everything into her loungeroom and throw out her bedroom furniture.
"I started to have health problems," Lindsey said. "Then one of my friends offered me to stay at hers while I was sorting all this stuff out, and as soon as I was out of there I noticed an immediate difference.
"From the get go the landlord refused to do a rent reduction, refused to treat the mould, but said 'if you don't feel safe you can leave and I won't give you any lease fees'."
Lindsey was able to terminate her lease quickly and move out, but she had to take her landlord to the NSW Civil and Administrative Tribunal to get her bond back.
NSW Fair Trading lists mould as a serious problem on their website and states landlords are responsible if a home does not have adequate ventilation or if they fail to complete a repair in a reasonable time.
"If mould develops close to the start of the tenancy, it could be considered pre-existing damage," they state. "If the mould is causing a danger to the health of tenants or other occupants, then this may be considered an urgent repair."
If mould becomes a problem during tenancy, such as due to the tenant not using a bathroom fan, then potentially the onus could be on the tenant.
You can't blame a tenant for not opening every window in the middle of winter for excessive mould build-up, according to architectural scientist Tim Law.
Old homes with poor insulation are especially susceptible, as are new homes that try to be energy efficient at the expense of poor ventilation, he said.
"It is not well understood that you can't just go in an old building and put in a reverse cycle heater ... it will warm you but it will create a whole lot of other problems," Dr Law said. "You cannot be telling people to open their windows in the middle of winter, that to me is not sensible. You can't tell occupants not to cook or not to do the laundry inside the home ... the very act of breathing gives out moisture through the air."
He suggested insulating old homes correctly, monitor moisture with humidity/temperature gauges, install a dehumidifier and use radiant heaters.
It is so wrong that people are spending their entire life savings on a building that is defective from the get go and uninhabitable after the first winter.- Dr Tim Law
Meantime, new builds with poor design have created a "perfect storm for condensation".
"When you look purely at the physics of buildings we have completely neglected the biology of buildings," Dr Law said. "They are technically code compliant buildings that are unhealthy for the occupants."
He said building regulations were not specific enough and could be interpreted in different ways, which lead to new buildings - like apartments of houses - with airflow problems and become a perfect environment for mould.
Dr Law said a sense of injustice was behind his drive to research mould in the building industry and he is striving to bring about change. This includes pushing for precise standards around the construction of new buildings and the remediation of buildings affected by mould because "trying to kill it or encapsulate the mould by painting over it does not work".
"You can only clean off on surfaces that are non-porous," he said. "Materials like plasterboard - need to be replaced, timber needs to be vacuumed then planed down. It's more than just cleaning off."
It just has to be [constructed] right but too often it gets put in the 'all too hard basket'.- Michael Ambrose
In any building with a mould issue, he said you need to get rid of the moisture first and then remove the mould source - whether it is a leaking pipe, old water damage eating into building materials or a ventilation problem - because left untreated can severely damage building materials and people's health.
"What has driven me [in my research] is the sense of injustice," he said. "It is so wrong that people are spending their entire life savings on a building that is defective from the get go and uninhabitable after the first winter."
CSIRO scientist Michael Ambrose agreed, saying new apartments often had the same problems as stand-alone houses.
There should be "performance based codes" as currently some building regulations were "a little bit vague", he said.
"If it's on timbers it can rot timbers, timber framing, it can be really diabolical if it's not discovered ... usually it's a case of poor ventilation management when the building is constructed (for new homes)."
Mr Ambrose said he didn't want to discourage people from building energy efficient homes, though said there are things people need to be aware of and build correctly.
"You shouldn't have to sacrifice energy efficiency to avoid a problem that can easily be overcome," he said.
"It just has to be done right but too often it gets put in the 'all too hard basket'."
Asthma clinics in the Illawarra Shoalhaven region:
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