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More reason to worry about living with damp: Dampness and Mould Hypersensitivity Syndrome (DMHS)

Anybody who has had to live with chronic damp problems will know how upsetting it can be. Dampness, like the fungal growths it encourages, behaves in peculiar and insidious ways. It can feel impossible to escape from. This is particularly so for tenants, at the mercy of a landlord or managing agent who may neglect to do anything about it. If underlying problems are not dealt with, dampness can become all-encompassing, taking over a person’s home and everything in it. But usually the most distressing thought for anybody trapped in this situation will be the worry about health problems which dampness and mould growth might cause.

While the full extent of health effects caused by dampness and mould growth remain unclear, it is now common ground that these living conditions increase the risk of respiratory problems, respiratory infections, allergies, asthma and problems with the immune system. But what of the various common symptoms often associated with dampness and mould growth, but falling short of being a clearly defined disease – including itchy eyes, blocked nose, sneezing, coughing and unspecific breathing difficulties? According to a recent study, even these may be the first signs of an “emerging disease” known as Dampness and Mould Hypersensitivity Syndrome (DMHS).

What is DMHS?

The study paints a worrying picture: the symptoms making up this syndrome can start appearing from within a few months of exposure to a damp and mouldy building; or they may not emerge until after some years. A key feature will be that these early symptoms seem to be “linked” to the damp and mouldy building: leave the environment for a short time – perhaps a day or two – and the symptoms go away; only to come back on returning home. However, the longer the exposure continues, the less likely the symptoms are to go away, until finally they become irreversible – even after escaping the water-damaged building for good. The factors which trigger the chronic course of the syndrome are as yet unknown, with research mainly focused on possible genetic causes.

A number of other features of DMHS are typical of the later “irreversible” stage of DMHS. These include:

  1. an increased likelihood of getting chest infections, headaches, feeling sick, dizziness, unexplained tiredness, rheumatic symptoms like pains or numbness in the legs and arms, rashes, and newly onset asthma or asthma-like conditions;
  2. developing “multiple chemical sensitivity”, a condition where a person experiences a complex range of uncomfortable symptoms on exposure to common chemicals (perfume, smoke, paint fumes, etc.) that are well-tolerated by most people; and
  3. an increased sensitivity to smells (and particularly the smell of moulds).

Diagnosing and treating DMHS

The study highlights a Catch-22 problem: as things stand, DMHS can only be diagnosed confidently in its later stages, by considering whether a person has any of the features described in the previous paragraph; at the same time, treating DMHS is only really possible in its early stages. Laboratory tests are being investigated, which could provide some hope for a more helpful diagnostic process. However, as things stand, there are no widely agreed early tests.

Another problem, and one beyond the scope of the study itself, is that treating the condition at all requires cutting out any further exposure to damp-affected buildings, which may be easier said than done.

What should you do?

So what to do if you believe any of this may apply to you? For one thing, take the presence of dampness and mould growth in your home seriously, particularly if you do notice that you have niggling symptoms that seem to come and go depending on whether you are away from home. If you do, you should discuss this or any other possible diagnosis with your doctor, while making every effort to reduce your exposure to the dampness and mould growth.

Naturally you should make every effort to keep cleaning the mould away, and to ventilate as much as possible by using extractor fans and opening windows. However, you should always investigate the underlying causes of the dampness and mould growth thoroughly.

As a tenant you should not take no for an answer if your landlord is refusing to investigate or carry out repairs. If the dampness and mould growth is the result of disrepair, your landlord is obliged to fix it. Even if the problem turns out only to be condensation (caused for example by a badly designed building), your landlord may still have a duty to do something about it. The law requires landlords to make sure that premises they let are not “prejudicial to health”, and this will always be the case if there is a serious dampness and mould problem.

Taking legal action

Keep a record of your attempts to get your landlord to investigate and to carry out works. If they fail, then:

  • report the issues to your local council’s Environmental Health department, who may take enforcement action, and
  • seek help from a solicitor. A solicitor will often be able to help under legal aid or a no-win no-fee arrangement.

As well as getting an injunction requiring your landlord to carry out works, you may also be able to claim compensation for any period when they neglected to do so. This can include compensation for the inconvenience and discomfort you have been caused, as well as for the cost of replacing your belongings which have been mould-damaged. If it can be shown that your landlord’s neglect has caused you to develop DMHS or any other medical condition, you may also be able to bring a claim for personal injury.