Buildings, Damp & Health        

The National Aspergillosis Centre (www.nationalaspergillosiscentre.org.uk) has agreed to participate in this part of the aims of the Institute of Specialist Surveyors & Engineers (ISSE) as we have a vested interest in improving the lives of those of our patients who suffer from symptoms that seem to be irritated by their homes, usually damp homes. Our interest lies specifically in damp and respiratory disease which will be our first priority.

The issue of what impact buildings have on our health is a complex problem with a long history. There have been thousands of reports from around the world in the media relating stories of people suffering from living in damp homes, or homes that have been damp. There is a lot of heresay and it is our task here to relate to members of ISSE (surveyors, landlords and householders) what exactly is proven to be true and what is not.

Sethoscope and paperwork

The process to achieve this clarity is a careful and often slow dissection of evidence we can rely on – first and foremost that means published, peer reviewed scientific literature (research papers) as those have been subjected to the most scrutiny. Next down in the list of trusted literature are books and other publications based on peer reviewed articles. All other information is treated with more suspicion but much of it remains valuable – for example large numbers of reports coming in from surveyors that are consistent and verifiable may well be picking up something going on that we should know more about – your participation is important.

The phrase ‘Sick building Syndrome’ was popular over the last thirty or forty years but has now fallen out of favour – not least because buildings don’t get sick. People do. We will try not to use it here.

Now the ‘stage’ is set let us get on – there have been three worthy review articles published over the last ten years:

Damp indoor spaces and health by the Institute of Medicine (2004)

WHO guidelines for indoor air quality: Dampness and mould by the World Health Organisation (2009)

Respiratory and allergic health effects of dampness, mould, and dampness-related agents: a review of the epidemiologic evidence by Mendell et. al. (2011)

Consistent themes have emerged which can be summarised as follows

  1. Damp is bad for respiratory health

  2. Children and the elderly are most vulnerable but adults are also at risk

  3. We do not yet know what the main factors are causing these health problems other than damp

Cure damp and we can cure the vast majority of these health problems. In some cases people will remain allergic (children tend to recover better from allergies) but from the evidence we have it is reasonable to assume most can be helped by moving away from the source of the problem – the damp (or formerly damp) home. Remediation if done correctly and with care does seem to help most people recover so return to a cleaned property is usually feasible, but independent surveys show the standards of the surveying industry are relatively low with respect to damp surveying. All too frequently (70% of the time in the latest survey) the cause of damp in a damp home is misdiagnosed and then incorrect remediation carried out – this does not help a homeowner cure their damp problems!

Selection of tablets

There is little that the medical profession can do yet to treat a person who is still  living or working in the damp building that is causing the problem and make them better – they might be able to mask symptoms for a while to make them manageable but that is all. Far better to remove the cause – the damp building.

One important cause of damp is clear – insufficient ventilation.

Ventilation must be improved regularly by exchange of stale air with fresh. The propensity to save fuel and increase security prevents many from opening windows.

Improvements in heating and insulation have influenced building design and natural ventilation via gaps in floor boards, porous materials in construction and around windows and doors and construction of walls, presence of open fires and chimneys has been replaced with waterproof materials, draft sealants, vapour barrier forming décor, fitted carpets and no chimneys.

Use of inappropriate building materials can also be a factor.

The ISSE sets out to improve training standards for the damp surveying industry, providing a standard of training above and beyond that provided by existing short introductory courses (i.e. CSRT provided by Property Care Association). The National Aspergillosis Centre sets out to better understand and in time diagnose and treat illnesses arising from damp homes.