In December last year, Jane noticed a musty smell coming from her brother Andrew’s clothes.
Andrew has Down Syndrome and lives with five other residents at Sale, in Victoria’s east, in a supported group home for people with a disability.
Andrew is unable to talk, but upon further investigation, Jane (surname withheld) found fungus growing on the skirting board of Andrew’s bedroom wall.
The home is run by Victoria’s Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS).
“It looked like a toadstool of about 7.5cm long growing out of that wall,” she said.
A shower had been leaking from an adjacent room, and mould had grown throughout Andrew’s chest of drawers, wall and carpet.
“We immediately notified the person [working] on that night and they obviously were quite shocked to find that growth and the wet clothing,” she said.
The carpet was removed after about a week but the bare concrete floor was left uncovered for the next five months.
Mould contributes to illness
Andrew’s family also raised concerns that the department had not properly tested for mould spores, which can easily spread.
The department assured them that it had been taken care of and there was no risk to Andrew or anyone else in the home, but Andrew continued to get sick.
“Around the time that we found the mould he did have quite a nasty respiratory infection,” Jane said.
“[The GP] was definitive that having been exposed to mould would be a contributing factor to his illness.
“It seems as if he has been ill more frequently and we’ve also noticed that he’s had inflamed eyes and different symptoms that we haven’t recalled him having prior to this,” Jane said.
Five months after the issue was first raised the department has now moved Andrew to temporary accommodation while a contractor replaces the affected wall and the floor covering.
“Here’s five months delay and in that time there has almost certainly been negative impacts on my brother and possibly others in his house,” Jane said.
Department’s handling ‘deplorable’
After the initial lacklustre response from the department, Jane reached out to a mould expert.
Specialist microbiologist Cameron Jones gave Jane advice after seeing the photos of the mould in Andrew’s bedroom and described the situation as “extremely serious”.
“Based on the photographic evidence there’s been long-term water damage to walls and floors.
“This needed to be dealt with immediately,” Dr Jones said.
He advised that the home’s residents be evacuated until spore testing had been conducted to ensure the residence was safe, but the department did not follow his recommendation.
“All of these moulds produce an acute infection but they also produce mycotoxins, which have a whole range of toxic [effects] on the body.”
“We’re not just talking about a respiratory-type complaint or a sinus infection, it can be significantly more serious.”
“Anyone who is immuno-compromised has a weakened immune system and can’t fight off these infectious agents,” Dr Jones said.
The ABC understands several of the home’s residents have compromised immune systems linked to their disabilities.
“It appears that the problem has been ignored or actively covered up,” Dr Jones said.
Dr Jones said he believed the department had failed in its duty of care.
“Deplorable. That’s my one-word response.”
The department told the ABC that more recent testing was carried out in May but did not comment about what kind of testing had been conducted when the issue was first raised.
“A contractor inspected the bedroom wall and found some old water damage,” the department said.
“No evidence of mould was found.
“However, to allay the family’s concerns, mould tests were undertaken by a microbiologist.
“The results from that surface and air testing were typical of an indoor environment and are therefore unlikely to have any associated health risks.”
Dr Jones said the department’s findings did not add up.
“If further building works are being implemented it means that whatever testing was done most recently has in a sense failed the indoor air quality [test] and the recommendation must have been to strip out and remove the affected areas,” he said.
DHHS admits it should have acted faster
The department said it, “acknowledges that more could have been done sooner to address this matter”.
“We apologise to both the client and the family for this.”
Jane said her family never received an apology from the department and the first time she was aware of it was when she was shown the department’s statement to the ABC.
“I have not received an apology, which I find quite extraordinary,” she said.
“I think it shows a lack of respect for those who are really trying to do the best for their relatives.
“My brother and many others in the disability sector are unable to speak up for themselves so they rely on having advocates to act on their behalf.”
Frustrated by the initial lack of action by the department Jane wrote to the Minister for Housing and Disability, Martin Foley.
“He responded basically directing us back to the managers who had failed to act.
“That was very disappointing,” Jane said.
The department said “the health and safety of clients is the department’s priority”, but Jane said the department’s inadequate actions proved the statement to be “empty rhetoric”.
“We had a trust that the department would have acted far more promptly.
“We kept emailing saying ‘what was going to be done?’.
“Unfortunately there have been previous failures and each time something goes amiss.
“It is disillusioning that it took media contact for the action to take place,” Jane said.
Jane advised people advocating for a family member with a disability to not rely solely on the department when they need to rectify a matter.
“Seek external advocacy and you’ll probably get a better outcome much more promptly than what we’ve achieved in this case.”