Where the mould grows - Clayoquot Sound First Nations poor housing conditions
This is what the First Nations of Clayoquot Sound are facing, high unemployment, poor housing conditions and little hope. With logging and mining about to begin, resource extraction is looked to as the ways and means out of desperation.
Where the mould grows Maureen Atleo's abandoned house on the Ahousat Reserve is one of 45 buildings condemned because of an invasive black mould sprouting from walls and floors. And still the government and the Ahousaht band bicker over who's responsible for finding a solution
Special to Globe and Mail Update
July 25, 2008 at 6:08 PM EDT
AHOUSAT, B.C. — Maureen Atleo's house at 733 Ahousat Reserve stands empty now, except for the mould covering the walls and windows, the abandoned possessions, and the memories of a dead infant son.
"Every room has mould in it," said Ms. Atleo, a wife and mother of six. "It's strong, kind of like a musty smell."
Downstairs, mould stains the inside surface of the back door and invades the drywall. In the laundry room — down the hall, past a former mushroom patch — mould blackens the corners. Upstairs, it dirties the living-room windows. The scene is repeated in the master bedroom, where Ms. Atleo's nearly seven-month-old son died from sudden infant death syndrome in 2001.
"It's given us headaches. My children have asthma. We've lost a son. He died of SIDS when we lived in this house. It's affected us dearly," she said — although there's no proven link between mould and SIDS.
Maureen Atleo stands in the doorway of her abandoned home, where damp possessions litter the floor and mould lines the walls. (John Lehmann/The Globe and Mail)
The Globe's John Lehmann portrays the plight of the First Nations of Ahousat, B.C. who fighting deadly mould that has taken over their homes
The Atleos' house may be one of the newest in Ahousat, but it's not unique. Community leaders say of 144 local homes, mould affects about 100, and some 45 of those are now condemned.
Just who's responsible for the problem? "It's one of those things where Joe blames Bill and Bill blames Bob and nothing gets done and that's where we're at," said John Frank, deputy chief of the Ahousaht First Nation.
Federal agencies — Indian and Northern Affairs, Canada Mortgage and Housing Corporation, and Health Canada — say the band is responsible for home construction, administration and maintenance. Ahousaht leaders argue the government should shoulder some blame. They say better economic conditions would help solve the problem.
Home for the Ahousaht is a pristine, wet and isolated island off Vancouver Island's central west coast. Flores Island is located halfway between Tofino and Estevan Point, and in the middle of the Clayoquot Sound UNESCO Biosphere Reserve.
To the east, Pacific swells pummel the island's coastline. To the west, mountains — blanketed by a lush cover of old- and second-growth trees — rise from the black waters of the sound. Access is possible only by plane or water taxi. Environment Canada says an annual average 3,176.9 millimetres and 3,257.4 millimetres of precipitation fall on Estevan Point and Tofino respectively.
In this wet and isolated community, overcrowded houses are an issue. According to the 2006 census, 661 residents live in Ahousat, although Mr. Frank said the population is more like 900 year-round and 1,400 in the summer. The majority of the 144 houses were built in the 1960s with Indian Affairs funding; 27 were built between 1989 and 2004 with the help of CMHC.
"We have a family of 16 living in a three-bedroom home," Mr. Frank said. "We have a family of 12 living in a two-bedroom home." With membership growing by 25 to 30 people a year, Mr. Frank said the band needs another 300 units.
It's not surprising, then, that mould has become a problem in Ahousat. Karen Bartlett, associate professor of environmental health at the University of British Columbia, said microscopic mould spores require only oxygen, a nutrient source and moisture to grow.
Moisture, she added, can come from several inside and outside sources: shower condensation, cooking, plumbing problems and basement leaks, especially if the house sits on a high water table. Once present, she said, mould can cause asthma, coughing, bronchitis, itchy and irritated eyes, runny noses and blocked sinuses. As for any link between mould and SIDS, she said: "There just isn't enough evidence to say mould can cause it."
Mould was present inside 733 Ahousat Reserve long before it became Ms. Atleo's home. Invited by her aunt, Ms. Atleo moved her family into the house in 2000, only to find mushrooms growing around the base of the upstairs toilet.
Months later, on April 14, 2001, Ms. Atleo's infant son died. A health assessment followed, and Ms. Atleo said she washed the mould with soap and water — as directed by nurses. "But it always came back," she said.
Their health problems continued. "My husband and my children are all asthmatic and several have been hospitalized due to the chronic breathing problems, and they all suffer with allergies." When it rained the house leaked, and a patch of mushrooms sprouted in the downstairs hall.