As winter rolls in and the days darken, Jorda feels a sense of dread. As a severe asthma sufferer, the cold weather irritates her airways and makes breathing difficult. And yet, every month, as her heating bills soar higher, she faces an agonising choice between her health and finances.
“If I don’t turn the heating on, I get sick, but if you can’t breathe you can’t stay alive,” she said. “I’ve been cooking one hot meal a day and making enough for the next because I don’t want to use the hob again, but my energy costs still seem to go up and up. If I’m struggling now, what will I do in January?”
The mother of two, who lives in north-west London, is one of 200,000 sufferers of severe asthma in the country. It is a debilitating condition that does not respond well to treatment. With temperatures set to drop, experts fear many people suffering from respiratory conditions won’t turn on their heating this winter — increasing the risk of properties becoming damp and mouldy.
The report last week of the death of toddler Awaab Ishak due to mould in his flat in Rochdale has sharpened anxieties for people like Jorda, 43, who said her asthma was brought on and worsened by living in damp and mouldy properties in London.
Jorda said her worsening condition has severely affected her ability to work as a hairdresser and has to be managed through a combination of oral steroids and regular injections. “I came to this country from Italy full of energy and hope but now I have the lungs of an 80-year-old,” she said. “I have developed severe anxiety because I am afraid of having an asthma attack in public. I had to go to work even when I was sick because I had to keep earning money.”
Another fearing the coming cold is Sammie Jenkins, 33, who has been sleeping with her two daughters on a mattress in her living room in Lambeth as their bedroom wall is covered in black mould. In February, her three-year-old daughter Mckenzie was taken to hospital, struggling to breathe. “It’s horrible to see your child being ill. I broke down crying watching her going into hospital for the first time.”
The single mother says that her daughter did not have health problems before they moved into the property last July. She claims the flat, which she rents from Lambeth council, may need extensive repairs.
The council said it had been “working to resolve a number of problems for several months” but that the repairs were “complex” and taking “longer than we would like”. Nick Hopkinson, professor of respiratory medicine at Imperial College London, said: “Cold by itself impairs the immune system and makes people more vulnerable to infection, but mould can really worsen asthma or other respiratory conditions. The most vulnerable are often exposed the most.”
Sarah Woolnough, CEO at Asthma + Lung UK, said that the charity had heard from Londoners who were limiting their prescriptions or missing hospital appointments because they can’t afford to get there.