'Fluffy' mould in council house could have caused illness that killed Mansfield woman

A general view of The Council House in Old Market Square, Nottingham city centre.
-Credit: (Image: Joseph Raynor/ Nottingham Post)

A coroner has concluded that mould could have been one of the causes of a Nottinghamshire mother's deadly illness. Jane Bennett, 52, died on June 8, 2023, at King's Mill Hospital in Sutton-in-Ashfield due to acute exacerbation of non-specific interstitial pneumonitis.

Mrs Bennett lived in Eather Avenue, Mansfield Woodhouse, in a bungalow owned by Mansfield District Council from October 2022 until her final hospital admission in May 2023. She identified severe mould in her property, with an inquest hearing into her death on Friday, June 21, at Nottingham Council House, being told that the mould was "really fluffy and looked like a carpet".

Mrs Bennett's condition causes inflammation between the air sacks and the lungs. Dr John Hutchinson, a respiratory consultant at King's Mill Hospital, who looked after Mrs Bennett in the last days of her life, said her condition affected the structure of the lungs, rather than the airways, leading to breathlessness and a cough with an increased need for oxygen as the condition progresses.

The interstitial pneumonitis was "promptly" diagnosed on a CT scan on April 1, 2023, and was followed by frequent admissions to hospital, with Mrs Bennett's condition deteriorating every time she returned home. The court was told Mrs Bennett's mother died in similar circumstances just weeks before.

Upon examining lung tissue under the microscope, the pathologist saw features of chronic inflammation, with fibrosis or scarring specific to allergic reactions to foreign substances in the body. In her comments to the Coroner, she said: "In the view of history and autopsy findings in my opinion death was due to acute infective exacerbation of interstitial lung disease.

"Mould in her house could have contributed for the development of interstitial lung disease." Professor David Hawksworth, who conducted an expert report on the case and was present at the hearing, said: "It is possible there was an involvement of mould in this case, you can’t exclude mould was involved.

"Mould was likely to be the primary cause leading to her death." The report concluded that it is difficult to be clear that the mould was the probable cause for the disease, as there was no sampling of the mould in Mrs Bennett's home, which has now been let to a new tenant.

Concerns have been raised by Mrs Bennett regarding the mould in her bedroom, who said her breathlessness began after moving into the bungalow. She made the respiratory team aware of this in early May 2023, with the team identifying that this could have contributed to the development of the interstitial lung disease.

Multiple tests were undertaken to discover the presence of fungi or moulds in her lungs, but these came back negative. Besides the mould in Mrs Bennett's home and her vaping and smoking history that dated back to her teenage years, her prescription of fluoxetine, an antidepressant which is known to cause lung problems, was also taken into consideration.

Mrs Bennett's family and friends told the court that the woman did not, however, take the medication. Coroner Elizabeth Didcock said: "This is again a possible cause, but seems less likely given the family's evidence." Vaping was also "a possibility, rather than a probability" in causing Mrs Bennet's condition.

After hearing all the evidence, coroner Didcock said Mrs Bennett's treatment was appropriate. She said: "I'm clear there are no issues of care here. All was done that could have been done.

"None of these possible causes of the interstitial lung disease have reached the required level of proof, which is probable cause." The coroner added she welcomes the inspection of the nearby council properties in the area following Mrs Bennett's death.

She said: "I have not identified any omissions in the services provided to Jane in relation to the attempts to deal with the issues. I simply do not have a cause for the interstitial lung disease.

"It's possible that it's a naturally occurring disease process, but it's also possible that it's a consequence of exposure to mould or vaping. I cannot exclude mould as a contributory factor, nor can I exclude vaping.

"My narrative conclusion is as follows. Jane died of rapidly progressing interstitial lung disease. Despite treatment, the cause of the interstitial lung disease has not been established.

"The required standard of proof has not been reached, despite exploration of all possible causes. Lastly, I extend my sincere condolences to you [family and friends in the courtroom], I am so sorry for Jane's loss."

A Prevention Of Future Deaths report was issued by another coroner for Nottingham and Nottinghamshire, Neema Sharma, in November 2023. The coroner said: "I am concerned that mould in Mrs Bennett’s property and other properties in that area owned and maintained by Mansfield District Council may pose a risk that future deaths could occur.

"I ask for the aforesaid properties to be inspected for mould and action be taken to ensure any further exposure to mould by any tenant is minimised." Jill Finnesey, head of housing at Mansfield District Council, was present at the hearing on Friday.

In a previous statement, she said: "We are deeply saddened by the death of Jane Bennett and offer our sincere condolences to her family. In our response to the coroner, the council seeks to provide certainty that we responded to inspections, successfully completed all repairs, including those relating to damp and mould, in a timely manner.

"We want to give assurance that the council was diligent in carrying out appropriate works to her property during her short tenancy."