Black mould on navy ships: ‘So bad that people threw up’

 

An Esquimalt sailor says he’s been suffering from severe respiratory problems ever since being deployed on navy ships he claims were riddled with mould.

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His story is similar to that of two former sailors who spoke with the Times Colonist about what they say are long-lasting health implications of mould exposure during deployments.

The Royal Canadian Navy says it has made changes to the heating ventilation and air-conditioning systems on all 12 Halifax-class frigates to mitigate mould discovered in 2009.

The navy is also in the midst of a hazardous health air-quality assessment that started last week on HMCS Winnipeg, which is deployed in the Indo-Asia Pacific region. Tests will be conducted on all the ships in the fleet.

The Canadian Forces Base Esquimalt sailor was deployed for six months on HMCS Algonquin, a few years before the Iroquois-class destroyer was decommissioned in 2016. He says he was sleeping directly beneath a ventilation unit that leaked water onto his pillow.

“That was the air I was breathing every night,” said the sailor, who did not want to give his name or rank because he believes speaking out could have repercussions for his career.

He says he had a severe cough and pneumonia-like symptoms.

He also suffered a respiratory illness after a six-week deployment on HMCS Regina.

The sailor says Canadian Forces physicians did not connect his symptoms to mould and that he had difficulty obtaining his medical records to bring to a civilian health specialist.

When he did get those records, he did not see any mention of his concerns about mould exposure, despite consistently bringing it up. He says a civilian doctor believes exposure to mould is a leading potential factor in his respiratory illness.

“I’ve been sick as a dog for three and a half years,” he says.

The sailor’s case is similar to that of Alan Doucette, a retired navy lieutenant who has been diagnosed with hyperactive airway disorder caused by exposure to mould and diesel fumes.

Doucette did his two-year training in Victoria from 2003 to 2005 and was then posted to CFB Halifax.

In 2006, after several years of overseas deployments with NATO in Europe and North Africa, Doucette suffered from rashes on his arms and legs, difficulty breathing and chronic coughing.

“By the time I got to a respirologist in 2007, I had nearly lost half of my lung capacity,” Doucette said.

Doucette was flown home in the middle of a deployment on HMCS Athabaskan in 2009 because his coughing was so bad.

The 36-year-old was medically discharged in 2012.

“I was perfectly healthy my whole life before I worked on navy ships,” he said.

Brian Dicks, a retired sailor who worked out of CFB Halifax, said he’s had flu-like symptoms since 2007, when he was deployed aboard HMCS Vancouver, a CFB Esquimalt-based ship.

Dicks said he could see black mould around pipes and that conditions on board the ship were filthy.

Pat MacLaughlin, a retired chief petty officer who was chief engine-room engineer on two frigates based out of CFB Halifax, said he has seen first-hand the extent of the mould problem.

After retiring in 2005, McLaughlin was rehired as the life-cycle material manager for the ships’ heating, ventilation and air condition system.

In trying to determine why the cooling system was not functioning properly, McLaughlin’s team opened up the ventilation system on HMCS St. John’s. They found extensive black mould.

“We’re not talking little pieces of mould — we’re talking massive amounts of mould in the ventilation system,” MacLaughlin said. “It was so bad that people threw up.”

Commodore Jeff Zwick, commander of Canada’s Pacific fleet, said technical upgrades have been made on the ships to address the issues that caused mould.

Modifications were made to ensure moisture drains from the primary air-conditioning system on all 12 Halifax-class ships.

Air-conditioning control systems have been upgraded on two of the ships, which is expected to be completed fleet-wide by 2020.

“Any time there’s humidity, mould is a challenge, and when we find it, we address it as quickly as we can,” Zwick said.

The Department of National Defence said it is not aware “of any significant health-related complaints associated with mould exposure on [Royal Canadian Navy] ships.”

Zwick said in the past two years he has been in command, he has not heard any mould-related health concerns from CFB Esquimalt members.

“If there are sailors who have a concern, we’d ask them to immediately contact the medical system as well as inform the chain of command to make sure both sides are being taken care of,” he said.

kderosa@timescolonist.com

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