The hidden dangers in student accommodation

Fire safety, black mould and dodgy boilers: What to look out for when house-hunting

No student accommodation comes entirely free of issues, but these can be dangerous as well as irritating – and some are relatively difficult to detect. Here's a quick look at a few of hazards you may want to look out for - and ways to beat common problems.

Mould

Aside from being unsightly, mould can cause a range of health issues. Some people may have allergies to mould, and those suffering from asthma can see symptoms worsen with exposure.

In 2004, the Institute of Medicine found a link between indoor exposure to mould with upper respiratory tract symptoms; coughing and wheezing in otherwise healthy people.

Mould grows best in warm and humid conditions, so watch out for it in the bathroom or basement. If you don’t own a dryer, try to hang wet clothes outside – drying them indoors can be a slow process which may increase humidity and thus encourage mould growth.

Carbon monoxide

Every year 30 people die from carbon monoxide poisoning caused by gas appliances which have not been properly installed or maintained. When gas does not burn properly, excess toxic carbon monoxide is produced, and can cause death within a matter of hours.

Kat Edgar, a History student at King’s College London, was hospitalised with carbon monoxide poisoning after finding a slow leak in her flat.

“I thought I just had the flu, but gradually I noticed a correlation between spending time in the flat and feeling ill,” Kat says. “After all of us started feeling bad, I did some research on the Internet and realised it could be serious.”

Kat subsequently found that her boiler had been leaking the gas, and that her carbon monoxide detector was faulty.

She urges other students to check that they have a carbon monoxide detector installed.

“Since it was my boiler which was leaking silently and not something obvious like a fire, it made me realise that it’s vital to have a functioning device which detects carbon monoxide,” she adds.

Keeping a window or door open for an hour a day will also help to air out common spaces and keep your house well-ventilated. Ask to see a CORGI certificate before you move in to ensure safety checks of your gas appliances are up-to-date.

Fire

It’s a good idea to form a fire escape plan with your housemates, and to perform a few quick checks before sleep to reduce the risk of a fire.

Make sure kitchen appliances are switched off at the wall, don’t cook while intoxicated after a night out, and dispose of any ash or cigarette butts in a non-combustible container. Ideally, don’t smoke inside.

Security

It’s vital to check the security of your student house, and to find out who is responsible for it – do you need to contact the council, your landlord, your letting agent, or a private company in the event of a problem?

Things worth checking are the main door lock, any external locks (for example for entry into a block of flats), and locks on bedroom or bathroom doors. If you have one, it is also worthwhile checking whether the intercom system works, to prevent any communication issues with visitors or deliveries.

Double-glazing

While being cold is unlikely to cause any serious health problems, it can be uncomfortable living in accommodation which is difficult to heat.

If it is something you are concerned about, check the windows for double-glazing, as this makes a huge difference to indoor temperatures.

Warm the kitchen by leaving the oven door slightly ajar after you have finished cooking, and close bedroom doors during the day to keep the heat inside.

General maintenance

Abby Ross, a Theology and Religious Studies student, was forced to move out of her house when the ceiling collapsed. One of her housemates also received a minor electric shock from a light switch after water began leaking through it.

“We could see water staining on the ceiling for a while before it happened,” says Abby. “And then one day the whole thing fell in. Thankfully nobody was hurt.”

Abby and her housemates had to find somewhere to stay for two weeks while repairs were done. Malfunctioning hot water storage caused the collapse, and also infiltrated the electrics.

“Our boiler was about twenty years old,” Abby adds.

It sounds obvious, but treat anything suspicious with absolute caution and report it straight away. Boiler maintenance is essential, and can cause expensive and dangerous problems if not checked regularly.

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