Sailors aboard two Canadian warships unknowingly slept on mouldy mattresses last year, photographs and documents obtained by CBC News reveal.
It’s the latest twist to an ongoing shipboard mould problem the navy has struggled to reckon with and acknowledge.
The news that some crew members on HMCS St. John’s and HMCS Charlottetown were sleeping on mouldy bedding worries at least one environmental health expert.
“In general, it is not healthy to be exposed to breathing in large quantities of fungal spores — for anyone,” said Karen Bartlett, a professor in the school of population and public health at the University of British Columbia.
CBC News has obtained two sets of photographs that show soggy bedding discovered aboard the frigate HMCS St. John’s in March 2018.
Separately leaked documents outline a similar dilemma aboard the sister ship HMCS Charlottetown.
A health and environment inspection report shows mould was discovered on the underside of a mattress in a cabin with a leaky air conditioning unit.
It was found by accident when a sailor refused to sleep on a wet mattress one night.
“This caused the individual to vacate the compartment until the following morning,” said the inspection report, dated March 15, 2019.
“The next day during clean up, the mattress was removed from the bed and possible mould was reportedly observed on the underside. The mattress was immediately discarded.”
The inspection document did not say when the discovery was made — only that it happened during a port visit to Cuba. The environmental health team that drafted the document also did not witness the incident first-hand but was told about it by the crew.
In its report, the team warned the navy that “several individual air conditioning units and dehumidifiers [aboard Charlottetown] were also observed creating conditions conducive to mould growth.”
The navy ordered health and environmental assessments after CBC News broke stories in 2016 about mouldy conditions on front line frigates.
Before receiving the leaked documents, CBC News asked the Department of National Defence about anecdotal reports of mouldy mattresses on Charlottetown. A spokesman, Dan LeBouthillier, categorically denied those reports.
“There were no reports of mouldy mattresses onboard HMCS Charlottetown,” he said in an email exchange last summer when CBC News renewed its investigation.
Commodore Angus Topshee, commander of Canada’s Pacific fleet, said he couldn’t explain why the department denied the report. He said he suspects it’s because mould on mattresses is considered an aspect of life at sea.
“I wouldn’t say you wouldn’t find a mouldy mattress on a ship because it is one of those things that can happen from time to time,” said Topshee.
On HMCS St. John’s, the problem of mouldy mattresses was even more widespread. Photographs obtained by CBC News show several beds on the St. John’s — all of them less than three months old — crusted with mould.
The environmental inspection report said not everyone gets sick from breathing mould, but people with weakened immune systems and pre-existing health conditions could be put at risk.
“Mould can be a hazard to health for some persons with conditions such as impaired host defences,” said the report. “For the majority of persons, un-disturbed mould is not a substantial health concern.”
Barlett said people will react differently to mould exposure but the most serious consequences can include asthma and a condition known as hypersensitivity pneumonitis — a disease in which the lungs become inflamed by an allergic reaction to inhaled dust, fungus or chemicals.
LeBothillier said the navy is not aware of “any reported health issues from crew members” of either warship.
That does not surprise Bartlett, who said many doctors lack the training to spot the symptoms of mould-related illness. She said researchers in the U.S. have started looking into the under-diagnosis of lung diseases.
“Physicians know very little about diseases caused by mould,” she said.”It’s unfortunate. And with climate change it is something we are going to be seeing more and more of.”
The defence department would not say how many mould-contaminated mattresses had to be replaced, describing it as “part of the routine life cycle for this equipment.”
Topshee said mould contamination is so common on warships that ships maintain extra stocks of bedding, and special instructions have now been issued to crews to check for mould when they’re changing their sheets.
“Any time somebody reports a mouldy mattress, we want to change the mattress, and the ship keeps a stock of mattresses onboard for that reason,” he said.
“There should never be a reason why a sailor should have a mouldy mattress, or feel they couldn’t swap it out.”
One former sailor’s lung condition was recognized by Veterans Affairs Canada as having been caused by exposure to mould and other noxious shipboard substances. Retired lieutenant Alan Doucette’s case was back in court last week but was withdrawn in anticipation of a pending class-action lawsuit involving more than one claimant.
Defence department environmental health assessments have looked at four frigates so far — HMCS Winnipeg, HMCS Charlottetown, HMCS Calgary and HMCS Halifax. They show shipboard mould growth is typically found in specific areas related to air conditioning and ventilation systems and other confined spaces where food is stored.
Finding it in crew members’ bunks raises questions about the navy’s mitigation strategy.
LeBothillier said whenever mould is pointed out, crew members clean it “immediately.” He said navy engineers are looking at installing a type of insulation in some parts of ships’ ventilation systems that is mould-resistant.
The navy consistently has downplayed the problem and has insisted that engineering fixes to ventilation systems would solve the problem.
Documents leaked to CBC News show two of the four warships surveyed by the environmental health team have had those upgrades and still show “heavy mould growth” in their air conditioning plants and other cabins.