Is your house making you sick?

When we started house-hunting in the Catskills 20 years ago, my husband and I stopped on a whim to tour a prefabricated home, and I had an unexpected reaction. After about five minutes, my eyes and lips started burning and my sinuses became severely congested. Everything in the house was plastic, from the faux-wood doors and trim to the carpet and even the wall studs, visible in the unfinished attic, and it was off-gassing chemical irritants like formaldehyde. Dizzy and wheezing, I fled to the fresh air. 

It was the first time I understood that even a new home could make a person physically sick, and I often wonder how many families are unwittingly living in toxic conditions that may include volatile organic compounds from building materials—engineered wood, paints, adhesives and sealants—as well as radon, carbon monoxide, mold and health hazards from household cleaning products. Air sealing for energy efficiency without providing proper ventilation technology can make things worse.

We have great programs that offer free home energy assessments and financing for renovations to improve energy efficiency, and the contractors who perform those assessments are trained to check furnaces, water heaters, boilers and cooking stoves for safety. But renovations not directly related to energy use are not always allowed in the renovation plans approved for financing under these programs, because the non-energy health benefits of home energy improvements are not sufficiently recognized or measured. So I’ve always thought that better understanding and exchange of information between health practitioners and the energy efficiency industry might result in more comprehensive renovations that would achieve measurable improvements in public health outcomes as well as energy cost savings.

The Green and Healthy Homes Initiative (GHHI) estimates that the U.S. loses $82.4 billion each year in costs related to unhealthy and inefficient housing, including $43.4 billion related to lead poisoning (and that’s a 2014, pre-Flint MI statistic), $20 billion in asthma-related illness and $19 billion related to injuries in the home. With the support of the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) and Housing and Urban Development (HUD), the Centers for Disease Control and the Council on Foundations, GHHI has produced more than 5,000 healthy housing units in communities across the country (including Buffalo, Syracuse and Philadelphia), using a holistic, integrated approach that cross-trains healthcare professionals and the home energy industry, mobilizes public and private funding and includes consumer education to address a range of issues including allergens, toxins, mold, lead paint and lead in drinking water, and radon.

One of GHHI’s partners is Enterprise Green Communities, a certification process that ensures that affordable housing units are also healthy, energy efficient, and designed and located to promote safe, walkable neighborhoods and access to health care services, locally-grown food and opportunities for healthy recreation. The good news:  the holistic Enterprise Green Communities Criteria, which include community participation in the design process, are now the standard for many housing rehab and new construction projects, and adherence is frequently a condition of securing state and federal financing. 

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