|Every home can be healthy.
Good construction and rehab as well as regular maintenance can ensure healthy
housing conditions. Watching out for health impacts in the way we care for,
construct, and change our homes is a smart investment that will save health
care dollars and improve the efficiency, comfort, and durability of our
There is now considerable interest in “green” building strategies
that reduce both the environmental impacts of construction and residential
exposure to hazards. While this movement is affecting some new construction,
it mostly benefits upper-income households. These strategies rarely reach
low-income communities of color that face the highest risks of exposure
to pesticides, lead, carbon monoxide, asthma triggers, and so forth.
Preventing environmental exposure to protect the health of the most at-risk
families requires low-cost interventions that are suited to the older
properties typically occupied by low-income households. Since many already
pay more of their income toward their housing costs than they can afford,
the incremental cost of steps to make homes healthy must be reasonable.
A range of practical, low-cost, and feasible approaches to assessing
and improving housing condition while preserving affordability are now
available. These include assessment tools, basic guidelines for construction
and repair work, and preventive maintenance.
Homeowners and rental property owners can stay ahead of potential health
hazards—and other kinds of problems—by regularly checking
for evidence of problems. Performing a visual survey is free, requires
minimal training or special knowledge, and can, for example, help uncover
a roof leak that portends potential mold and lead-based paint hazards,
and ultimately serious structural problems. Testing for hazards can cost
very little for supplies (a few dollars for a spot test kit to check paint
for lead and $5-$10 for the analysis of a lead dust, soil, or paint sample)
or reusable equipment ($50 for a carbon monoxide monitor). Engaging the
help of a professional can cost a few hundred dollars. In some cases,
health departments and community organizations may be able to check the
house for free.
Maintenance practices that are sensitive to health considerations also
play an important role in prevention. Regular maintenance can avoid water
leaks and moisture problems and avoid paint deterioration. Modest changes
in paint repair practices can avoid creating lead dust hazards. An ideal
time for preventive maintenance and repairs is when properties are vacant.
Housing affordability can be enhanced by healthy homes interventions
that reduce utility costs. The incremental cost of energy improvements,
ranging from $500 to $3,000, can yield savings of one-third to one-half
of a household’s annual utility bills. Some of these improvements
offer important health benefits: old windows that are replaced can no
longer shed lead-based paint and dust; arrested moisture can’t breed
more mold or loosen intact lead paint; closed wall openings won’t
admit more pests or exhaust fumes.
Moisture control and good ventilation, which are essential strategies
to achieve a healthy home
environment, also improve building durability and reduce
maintenance costs. Newer building materials, such as drywall and gypsum
board, typically retain far more water than plaster and other traditional
materials. Keeping water out and maintaining low humidity protect against
the deterioration of building materials and problems such as wood rot
and mold. Simple steps to ensure that gutters and downspouts function,
that site grading moves water away from buildings, and that flashing around
windows, doors, and roofs directs water away from wall cavities will all
help to minimize water problems. Appropriate ventilation that keeps inside
humidity low helps to avoid damage to walls and ceilings from excess moisture.