A century ago, advances in housing
— everything from indoor plumbing to vented combustion appliances
— were driven by the need to protect health. Today, the link between
good housing and good health is often overlooked or taken for granted.
However, housing directly affects everyone’s health, and conditions
in our homes can cause or contribute to many diseases and conditions.
Many common health hazards in housing are also environmental problems
that can place young children, the elderly, and even entire communities
at greater risk.
Because most individuals spend so much time inside, our homes typically
account for a major share of exposures to toxics, irritants, allergens,
and gases that can cause disease and hurt our health. For example:
and pests (such as cockroaches,
dust mites) can
the leading cause of absences from elementary school;
carbon monoxide poisoning
from combustion appliances, such as stoves, furnaces, and
gas heaters, claims several hundred lives each year in the U.S. and
causes flu-like symptoms at lower levels;
in older housing is the primary cause of childhood
lead poisoning, which reduces children’s intelligence,
interferes with learning, and causes behavior problems;
exposures to asbestos
gas, and second-hand tobacco smoke, all of which can cause cancer,
are far higher indoors than outside; and
residues in our homes can pose significant risks for neurological
damage and cancer.
Health care providers, government officials, property owners, and consumers
all need to realize the importance of decent housing to good health. A
body of scientific research has demonstrated that children
who live in homes that are well ventilated, dry, and free of pests, poisons,
and dangerous gases will be healthier and lead fuller lives. In particular,
the current preoccupation with drug therapies for asthma needs to shift
to give greater emphasis to reducing children’s exposure to asthma
triggers and sensitizers in the home environment.
Addressing housing-related health hazards can significantly improve occupants’
health and quality of life while saving billions of dollars in health
Everyone knows that pollutants in our environment
directly affect our health. Though we usually think of the environment
as the outside world, scientists have long known that indoor exposures
far exceed outdoor levels for most pollutants. Because toxic substances
(such as lead and asbestos)
and harmful gases (such as carbon
monoxide and radon)
build up in confined spaces, indoor levels are at least 10 times higher
than outdoors for many pollutants of concern.
While protecting our air, water, and land from environmental
pollution has become a top national priority, environmental health risks
in our homes have been largely overlooked, despite the fact that most
people spend about 90 percent of their time indoors.
Young Children and the Elderly
Infants and toddlers, whose developing systems make
them most sensitive to pollutants, spend lots of time at home. Substandard
housing is, in fact, the nation’s #1 environmental health threat
to young children.
The elderly also tend to stay at home more than members
of other age groups, putting them at heightened risk for health hazards
in the home environment.
Low-Income Communities of Color
While homes of any age and value can harbor serious
environmental hazards, older, low-income properties that are in substandard
condition typically present the greatest risks. These homes are more likely
to contain toxic substances, such as asbestos and lead-based paint. In
addition, deferred maintenance in these properties often results in moisture
and water leaks that encourage infestations of mold,
mildew, dust mites,
rodents, and other
pests. Millions of American families live in physically substandard homes
or have insufficient income to support basic property maintenance.
The fact that older, substandard housing is often
concentrated in low-income communities of color makes housing-related
health hazards a pressing environmental justice priority as well.
Help us work for healthy affordable housing for all—make
your tax-deductible contribution to the Alliance today!