Although housing-related health hazards are a concern for
people of every age group, young children
are at special risk from health hazards in their homes. Young children spend
the vast majority of their time in the home and they are most vulnerable biologically.
Children’s bodies take in proportionately greater amounts of environmental
toxins than adults, and their rapidly developing organs are especially vulnerable
to pollutants. Since children naturally crawl and play on the floor, they are
in direct contact with areas where contaminants accumulate, and they are likely
to ingest those contaminants through their normal hand-to-mouth behavior and
Low-income children are at a significantly higher
risk for lead poisoning than children from upper-income families;
African-American children are at a two times higher risk than white children.
In some distressed neighborhoods, almost one third of preschool children suffer
from elevated blood lead
levels. Asthma is the most
common chronic disease of childhood and health records show that African-American,
Hispanic, and low-income children suffer higher rates of hospitalization, emergency
room visits, and deaths from asthma. Even after accounting for socioeconomic
differences, African-American children are twice as likely to have asthma and
six times more likely to die from it than white children.
Beyond their significant impact on human health, housing-related
environmental health hazards constitute clear and compelling examples of environmental
injustice. Although housing-related health hazards are widespread
in the U.S., these problems tend to be heavily concentrated in particular communities.
Because low-income communities and communities of color are much more likely
to contain substantial pockets of substandard housing, they are at a dramatically
elevated risk for effects associated with indoor environmental hazards. Lead
poisoning and asthma, two of the most widespread and serious diseases related
to substandard housing, have devastating impacts on affected families in lower-income
communities. The diminished human potential associated with these diseases falls
on the very children who can least bear additional disadvantages and is at once
a cause and effect of persistent poverty.
The unhealthy and inadequate housing options available
to many families stem from the profound shortage
of affordable housingacross the country. Monthly housing costs
grow 5-15 percent annually, while the minimum wage has remained at $5.15 since
1997. In 2003, the national average wage needed to make the national average
rent payment was $14.66—almost triple the minimum wage.
The social costs of health hazards in homes range from
the ripple effects of adverse health impacts to economic impacts and reduced
quality of life:
The ripple effects of adverse health impacts include:
Diminished school readiness and performance
School and employment absenteeism
Increased costs for special education
Higher dropout rates
Higher health care costs
Increased burdens on public health agencies
Increased delinquency and criminality, leading to decresed public safety
Reduced lifetime earnings, leading to economic hardship.
Among the economic impacts on the community are:
A stunted tax base, which shortchanges schools and other public service
Housing abandonment and demolition
Diminished supply of decent and affordable housing
Increased liability insurance costs.
Quality of life and community
pride are reduced due to general blight and such problems as:
Dangerous vacant lots and vacant buildings
Degraded environmental conditions
Potential incentives for landlords to illegally discriminate against
Society at large also pays a high price for these illnesses. According to a
February 2000 report of the President’s Task Force on Environmental Health
Risks and Safety Risks to Children, the cost over the next ten years in reduced
lifetime earnings of children affected by lead exposure is expected to be about
$22 billion. The U.S. EPA estimates that the one-year direct and indirect cost
of asthma to the U.S. economy is $14 billion. Clearly, solving these problems
will result in significant savings to taxpayers as medical and special education
costs are lowered and productivity is increased.
Policies and programs that successfully address such housing-related
health hazards can strengthen communities in far-reaching ways. Revitalizing
communities requires improving the availability and quality of affordable housing
and ensuring that all people have access to housing that is safe from environmental
hazards. The wide variations in risks and circumstances among different communities
across the country require solutions
that are community-based.