About Health and Housing
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.
Housing Is a Health Issue
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:
mold, mildew, and pests (such as cockroaches, rodents, and dust mites) can trigger asthma, 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;
lead-based paint 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 particles, radon gas, and second-hand tobacco smoke, all of which can cause cancer, are far higher indoors than outside; and
pesticide 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 growing 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 care costs.
Housing Is an Environmental Issue
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, cockroaches, 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.
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