Prior to the coronavirus outbreak, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) estimated that Americans spend approximately 90% of their time indoors. With a majority of the country under some form of stay-at-home order, the air quality and materials used in these spaces tremendously affect the health of everyone inside of them. As we come out of the pandemic, there is sure to be a shift toward more of the workforce working from home, and, at least for a while, individuals will be more inclined to stay home to avoid crowded restaurants, bars, and recreational areas, among others.
Indoor air is typically two to five times more polluted than outdoor air, which is largely due to the synthetic or chemically processed materials that the buildings themselves are comprised of, according to the EPA. Depending on the specific materials used in a building, there could be potential toxins that negatively affect a human’s long-term health and productivity. In fact, research shows that the toxins associated with these types of materials can be linked to increased incidence of chronic diseases, such as asthma, diabetes, and certain types of cancer. With a heightened emphasis on respiratory health because of the pandemic, now is the time to shift our focus toward healthy building products.
Who Does This Impact?
While the use of healthy materials in homes is of the utmost importance for all of us as we shift to a more homebound lifestyle, for many reasons, the affordable housing sector is one of the populations in most need of healthy homes. According to a TIME analysis of income data for each ZIP code in New York City versus those impacted by the coronavirus, those who live in lower-income ZIP codes represent 36% of all cases of the disease.
Affordable housing residents are often the most susceptible to the harmful toxins in buildings, and individuals who have a lower socioeconomic status have higher risks of developing chronic conditions, such as heart disease, obesity, and diabetes, as further demonstrated during the pandemic. Health issues have an even deeper impact on vulnerable populations, because the consequences of expensive health care and lengthy treatment drastically impact their finances and ability to move out of low-income properties, making the shift toward healthier products even more critical.
What Materials Are Harmful?
There is a long list of dangerous chemicals that can be found within the home and adversely affect human health. These toxins are found in places that humans regularly interact with and enter the human body via air, food, water, and even dust. For example, rugs often harbor harmful pollutants that can trigger asthma, and lead and polychlorinated biphenyls are frequently found in recycled flooring. Flame retardants, containing potentially harmful toxins, can be found in old furniture and carpet padding. Mercury is used in many types of heating, ventilating, and air conditioning. Adhesives in flooring can contain toxic volatile organic compounds, and paint is infamously known as one of the most common causes of lead poisoning. Furthermore, the combination of these dangerous chemicals causes a poor indoor air quality that can create or contribute to serious respiratory issues such as chronic lung diseases like asthma and lung cancer. While each of these substances were created with good intentions and functional purposes in mind, the widespread human health risks that accompany these products are finally coming to light.
What Are the Effects?
Alarmingly, these chemicals can also have long-lasting impacts on the respiratory system and developing brain. Research shows that minority adults who live in low-income households suffer the highest rates of asthma, asthma-related mortality rates, and hospital stays. This can be linked to increased asthma triggers found in affordable housing units, such as deteriorated asbestos, lead hazards, mold, and inadequate ventilation. Additionally, these toxins have tremendous effects on the developing brain. According to Dr. David Bellinger, a neurology professor at Harvard Medical School, children are being exposed to “unrecognized toxic chemicals that are silently eroding intelligence, disrupting behaviors, and truncating future achievements.” He estimated in a 2012 paper that 41 million IQ points have been collectively forfeited as a result of exposure to mercury, lead, and other toxins. Because of this, children who are heavily exposed to toxins simply will not reach their potential peak cognitive ability, and this loss of future capability demonstrates the overwhelming severity of this issue.
How Can We Avoid These Harmful Products?
As we, as a nation, begin to think about the ways we can build a healthier America, we must think about all of the ways we can help make a difference in this space. When building new properties, simple switches—such as wood or linoleum flooring instead of carpeting—can have a measurable impact on the health of residents. Although we cannot always change what our existing homes are built out of, we can impact what goes inside of them, especially when we are remodeling or redecorating.
Kelly Kreuzinger, a LEED AP certified professional, believes that sustainable strategies within the household have an abundance of benefits including cleaner air, restful sleep, higher productivity, and better moods. Furthermore, a study conducted by the Harvard Center for Health and Global Environment found that relocating workers into green buildings constructed with healthy building materials led to a direct increase in overall health. Specifically, research shows that those working in green-certified buildings had on average a 30% decrease in self-reported sick-building symptoms such as respiratory problems, fatigue, and skin irritations.
To begin to address the nation’s health needs, I’m proud to announce that HPN Select has launched a tool to make it easier for building developers, architects, designers, and owners to incorporate healthier and more sustainable materials. The tool, called EcoGuide, leverages HPN Select’s deep wealth of information and relationships with manufacturers to not only make it easy to select healthy building materials but to help educate about why the products are healthier. It also harnesses the collective buying power of multifamily developers to negotiate lower prices with manufacturers to make healthier products more affordable. The time to act on building healthier homes and buildings is now.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Richard Kingston is the vice president of sustainability at HPN Select and brings over 20 years of experience in the property management industry, along with several industry designations in affordable housing. His work focuses on creating healthy, energy-efficient, and sustainable affordable housing across the country, and he is active in state and local multifamily real estate advocacy organizations, primarily in the New England and Mid-Atlantic regions.