Experts say a push for energy efficiency carries a cost to human health, in some cases, like when sealed houses exacerbate asthma. How to go green and be well.
Is a green house that’s better for the environment, better for your health, too? Not necessarily say some experts, who point out improved energy efficiency gained by tightening up homes may increase the chances for those inside to get sick.
“The increase in respiratory illnesses that we’ve seen over the last 20 years could be the result of tighter buildings that do not exchange indoor and outdoor air,” says John Wargo, a researcher with Yale University and board member with the nonprofit Environment and Human Health, which seeks to protect human health from environmental harms.
The average American spends about 90 percent of their time inside, according to the EPA, and the agency says exposure to indoor air pollutants ranks as one of the top environmental risks to public health. EPA studies show our exposure to indoor air pollutants may be two to five times — and occasionally more than 100 times — higher than outdoor pollutant levels.
While outdoor air quality has improved in recent decades, critics say tighter construction can concentrate pollutants ranging from combustion in fireplaces to building materials and furnishings and products that “off-gas” or put off harmful chemicals into the air.
Wargo notes specifically that energy efficient construction could have contributed to the rise in asthma rates, which only leveled off in recent years. That echoes a similar assertion made by Dr. Nathan Rabinovitch, an asthma specialist at highly rated National Jewish Health in Denver, along with other health and housing experts. They say poor ventilation combined with triggers such as dust and mold can exacerbate allergies and asthma.
Does certified green mean certified healthy?
Seeking to improve upon more energy efficient construction, the U.S. Green Building Council’s rigorous stamp of approval attests that LEED-certified green homes are not only better for the planet but also for the health of occupants.
Making up a small but growing fraction of energy-efficient homes, the number of LEED certified housing units worldwide doubled from 2011 to 2013 to about 150,000, based on the latest numbers released by the Green Building Council in January.
“We have requirements on combustion, require ventilation, require radon-resistant construction,” says Asa Foss, LEED Residential Technical Development Director for the USGBC. “All the major known causes of poor indoor quality in buildings, especially homes, we have prerequisites around so projects have to address those.” That’s in addition to other safeguards and sealing out hazardous chemicals, from dangerous exhaust in the garage to dust and rat poop in the attic.
Other steps include reducing consumption of fossil fuels that pollute the air. Homes must also use low-VOC paint, now a widely popular product for green and non-green construction alike. “It’s a very primary focus of ours to make sure these homes are as healthy as possible,” Foss says.
Still, Wargo, who has studied LEED-certified buildings closely, says the certification effectively encourages energy efficiency through tighter construction that often concentrates hazardous chemicals and substances inside buildings, including homes. And he says the Green Building Council has failed to prove green-certified buildings are healthier than traditional construction. “The jury is still out,” he says.
Experts on both sides of the debate stress the importance of utilizing improved ventilation systems that circulate fresh air in, while losing a minimum amount of air for heat and air conditioning.
Pay careful attention, too, experts say, to avoid toxic building materials in your house and furnishings and products, such as cleaning solutions or anything that might increase the chemicals and hazards, like mold, in the home. “Materials such as carpeting and upholstery … any of those fibers can potentially put off gases, such as formaldehyde,” says Dr. Albert Rizzo, past chair of the American Lung Association. Based in Newark, Delaware, the pulmonologist serves as Chief of Pulmonary and Critical Care Medicine at highly rated Christiana Care Health System.
Whole-house ventilation systems may help
Dennis Doiron of Phippsburg, Maine, says he developed asthma when he lived in an airtight home constructed to prioritize energy efficiency. “We made a super tight house and proceeded to fill it up with brand new carpeting and its associated off-gassing,” he says of his previous home in Berkley, Mass.
The house held in moisture too, Doiron says, another problem with poor ventilation. That rotted windows sills in the bathroom, requiring replacement. “We didn’t take any steps to exchange air. We took all steps to stop leakage,” he says. An allergist Doiron saw at the time mentioned off-gassing could have contributed to his asthma, he says, adding he squarely blames the home he lived in for his condition. “I’m convinced, I’m fully convinced,” he says.
Today, Doiron lives in a home with whole-house ventilation and says he’s “mostly cured” of his asthma and off almost all medication for it. “I plan to be off all asthma medication soon,” he says.
Neither Doiron’s former or current home went through the green-building certification process, and green building advocates point out that certification through the Green Building Council and other major bodies requires ventilation.
Kurt Johnson, owner of highly rated Fresh Air Ventilation Systems in Lewiston, Maine, thinks that’s a good thing, but like Wargo, he’s still not convinced standards go far enough to protect homeowners. “It’s a bigger problem now for two reasons. One: We’re building tighter. Two: We continue to bring a tremendous amount of chemicals into our houses,” he says.
How do you know if your home is healthy?
There’s no perfect formula to measure the healthiness of your home. “It’s hard to quantify, that’s part of the problem with getting the word out,” says Johnson, whose company tests indoor air quality, and installs and repairs home ventilation systems. He adds that it’s much easier to measure energy efficiency. As a result, he and others contend, the focus on energy usage, including dollars saved, overshadows increased allergies or the dull sense of being under the weather that you feel when inside, but can’t explain.
Johnson doesn’t insert cracks in houses or recommend old construction methods. Still, just as he’s put off by the new car smell — it’s off-gassing, he explains — Johnson doesn’t see new construction, green or otherwise as necessarily improving on the health of homes. He thinks it behooves a homeowner to do their homework to properly ventilate their homes, in addition to remaining vigilant about what they bring into the home.
He likens disregard for indoor air quality, or the lack of awareness about indoor air pollution, to the general ambivalence toward asbestos before risks were fully understood. “The average person still doesn’t take it as serious a threat as it is,” he says.