Your Next Prescription: Healthy Homes

This article originally appeared in the Saporta Report Thought Leaders section in April, 2016.

All of us know someone with a chronic respiratory illness like asthma, and we know how frustrating and sometimes debilitating it can be. While many of us know pollens, dust, pet dander and tobacco smoke are asthma triggers, most aren’t aware of lesser-known issues like changes in household air temperature, humidity and emotional anxiety. Nationally, building scientists and healthcare professionals are learning that both common and more obscure irritants can be addressed in environmental home assessments and interventions, improving both the comfort and health of our indoor environments.

baby newsletterWhen an asthma attack is severe enough to render an inhaler ineffective, patients may find it necessary to check into a hospital to receive treatment. The frequency of attacks experienced by an individual often increases over time and their symptoms worsen. Hospital visits become more common. Twenty years ago, a leading program in Kansas City, Missouri made progress in understanding why this pattern persists. As a result of environmental home assessments performed by Children’s Mercy Hospital in 1996, it was determined that much of the cause of the increase in attacks lay within the confines of the patients’ homes. Many homes contained unidentified triggers for asthmatics, especially for children.

Today, national demand for—and understanding of—the value of environmental home assessments in reducing chronic respiratory distress is growing. Southface is positioning itself at the forefront of this movement. With much of the work we do every day, we promote healthier indoor environments even as we offer techniques for saving energy and money. We have taught the importance of healthy interiors for decades. There is a growing recognition that managing all the environmental risks in homes requires a holistic approach encompassing effective assessment, intervention and education. It is clear that many of the energy-focused retrofits we recommend in our building assessments can have huge impacts on occupant health and wellbeing. When we demonstrate the cost and energy savings of thorough air sealing, we also encourage clients to reduce the number of allergens and asthma triggers that can enter their space. Correctly sizing HVAC systems and keeping air handlers inside the building envelope saves money and energy by reducing cycling of the equipment and controlling humidity. Those same practices help eliminate condensation inside walls and attic spaces, which can lead to mold and may have serious consequences on occupant respiratory health.

Southface is also going further. We are leading the conversations connecting health and wellbeing to high performance building and design. Starting with Southface’s campus refresh in 2015, our staff is pushing the industry to see the value of incorporating human health and wellbeing into their practices using techniques like biophilic design. Southface is represented on the Asthma Data and Evaluation Workgroup whose purpose is to guide and strengthen the statewide infrastructure to evaluate the Georgia Asthma Control Program (GACP), where environmental asthma triggers in the home are a top priority in the program’s strategic plan. At a national level, Southface staff participated as subject matter experts to develop a new micro-credential within the Building Performance Institute (BPI) certification system, the Healthy Home Evaluator (HHE). This new designation recognizes the value of having existing home energy professionals assess both the energy efficiency aspects and environmental health and safety hazards in a home, and then provide a prioritized list of recommendations to address those hazards. Southface now offers testing through BPI for certified Building Analysts, Energy Auditors, and Quality Control Inspectors to obtain this new micro-credential.

There have already been case studies showing the importance of home audits as an “asthma prevention tool.” For example, in Kansas City, Missouri, Children’s Mercy Hospital establish the Children’s Mercy Hospital Center for Environmental Health (CEH). The CEH was established in 2011, and fields around 350 phone calls from families each year about environmental health concerns. The CEH has crafted a Healthy Home Program, whereby they have used four main sub-programs to educate the community on creating home environments which are more conducive to asthma prevention: Asthma Friendly Home Partnership, CMH Childhood Lead Poison Prevention Partnership, Environmental Health Training, and Safe and Healthy School Partnership Program. Through these programs, CMH has provided more than 2,500 health providers, teachers and other professionals and 40,000 community members with the knowledge necessary to negate asthmatic triggers in the built environment.

Such important programs as these don’t need to—and shouldn’t—be limited to Missouri. These life-saving educational tools could be instituted in the Southeast, as well. Southface is seeking to replicate this and other related programs right here in Georgia, where, according to the GACP, 11 percent of children have asthma, and where asthma tends to be most frequently found in African-American boys. Additionally, most asthmatic children tend to live in lower-income communities, in older houses that contain a multitude of triggers, leading to more hospitalizations where attacks could have been prevented had residents been able to receive home audits and retrofits. A future where Georgia residents don’t have to spend hard-earned income on asthma-related hospitalizations starts with healthier homes and ends with healthier, happier families.

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