Both healthcare costs and the amount of money spent on energy continue to rise. But improving the way the building industry provides energy upgrades to buildings can not only reduce dependence on fossil fuels, but also reduce healthcare costs, environmental health consultant Ellen Tohn told attendees at the recent Building Energy 13 conference in Boston. Tohn led the session, entitled “Health Opportunities and Pitfalls of Energy Upgrades: What Doesn’t Smell Can Still Hurt Us,” with Johnathan Wilson, deputy director of the National Center for Healthy Housing in Columbia, Md., as part of the Northeast Sustainable Energy Association’s annual conference. 

Housing-based threats to health include carbon monoxide, mold, environmental tobacco smoke, chemicals, and pests, Tohn said, and many of these elements can be raised as discussion points during energy upgrades. Consider research that shows that children growing up in a household with someone that smokes are 40 percent more likely to develop asthma in their lifetimes, Tohn said. With this in mind, “Could part of a multifamily energy audit and upgrade be talking to building owners about smoke-free housing?” she asked. “You bet.” One of the jobs of an energy upgrade, she said, should be to minimize asthma triggers.

Supporting Tohn’s argument for the connection between energy efficiency and health, Wilson presented a number of studies showing significant health improvements in energy-efficient homes. In one Canadian study from 1998, he said, residents of energy-efficient homes saw noticeable decreases in symptoms such as runny noses, sneezing, throat irritation, coughing, fatigue, and irritability compared to a control group, The results, he said, suggest that improved ventilation that comes from energy efficiency leads to lower contaminant levels  in the air (translating to fewer respiratory irritants), lower relative humidity (reducing dust mites and associated allergens), and lower moisture levels (reducing mold and dampness).

One interesting element to note, Wilson said, was that volatile organic compounds (VOCs) seem to be dropping in construction-related products, but are going up in relation to consumer products in the form of pesticides, air fresheners, cleaners, and other products building occupants are bringing into a space. “We need to do a better job of telling the consumer about getting VOC levels down,” he said.

Clients, it seems, are often misinformed about indoor air quality, or are unconcerned, according to Wilson. He cited a 2012 Eco Pulse study from the Shelton Group that asked homeowners how concerned they are about the air quality of their home, 32.5 percent were very unconcerned or somewhat unconcerned and 21.3% were undecided. “You have big opportunities to educate your customers about what you can be doing as part of energy upgrades to make the house better,” Tohn said. 

The opportunities are huge, Tohn said, noting that U.S. Environmental Protection Agency research estimates energy upgrades will take place in over 1 million homes over the next seven years, which means many opportunities to work with families to improve both their health and their homes’ rate of energy use.

For more on the health effects of indoor air quality, see ECOHOME’s recent article “IAQ FAQ: What Builders Should Know.” In addition, ECOHOME is continuing to explore the link between indoor environmental quality and health in the Vision 2020 initiative, which can be followed throughout the year here