Energy Inefficient Buildings Can Harm Your Health

Yes, unfortunately an energy-inefficient building can make you sick, lead to premature death, and inflict social injustice. But the building industry and public housing officials can reduce this human suffering by taking steps to improve – wait for it – energy efficiency. That’s because efficiency improves air quality inside and out of homes and apartments, while also helping residents survive extreme weather events, heat waves, and cold weather. Moreover, energy efficiency reduces the need for utility companies to burn fossil fuels, thereby curbing the types of air pollution that also create many human health problems -– especially for low-income Americans. 

The detrimental health effects of living, working, and going to school in inefficient buildings are being increasingly documented. According to the World Health Organization (WHO), seven million people suffered premature deaths due to air pollution. Most building-related health issues stem from poor air quality, both inside and outside of structures.

A fact sheet developed by the American Council for an Energy Efficient Economy and by the Physicians for Social Responsibility explains the relationship between energy efficiency and health. For example, fossil- fuel pollution contributes to the damage of every major system of the body, such as:

  • Respiratory system: lung cancer (the leading cause of cancer death of men and women in the U.S.); COPD (chronic obstructive pulmonary disease), which is the 3rd leading cause of death); and asthma, (which has reached epidemic levels);
  • Circulatory system: coronary heart disease (the leading cause of death in the U.S.); heart attack hospitalizations, and congestive heart failure; and
  • Nervous systems: air pollution (especially from coal burning) can cause strokes and loss of intellectual capacity from mercury exposure (poisoning).

Health and Economic Benefits Through Better Buildings

Energy waste worsens health in several ways. For example, low-income people spend a disproportionate amount of their income on utility bills living in inefficient buildings, compared to higher-income households. Traditional fossil-fuel energy generation for power generation at power plants and oil and gas facilities causes dangerous air pollution — and people of color often live in communities close to these facilities.

“Disadvantaged populations are also more likely to suffer from the health effects of bad indoor air quality, such as worsened asthma or allergy symptoms. Poor housing conditions are making poor families sick, and high energy costs are perpetuating cycles of poverty,” explained Rocky Mountain Institute.

Not only are disadvantaged people living in drafty, uncomfortable housing in highly polluted areas — they also are paying higher utility bills, suffer more health problems, and may have to pay higher medical expenses as a result.  Continuing this pattern is not only unfair; it is expensive and unsustainable for the whole community — there has to be a better way.

Prescription for a Cure

The U.S. Department of Energy’s interesting document, “Home RX: The Health Benefits of Home Performance-A review of the Current Evidence”, helps answer the question of what are the occupational health effects of energy efficiency improvements. The study concluded, “A strong foundation exists to ‘connect the dots,’ making the case that energy efficiency measures can improve occupant health,” DOE’s report says more studies need to be done to convince healthcare professionals that home energy improvements can, in fact, also improve human health.

At SWEEP, we embrace all of the benefits that come from energy efficient buildings. We emphasize the need to select top-quality materials and to install them correctly; to seal the building against energy loss; and to ventilate the structure properly. The maxim applies both to new and existing structures. In fact, because making energy efficiency improvements on inefficient structures is expensive and complicated, the risks of making buildings more air tight without proper ventilation are increasing as well, as documented in an Ohio study

That Ohio research shows why builders need to ensure healthy indoor air by carefully selecting the right construction materials and installing adequate ventilation systems.  The study, when combined with earlier EPA and DOE findings, also underscores the need to build new structures – and renovate existing ones – using standards that improve energy efficiency while also improving both indoor and outdoor air quality.  Recent versions of the International Energy Conservation Code offer a good starting place, but the DOE Zero-Energy Ready Home (ZERH) program takes the goals many steps further by requiring;

  • Minimal levels of air leakage, which reduces drafts, pests, moisture, exterior air pollution, increases comfort, and reduces bills;
  • Mechanical ventilation providing controlled ventilation and air circulation for improved air quality;
  • Increased insulation levels, including a focus on exterior insulation and thermal barriers to reduce thermal bridging and associated mold and durability issues;
  • Water Management checklist, to prevent interior and exterior water intrusion and related mold mildew health issues and conserve on water;
  • Indoor airPLUS checklist, is recommended, and the careful selection of materials, and mechanical ventilation to improve indoor air quality;
  • Encourages the use of energy efficient, closed combustion, natural gas space and water heating or all electric heat pump systems, and includes sealed and tested ducted delivery systems.

Clearly, these studies provide both health and social justice reasons for builders and public housing officials to embrace the best energy efficiency standards. Interestingly, the ZERH guidelines are just a step up from the latest International Energy Conservation Codes, which many communities in the Southwest have adopted. So, builders could embrace the ZERH program without much extra costs or hassles.

In conclusion, there are unseen dangers lurking in many of our homes and buildings. Fortunately, we now know by effectively managing water intrusion, air quality and thermal comfort, homes are more comfortable, affordable and healthier places to live.  Community leaders and homeowners who embrace the ZERH program are protecting the physical and financial health of present and future generations.

Nancy Kellogg is a Program Associate in the Buildings Program at the Southwest Energy Efficiency Project, where she specializes in encouraging diverse stakeholders in the building industry towards Zero Net Energy (ZNE), Zero Energy Ready Home (ZERH), and Home Performance with ENERGY STAR, including outreach, research and education.