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‘Green’ Public Housing Eases Breathing Problems

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‘Green’ Public Housing Eases Breathing Problems

Rates of asthma lower in specially designed buildings

Low-income families living in “green” public housing may have fewer asthma attacks and other problems from respiratory conditions, according to a new study.

In the study, conducted at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, researchers found children living in Boston’s newer, greener public housing had fewer asthma attacks, hospital visits and missed school days, compared with their peers in standard public housing. Adults benefited, too; they were less likely to report symptoms consistent with “sick building syndrome,” a condition that causes dizziness, headaches, nausea and eye irritation.

Though the research didn’t find a cause-and-effect link between green housing and improved respiratory health, the connection makes sense, said lead researcher Meryl Colton.

We know indoor pollutants and allergens—mold, cockroaches and cigarette smoke—can trigger kids’ asthma symptoms. Experts believe exposure to those triggers partly explains why lower-income children are particularly hard-hit by asthma. “So we’ve got a likely mechanism to explain why green housing was associated with fewer symptoms,” Colton said.

Over the past decade, the Boston Housing Authority (BHA) has been moving toward greener public housing, constructing new mid-rise buildings and townhouses with eco-friendly materials, solar roof panels and a “tighter,” more energy-efficient exterior. In addition to cutting heating and cooling costs, the greener designs also improve indoor quality. Mechanical ventilation systems move the “bad” air out and the fresh in, Colton said. And common sources of indoor pollution are absent—units have electric stoves rather than gas ones, for example.

Green policies also have been key. Smoking is prohibited and the use of chemical pesticides has been slashed, two moves the BHA has extended to all public housing. Instead of spraying toxic fumes, buildings now use integrated pest management, which includes sealing up areas where pests can get in, and quickly fixing water leaks that can entice unwanted visitors.

“They also educate residents on pest control, like limiting open food sources and reducing clutter,” Colton said. “And if pests do get in, the buildings first use non-chemical methods, like bait traps.”

To see how these steps might affect the health of residents, Colton’s team visited 235 families, (including 44 children with asthma) living in one of three Boston public housing sites: 100 lived in green homes, while the rest lived in older, standard units. They found those living in green housing were faring better. The kids were two-thirds less likely to have had an asthma attack in the past year, and 75 percent less likely to have made a trip to the hospital for worsening asthma.

Adults in green housing reported 35 percent fewer symptoms of sick building syndrome, attributed to indoor air pollution in modern buildings that are tightly sealed, but not necessarily well-ventilated.

Similar studies, including one in the South Bronx in New York City, have found similar results, leading experts to say green public housing is the direction we should focus on in the future.

Colton said more research is needed. “Are these health benefits maintained over time?” she said. “Is it possible that they increase?”

Researchers say the financial side also must be studied. “Green housing does take a large initial investment,” Colton said. But it could pay for itself in the form of reduced energy bills and lower health-care costs.

“People sometimes think of ‘green buildings’ as an upper-middle-class luxury, but it can be much more than that,” she said, noting that even cities not in a financial position to start building new public housing can switch to green policies.

 

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BHM Edit Staff