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An energy-efficient home offers more than just lower utility bills and a smaller carbon footprint.
It can also provide a healthier environment for the people who live there.
That’s according to Kevin Kennedy, the environmental health program director at Children’s Mercy Hospital in Kansas City, Missouri.
High moisture levels and dust or other allergens cause poor indoor air quality, Kennedy says. Weatherizing a home or making other energy-efficiency upgrades can help.
Making those improvements can even reduce the number of visits a patient needs to make to the doctor or emergency department – or the amount of medication that asthma patients must take to manage their condition.
Children’s Mercy Hospital’s Healthy Homes Program performs environmental health assessments in people’s homes. Staff members then make recommendations for addressing health hazards.
Yale Climate Connections spoke to Kennedy about how energy-efficiency upgrades and weatherization programs can lead to positive health outcomes.
This interview has been lightly edited and condensed for clarity.
Yale Climate Connections: How does improving the environmental conditions of a home affect the health of patients suffering from respiratory diseases?
Kevin Kennedy: When you are able to assess the environment and identify specific types of environmental conditions and then make changes to improve the indoor environment, then you see a reduction in [healthcare] utilization. And that translates into dollars, because they’re not going to the hospital, they’re not having to go to the emergency department.
Families have contacted us to tell us that they’ve just seen a dramatic change in how often their child needs asthma medicines, how much better they feel. They’re able to play sports again.
YCC: What services do you offer through the Children’s Mercy Environmental Health Program?
Kennedy: When we go into the home of a client, one person focuses on health education and talking to the family about general behaviors and how they manage their home, cleaning activities, maintenance. And a second person is looking more specifically at the building, the systems that support the building, the contents of the rooms and of all the different aspects of how that building is designed, built, operated, and maintained.
Listen: Living in energy-efficient homes can improve people’s health
Then we develop what we call a healthy home advisory plan that provides specific guidance for what things we saw in the house that were good – we want to give them positive reinforcement – and then what recommendations we might have for either changing their practices or using new tools and technology – something as simple as a new vacuum that has a good filter on it so that you’re reducing the amount of airborne particles in the house, looking at the furnace system to see if it needs to be serviced or repaired or upgraded.
And then because of those improvements, there should be less exposure to what are called the “triggers” of their asthma. Long term, we’re hoping for overall better quality of life for that patient.
YCC: What are some of the most common issues you encounter when going into a home?
Kennedy: The most common things that we see in homes are related to chronic moisture problems. Probably two-thirds of the homes we visit of chronically ill patients had a moisture problem somewhere. The second most common are ventilation problems, where the ventilation system isn’t working very well, or the air circulation is very poor, so we see a build-up of particles, of chemicals in the home that include the allergens.
YCC: What similarities do you see between energy-efficiency efforts and the environmental health program you provide?
Kennedy: The work the energy-efficiency industry does on homes is specifically improving the indoor environment of the home. It makes significant changes in how air flows and circulates through the house: where that air comes from and the quality of that air.
And we know that when a house is weatherized, when it’s properly air-sealed and properly insulated, that significantly improves the comfort. It makes the indoor air temperature and humidity of the house easier to manage, eliminates temperature extremes. And the more comfortable people are in an indoor environment, the healthier they are, and there’s certainly research to show that.
And then doing the insulation, the air sealing, gives anyone, any homeowner, better control of where the air in the house comes from. How much of that air passes through a filter? How much of that is circulated and evenly distributed through the house? I mean, that’s really the goal is to improve the entire indoor environment of the home. So there’s a lot of overlap.
YCC: Are people from the two disciplines beginning to work together?
Kennedy: I’ve been an advocate and a champion for the importance of integrating healthy home work into energy-efficiency work. And I’ve been one of the leaders in helping develop new credentials and new certificates for energy efficiency folks [through the Building Performance Institute]. So we’ve been real advocates for getting that workforce trained to integrate healthy homes into their work.
So we’ve been involved for quite a while in trying to advocate that the people who do energy-efficiency work understand that the work they do has that kind of an impact on the indoor environment.
One of the tragedies is weatherization programs have a process where they do a screening of a home, and if there are poor environmental conditions in a home, like moisture and mold problems, they have to defer the property. In other words, they won’t do the weatherization.
So some families may qualify for participation to get their home upgraded through weatherization. But the work can’t be done because of poor environmental conditions in the home. So nothing’s done to improve the home, and they’re still stuck living with environment conditions that are likely impacting their health. One of the things that we advocated for recently is that we need to find funding to overcome these deferrals, to fix these things so that [workers] can then go in and do the energy-efficiency work that really needs to be done.
The work that [energy-efficiency workers] do is really about health and indoor environment. That is the primary benefit to a family. The energy efficiency and the improvements that lead to lower utility costs – in some ways, that’s secondary. It’s the health benefit and the long-term outcomes for the people living in the home that, in my mind, matter most.
Related: How to weatherize your home
YCC: Do the benefits extend beyond people suffering from acute respiratory disease?
Kennedy: The best thing that average citizens can do is invest in making their home more resilient to climate change, which means making it more energy-efficient. Doing the things to lower your utility cost, lower your carbon footprint. And when you do those things, when you invest in the energy efficiency, you get the added — and probably more important benefit — of it improving the overall health and quality of the indoor environment of that home. So there’s a natural benefit from making that investment.
The more we can get people to invest — but also provide the funding to support that investment — to increase the number of homes that receive energy efficiency, weatherization and healthy home work, the more resilient those buildings are, the more responsive they are to extreme weather conditions. All of these things end up improving the quality of life and health of people in our country. So it all makes perfect sense as a natural path forward.