Collaboration in Civic Spheres

National Academies: green buildings can harm health, productivity, costing billions

by Melissa Steffan July 26th, 2011

SUMMARY: According to a recent report prepared for the United States Environmental Protection Agency under the supervision of the Institutes of Medicine of the National Academies, the use of new, energy-efficient building materials or construction methods in new or retrofitted buildings, in response to climate change concerns, may not only save energy but can also restrict ventilation, heighten allergenic symptoms, promote the growth of fungi and bacteria, and increase the risk of infectious diseases – contributing to indoor health symptoms and lowering productivity while costing the economy tens of billions of dollars per year. The report recommends the EPA develop and implement new, indoor health-related standards for building materials and ventilation, in order to elevate the indoor environment as a priority in climate change policy.

BACKGROUND: According to the report brief, the impact of climate change on indoor public health conditions has gotten scant attention and “lack of leadership is hindering action” to pinpoint hazards, sharpen research priorities and devise practical solutions to risks that are of growing concern. As a result, U.S. EPA commissioned the Institute of Medicine, of the U.S. government’s National Academies, to create a committee to summarize the existing research on the effects of climate change on indoor air and public health.

KEY LINK: Climate Change, the Indoor Environment, and Health, Committee on the Effect of Climate Change on Indoor Air Quality and Public Health, Institute of Medicine, Report Brief for U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, June 2011

KEY FINDINGS:

  • The committee found that the use of new, energy-efficient building techniques, including new weatherization and building materials, pose a significant possibility of contributing to “unexpected exposures and health risks” tied to reduced ventilation, heightened allergenic symptoms, increased growth of fungi and bacteria, and increased risk of infectious diseases. Such indoor health symptoms boost the risk of worker illnesses and lower productivity, costing the economy tens of billions of dollars per year according to existing research.
  • Response to climate change exacerbates existing ventilation problems through the use of untested building materials. Efforts to conserve energy in buildings, including decreased ventilation, may actually harm human health. Lower ventilation rates may increase exposure to indoor pollutants by limiting indoor and outdoor air exchange.
  • Poor ventilation may be associated with some health problems. Experiments have shown associations between decreased productivity and work; or school environments that are perceived to be too warm, too cool, or not well ventilated.
  • The committee suggested the EPA develop new standards for evaluating building material emissions. In addition, the committee also recommended further research to determine particular cases in which climate change is related to harmful indoor exposures.
  • The committee advocates new ventilation standards based on “health-related criteria” in commercial and residential buildings, including schools and hospitals. The goal of these new standards is to provide a healthful environment for occupants of various types of new or retro-fitted buildings, at the same time that energy conservation priorities are being robustly incorporated into new building plans and materials.

RELATED:

  1. The report brief is drawn from a longer version of the report, from the National Academies Press.
  2. Legislative audit: benefits of Washington State’s green buildings not clear,” Public Data Ferret, July 7, 2011

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