Poor housing linked to rising asthma cases in Europe

People living in unhealthy buildings are more likely to suffer from asthma, according to the 2017 edition of the Healthy Homes Barometer. [Adam Wilson / Flickr]

This article is part of our special report Health activists join EU building renovation crusade.

One in six Europeans – equivalent to the entire population of Germany – live in a damp or mouldy building, which increases their chances of getting illnesses such as asthma, according to a new study.

Europeans living in an “unhealthy” building – with a leaking roof, walls or foundations – are significantly more likely to report poor health, according to the 2017 edition of the Healthy Homes Barometer, to be unveiled on Wednesday (31 May).

People living in unhealthy buildings are also more likely to suffer from asthma, found the report, which will be officially published on Healthy Buildings Day in the European Parliament.

Unhealthy buildings are not just a matter of concern for poor people unlucky enough to live in damp or mouldy houses. It is also a public health concern, which is weighing heavily on the European economy.

The study looked at the overall health costs associated with asthma and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, including public health costs and sick days where employees fail to show up at work.

The total cost of asthma in Europe is estimated at €17.7 billion per year, with productivity losses alone making up €9.8 billion, according to the World Health Organisation (WHO).

Asthma patients urge EU member states to stop ignoring air quality rules

Organisations representing asthma patients have called on the EU governments to stick to their air quality commitments to protect citizens’ health and public budgets.

EU Commission sees “alarming” trend

The healthy homes barometer is published every year by Velux, a Danish company that specialises in roof windows and skylights. It was produced by consultancy firm Ecofys, German public research firm Fraunhofer, and Copenhagen Economics, a consultancy.

“It is alarming to read that one out of six Europeans reports living in an unhealthy building,” said Vice-President for the Energy Union, Commissioner Maroš Šefčovič.

“The Barometer also shows that improvement of the building stock through renovation can have a major impact on our health and well-being, and it offers solutions to some of our most important societal and climate issues,” Šefčovič stated.

Air pollution is a major cause of health problems linked to fossil fuel combustion, according the International Energy Agency (IEA). The WHO estimates that indoor and outdoor air pollution causes around 7 million deaths each year.

But there is also growing awareness about the poor quality of indoor air, which can be exacerbated by bad heating and insulation. Ensuring homes – but also factories and offices – are properly ventilated is seen as key to tackling health risks linked to indoor air pollution.

Share of population by country living in poor housing conditions. [Eurostat, 2014]

“Buildings with a good indoor environment can reduce healthcare costs and are a way to tackle energy poverty,” Šefčovič said, adding this was recognised in the Commission’s proposal for a revision of the Energy Performance of Buildings Directive.

“This further reaffirms the importance of tackling energy poverty through building renovations,” Šefčovič added.

Not all countries are affected in the same way, however.

46.5% of people in Bulgaria are unable to keep their homes adequately warm in winter, while rates in northern countries are much lower – only 4,2% in Estonia, 2.6% in Denmark and 1.4% in Sweden, according to Eurostat.

46.5% of people in Bulgaria are unable to keep their homes adequately warm in winter while rates in northern European countries are much lower. [Eurostat / EnAct]

40% of Polish homes have no insulation whatsoever, said Pelle Perdersen, of the Danish pension fund PKA, which is helping to run a housing renovation programme in Denmark. And a large number of Polish homes are using low-quality waste coal for heating their homes, which makes indoor air pollution worse.

“So the health factor there is a huge issue,” Pedersen told EURACTIV.com, saying energy efficiency “is becoming recognised as the solution for much bigger issues”.

Pension fund: EU should promote ‘one-stop shop’ for housing renovation

Homeowners typically don’t have the capital to invest in energy renovation solutions, despite the proven returns. Danish pension fund PKA helps bridge that gap with a one-stop-shop solution which, it believes, could be replicated across Europe.

Barriers to renovation

The renovation rate in Europe is still desperately low, however, languishing at around 1% per year.

This means it would take a century to decarbonise the entire European building stock when in reality, a tripling of the renovation rate is necessary for the EU to meet its objective of cutting CO2 emissions 80% by 2050.

Vice-President Šefčovič said he was conscious that “barriers to renovation do exist”, citing financial constraints faced by homeowners and a lack of incentives to renovate.

He underlined the need to unleash private finance to boost the renovation rate.

In Denmark, PKA has helped put together a one-stop-shop where homeowners can secure funding and meet the whole range of contractors to perform the actual renovation works on the ground.

These are exactly the kinds of schemes the Commission would like to see scale up and expand across Europe. As part of its smart finance for smart buildings initiative, the EU executive wants to encourage national platforms where money can meet projects and where technical assistance is provided to help homeowners arrange renovation works.

“We haven’t really seen these types of solutions move at scale and that’s what we’re trying to do now,” Pedersen said. “Of course, we’re looking at Denmark, but down the road, we could potentially consider broadening the scope to also include the rest of Europe.”

And the room for improvement is huge. “If you just look at the existing building stock in Europe, it’s estimated that between 75 and 90% will still be up and running by 2050, so there’s tremendous potential,” Pedersen added.

Down the line, the health benefits could be handsome. “If just 2% of European homes were renovated with an emphasis on health every year, by 2050 we could halve the number of Europeans who live in a damp and unhealthy home,” said Michael Rasmussen, SVP of Brand at the Velux Group.

54 million Europeans must choose between eating and heating

An estimated 54 million Europeans suffer from energy poverty, according to the European Commission analysis, which blames rising prices, low income and energy inefficient homes for forcing people to choose between eating or heating.

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