Our buildings are making our children sick

DISCLAIMER: All opinions in this column reflect the views of the author(s), not of EURACTIV Media network.

Promoted content


This article is part of our special report Buildings and the forgotten 90%.

The buildings in which children in Europe are growing up in are making them sick. The youngest generation is losing healthy life years due to the poor state of the homes and schools that they spend much of their youth in. Its imperative that legislators across Europe implement the EU’s new building directive before the deadline in March 2020.

Ingrid Reumert is Vice President of Global Communications, Sustainability & Public Affairs in the VELUX Group.

1 out of 3 European children live in unhealthy buildings. The homes they live in have deficiencies that negatively affect indoor climates. The scale of the problem varies within individual EU countries, but when compared with the EU average, all countries have significant problems with their building stock. Such problems without remedies are causing health issues amongst the youngest and most vulnerable EU citizens. These are some of the findings of the Healthy Homes Barometer 2019, a scientific-based report on the health of EU buildings.

Unhealthy buildings are robbing children of healthy years of life

Living with housing deficiencies puts children’s health at risk. About 10-15 percent of new cases of childhood asthma in Europe can be attributed to exposure to dampness and mould indoors and this translates to more than 37,000 years of healthy, disease-free life lost.

Housing deficiencies include dampness or mould, darkness, noise and cold. Children living in homes with one of the four risk factors are 1.7 times more likely to report poor health. ​ Children who are exposed to all four factors in their homes are strikingly 4.2 times more likely to report poor health.​

More pressure on politicians needed to achieve healthy building solutions faster

There’s no doubt that the state of Europe’s ageing buildings needs to be dealt with if children’s lives and learning are to improve. However, with the new Energy Performance of Buildings Directive, Member States must now consider wider benefits, such as health, comfort and well-being, plus natural light when implementing it.

The directive requires that all Member States draft renovation strategies and implement them. This is much needed, considering that only 10 percent of European buildings currently have A or B class energy performance certificates. These long-term strategies should form the basis for how to transform old buildings with deficiencies into places where energy efficiency and indoor climate are conducive to healthy living and learning.

Children’s learning is hindered but the bill goes beyond their education

Children are not only losing years of healthy living; they are also losing in terms of their learning. Just like in homes, poor indoor climates in schools and day-care centres are linked to causes of serious and sometimes debilitating health conditions.

Each year, diseases related to unhealthy buildings are responsible for European children missing 1.7 million school days. It may not sound like a lot, but it comes on top of other courses of missed school days. And add to this the impact on parents who have to take time off work to care for sick children and the economic consequences add up. Inadequate housing costs EU economies nearly €194 billion a year in direct and indirect costs form healthcare, social services, loss of productivity and reduced opportunities. This is equivalent to 1% of the European GDP per year.

But there are solutions for buildings to address these, one of which is better ventilation possibilities and improvements to other indoor climate conditions. Altogether, improving ventilation in schools and reducing exposure to dampness and mould in homes across Europe could boost the European economy by more than €300 billion by 2060.

But there are also other gains that go beyond budgets and address climate issues. By solving these quite common issues with sound solutions to renovate Europe’s ageing building stock, the negative impact on the environment could also be reduced. Inefficient buildings are responsible for 40 percent of Europe’s energy consumption and over one third of its CO2 emissions.

EPBD implementation deadline fast approaching

We urge Member States to be ambitious in their new national renovation strategies. In July 2018, when the directive was passed, the European Commission set a deadline of 20 months for the implementation of renovation strategies in EU Member States. That deadline will be up in March 2020 and so far, there is little indication of significant progress. This means there’s still a lot to do and the clock is ticking fast!

In the meantime, Europe’s children continue to get sick from the buildings they spend more than 90 percent of their time in. So, the question is, how much longer should they wait for legislators to get the ball rolling on solutions for buildings that will safeguard their health and improve their comfort and well-being while growing up?

As Marjolaine Meynier-Millefer, Member of the French Parliament, said last week at Healthy Buidlings Day in Paris, the building sector is in a “vastly underestimated situation” and renovation of buildings needs to be made a priority. She was one of the keynote speakers at the VELUX Group organised annual event, which brought together builders, developers, planners, building owners, architects, scientists and users, to discuss the importance of health and comfort in buildings.

It should be a basic right for all people, and not least children, living in Europe today to not have to worry about their health being affected by sub-optimal conditions in buildings. Parents in particular should be able to raise their children in environments that do not put them at risk of developing health conditions, which in the worst case pursue them throughout adulthood and can even shorten their lives. The pain is obvious, and the cure is simple, so what’s this wait all about? While we wait, more children are becoming ill.

Subscribe to our newsletters