Our own homes are making us sick: Energy efficiency is part of the cure

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

One in six Europeans lives in a home that makes them sick because of damp or inadequate thermal control. [Shutterstock]

Given that we spend 90% of our time indoors, the quality of our homes, schools and workplaces is a critical public health issue. Growing evidence shows that the efficiency and design of our buildings is an even bigger public health issue than previously thought, warns Mikaela Odemyr.

Mikaela Odemyr is the president of the European Federation of Allergy and Airways Diseases Patients’ Associations (EFA).

As member states and the European Parliament are currently considering the EU’s climate and energy goals for 2030 and beyond, directing our focus to the buildings we live and work in, is an opportunity that could not only significantly reduce carbon footprint but also improve our very own health and that of European citizens simultaneously.

One in six Europeans lives in homes that make them sick. These are often damp homes, sometimes with leaking roofs, often with inadequate thermal control so they’re either too hot in the summer or too cold in the winter.

Europeans who live in these types of unhealthy buildings are 1.5 times more likely to report poor health. They have a two-times higher risk of developing asthma just because they live in damp or moldy homes, and these damp conditions are strongly linked to childhood illnesses.

Poor indoor air quality is responsible for the loss of 2 million healthy life years annually in the European Union. The quality of the air affects Europeans, especially vulnerable groups like chronic respiratory patients.

Cold homes are not only shown to affect mental well-being, contributing to anxiety and depression, but are also responsible for up to 100,000 deaths every year throughout Europe.

And these problems don’t only occur at home. On school days, over 64 million European students and almost 4.5 million teachers are affected by the quality of the air they breathe inside their schools. Bad indoor quality is therefore a worrisome fact, especially as we know that kids have higher risks of developing a range of related allergies and other conditions due to their smaller airways being more vulnerable.

In the workplace, indoor air quality, lighting, temperature and noise are all proven to have a direct impact on the health and well-being of workers. What’s more, a growing body of evidence is showing a clear link between productivity and the well-being of employees.

Poor indoor air quality provokes a 9% productivity loss. More concretely, carpeting and less ventilation, reduce typing speed and proofreading accuracy by 4%. To put it plainly: bad, inefficient office environments aren’t only bad for the climate, but also bad for the bottom line of the businesses.

The good news is that most of the issues our buildings have – bad air, dampness, darkness, dangerous cold and heat – can be fixed through smarter design and energy efficiency measures that are already well known and practiced.

Or, from another perspective, the retrofits and designs that work for the healthiest indoor environments can also unlock energy savings and reduce the climate impacts of the urban setting.

Traditionally though, policy-makers have considered buildings and their efficiency through the lens of energy consumption alone, as buildings are responsible for 40% of energy consumption and nearly 36% of CO2 emissions.

While there are some scattershot national policies on indoor air quality and indoor environmental health within the European Union, they are the exception. As a newly-published white paper by Buildings2030 notes, health, wellbeing, and productivity are secondary issues in Europe’s building policy, because they fall outside of the core focus areas of energy consumption and climate mitigation.

Reducing energy consumption in buildings is an absolutely critical goal in order to advance climate action. However, energy efficiency and saving should go hand in hand with the protection of the health of people who live and work within these buildings.

In the European Commission, there is no clear advocate for the inhabitants of buildings. This is a massive oversight, and a missed opportunity, as the focus on public health and worker productivity could be a strong argument for more ambitious targets and even greater energy savings.

What’s more, the actual economic benefits of improved public health, wellbeing, and productivity could be even higher than the savings through energy efficiency alone.

The only approach to achieve better health outcomes from indoor environments is to put the health of our citizens and workforce front and center, and that’s a cause that all politicians and policymakers can get behind.

A truly sustainable building would not only be energy efficient, but also be healthier for the people who live and work within it. With buildings, there is so much more at stake than just energy.

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