The Master Home Environmentalist program of the American Lung Association and the Healthy Homes Program of the Seattle-King County Department of Public Health have complementary approaches to addressing the rising problem of childhood asthma and other consequences of indoor air pollution. The good news is that both approaches are demonstrating significant successes!
The Master Home Environmentalist (MHE) program has been operating for almost 20 years (disclaimer: I oversaw this program in its first incarnation, at Metrocenter YMCA, before I became a Councilmember). The MHE program assists people in identifying health and environmental concerns at home and taking steps to reduce their exposure to indoor pollutants. Indoor air problems may result in asthma, learning disabilities, allergies, cancer, lung disease and other illnesses, and has been identified by EPA as a critical air pollution concern.
The MHE program trains staff and volunteers to administer a survey that identifies potential problems and possible remedies. The survey was developed by the late John Roberts, a chemical engineer who inspired the program. Most of the measures that can reduce or eliminate indoor air quality problems are either no or low cost, including behavioral changes such as not permitting smoking in the house, using efficient vacuums and door mats, improving ventilation, and controlling allergens.
The City partially funds this program, and it is delivering results. In 2010, an estimated 1600 residents were reached through community events, 207 home assessments were done, and 131 families changed their behavior, while 30 visits resulted in landlords making changes, including 13 making structural improvements. All of these goals are on track to be exceeded in 2011, and the landlord-tenant program has already performed 126 assessments and seen 23 structural changes made. These changes will pay off in improved health, especially for children.
Public Health has completed more than 1200 visits throughout King County specifically targeted at reducing asthma. The Healthy Homes program has documented decreases in visits to urgent health facilities of 40 to 70% in the homes visited, saving at least five times the cost of the program.
While both of these programs have been effective in dealing with indoor air problems, there is still a gap between having the best indoor air quality environment and what landlords are generally willing to invest in. Ultimately, much of our housing stock needs to be upgraded or replaced in order to fully address the problems associated with indoor air quality. Seattle Housing Authority has pioneered a new model for replacement housing, the “Breathe Easy Home” in its redevelopment of High Point, which has shown significant positive effects.
The Board of Health is considering what regulatory actions might be taken to improve substandard housing. An estimated 4300 children under 5 still live in homes with lead paint! Code provisions can require new homes to be built using healthy standards, which can be done at minimal cost. Renovation of existing homes, however, can be more expensive, and the Board of Health will have to balance the health impacts with the potential loss of affordable housing. One option is to create renovation guidelines, which will help landlords determine what steps they should take without creating legal requirements. Pursuing code requirements for renovations will necessitate careful examination to determine which provisions are most effective and affordable to property owners.
All three of these approaches – the MHE survey, the Health Department visits to homes with asthma, and possible code requirements or guidelines – are important steps to take to address this significant health concern.