For three decades, ELI’s Indoor Environments & Green Buildings Program has helped spur the adoption of policies and programs that make buildings greener and healthier places to live, learn, and work. We focus especially on improving the quality of the indoor environment.
The Importance of Indoor Environmental Quality. Most of our exposure to pollutants occurs indoors. This may not be surprising, given that people in the U.S. spend about 87% of their time inside buildings.
Pollutants can be generated indoors by activities such as cooking, smoking, cleaning, and burning wood and from sources such as building materials, furnishings, and household and personal care products. Air pollutants that are found outdoors can also move inside buildings through natural ventilation (windows and doors), infiltration (other openings or cracks in the building envelope), and mechanical ventilation systems. Outdoor conditions such as air pollution, humidity, and precipitation influence the indoor environment, depending on factors such as the building envelope, mechanical ventilation system, and occupant behaviors. Fortunately, there are well established practices for reducing indoor exposures.
Examples of indoor pollutants that carry significant known health risks include:
- Radon – Exposure to radon in indoor air is responsible for 21,000 lung cancer deaths annually in the U.S.
- Lead – Children’s exposure to lead in paint, drinking water, and products can cause stunted growth, lower IQ, behavior and learning problems, anemia, and hearing problems.
- Secondhand Smoke – Indoor exposure to secondhand smoke causes heart disease, stroke, and lung cancer.
- Mold/Dampness – Exposure to mold and dampness inside buildings is associated with a variety of respiratory problems, including the development of asthma and the triggering of asthma attacks.
- Particulate Matter – Exposure to particle pollution is associated with cardiovascular, respiratory, and other health impacts.
As the Institute of Medicine has noted, those who are most vulnerable to the health impacts of indoor pollutants include people “who have less economic ability to adapt to or mitigate the effects of changes in their indoor environment and those whose age or health status renders them more susceptible to environmental stresses or insults.” At the national level, poor indoor environmental conditions cost the nation’s economy billions of dollars a year through illness and lost productivity.
Climate change may exacerbate these health and economic impacts, as communities experience more frequent and intense heat waves, droughts, wildfires, storms, and precipitation – all of which can create unhealthy indoor environmental conditions. Improving how buildings are operated and maintained can help create more climate-resilient communities. Putting indoor environmental quality front and center as part of green building construction and energy retrofit projects can achieve both environmental and public health benefits.
Our Work. While individual action is important for addressing many indoor exposures, state and local policies and programs have a critical role to play in ensuring healthy indoor environments for all people – especially those who are most vulnerable to the health effects and are not in a position to prevent or mitigate problems. The past few decades have seen significant developments in this area of public policy, but stronger efforts are needed.
The mission of the Indoor Environments & Green Buildings Program is to help advance state and local policies that incorporate public health and building science best practices for preventing and addressing indoor environmental exposures. We provide a variety of materials for decision makers and advocates – from in-depth research reports to policy briefs on emerging issues and compilations of state laws and regulations. Our projects address a range of pollutants and building environments, with a special focus on:
- Homes, where people in the U.S. spend around two-thirds of their time. Residential rental properties comprise around one-third of the nation’s housing units, yet are home to twice as many households below the poverty line as owner-occupied units.
- Schools and Child Care, where millions of children and staff spend their days. It is widely recognized that children are not simply little adults when it comes to environmental exposures – their behaviors and developing bodies make them more vulnerable to the effects of pollutants.
To access Program materials, please visit the Indoor Environments & Green Buildings main page.