Sunday, September 21, 2014

Wild Frontiers of Healthy Housing Research: Microbes Among Us

by Elizabeth La Jeunesse
Research Analyst
Recently, the Joint Center has been researching what makes a healthy home.  As Mariel Wolfson pointed out in her recent blog, indoor air quality has been a major component of modern healthy home research dating back to the 1970s.  Radon, formaldehyde, and combustion pollution from cooking and heating are traditionally identified as key risks.  One emerging topic that has yet to be understood is how microbial communities living among us affect household health.  As it turns out, these microbiomes (diverse communities of bacteria and other microorganisms sharing space with humans) are not well understood, but have great potential to impact human health indoors.

Earlier this year, I had the opportunity to attend a symposium on Microbiomes of the Built Environment at the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS).  With some astonishment, I discovered there are millions of microbial species on earth, and while some are pathogens that are linked to illness and diseases, the majority are beneficial for humans.  For example, microbes have the potential to educate our immune systems, produce vitamins, energy, anti-inflammatories, and even neurotransmitters.

The squeamish may wince, but the fact remains: humans live in a sea of indoor bacteria—at home, work and in other public spaces—many of which promote human health.  Indeed, a central theme of the conference was that people not only need to be protected from pathogens, but they also need to be exposed to diverse microbes, especially at a young age.

Further research is needed on this front.  The vast majority of these microbes have yet to be classified.  And scientists don’t yet understand what constitutes a ‘healthy’ microbiome in the built environment.  More research is also needed on how to design, properly maintain, and fix buildings to prevent or eliminate problematic microbial indoor communities.  Currently, the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation is investing millions of dollars into a Microbiology of the Built Environment Program to study these and many other questions.  While answers remain far off, I came away from the conference with several takeaways relevant to the residential housing sector:

1.     Building design and management both play a role in the transmission of microbial communities.  In any built environment, the rate and efficiency of air circulation and filtration, as well as disinfection by UV light, all impact transmission of microbiomes. Rooms in same air handling units have similar microbiomes.  Even the type of ventilation—mechanical versus natural—impacts the diversity and composition of microbial communities indoors.  All of this suggests a distant, future role for ‘bioinformed’ design and management of homes and other residential communities.

2.     Building materials, and even appliances and fixtures, impact growth of microbial communities.  Bamboo, for example, widely heralded as a cheap and rapidly renewable building product, also exhibits rapid oxidative aging, enabling mold to grow more rapidly once the wood has been aged for long periods.  Even showerhead design can impact the spread waterborne microbial communities.  Some high efficiency showerheads can put out a fine mist that enters deep into human lungs, the effects of which need to be examined further.  Additional research and understanding is undoubtedly needed on how a variety of materials, fixtures, and appliances impact indoor microbial communities.

3.     Water quality will remain a challenge.  Scientists know surprisingly little about our drinking water’s microbial composition. Additionally, while the quality of U.S. drinking water is exceptionally high by world standards, our water infrastructure is aging and “nearing the end of its useful life,” according to the American Society of Civil Engineers.  The cost for replacement may be as much as $1 trillion over the next several decades.  As concern for water sustainability increases, water may be sitting in pipes longer, which may promote the growth of bacteria.  A prominent example can be seen in the case of hands-free faucets that can pose risks in a hospital setting.

4.     While scientists still don’t understand what a ‘healthy’ indoor microbiome may be, some preliminary findings and suggestions were offered to promote indoor health.  Most prominently, dampness and mold are widely identified as known factors associated with asthma, eczema, and other related health problems under the umbrella of ‘sick building syndrome.’  As Dr. Mark Mendell explained at the conference, films of fungi or bacteria on air conditioning coils are likely responsible for many of these cases.  Identifying and removing extra building moisture, removing settled dust, and properly operating and maintaining HVAC systems were are all recommended for preventing and remediating sick building syndrome.  A helpful 2012 alert from the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) contains further guidelines.  In addition to protecting against pathogens, some epidemiological evidence suggests that having dogs at home may actually protect against asthma early in life by facilitating exposure to diverse microbes.

If and when scientists do eventually unravel the complex riddle of what constitutes a healthy indoor microbiome, further questions and challenges will remain.  How can healthy, bioinformed buildings be designed and maintained?   Perhaps an even greater challenge will be what to do from a policy perspective. Should architects, building scientists, and policy makers take steps to promote certain bacterial communities in buildings?   As Dr. Jeffery Seigel pointed out at the conference, public perception could be tricky—for instance, if people get sick inside a building designed to promote certain bacteria, they could assume it’s because of the particular microbiome in the building. 

Study of microbiomes in the built environment is a challenging and wild frontier in the realm of healthy housing research, but findings relevant to residential health likely will inform consumers’ future home improvement behaviors and spending.  Indeed, according to a recent Joint Center survey, one out of every four homeowners expressed concern about some aspect of their home negatively impacting their household’s health. And among owners specifically concerned about ‘invisible’ risks, such as indoor air or water quality, more than half took at least one specific action to remediate their concern, including installation of water filters, mold removal, and choice of paints with low- or no airborne toxins.  In other words, U.S. consumers’ perception of invisible health risks and problems, and their growing knowledge of best practices in healthy housing, impacts their home improvement behavior.  Further developments in healthy housing research likely will impact their choices of remodeling projects and materials, and may even influence how they go about choosing remodeling contractors who they feel will best protect and even promote their households’ health.

Thursday, September 11, 2014

New Data Shows a Growing Wealth Divide in the U.S.

by Dan McCue
Research Manager
Last week, the Federal Reserve released its 2013 Survey of Consumer Finances, a triennial survey which gives a rare, detailed look at the assets and debts as well as incomes of households across the nation. In the months to come, the Joint Center will delve into these data to assess the financial status of households with a particular emphasis on the association between homeownership and household wealth and the implications of consumer debt for future trends in the housing market. But in the meantime, the following are some early findings on household wealth pulled from a quick look at the Federal Reserve’s summary of net worth by various household characteristics.

Low-Income Households Lost Wealth, While High-Income Households Held Their Ground Between 2010 and 2013, low-income households had substantial declines in real net worth, while higher income households reported modest gains. The greatest declines were felt by households in the bottom income quintile, where the average net worth dropped by 21 percent.  Meanwhile, the average net wealth for the top 10 percent income group increased by 2 percent.

The Typical Renter Still Has Very Little Net Wealth
Median net worth for all renters remained unchanged in 2013 relative to 2010, at just $5,400.  This is just a fraction of the median net worth of the typical homeowner, of $195,400, which increased by 4 percent in 2010-13.  In fact, the real increase in median net wealth of owners alone between 2010 and 2013 ($8,400) exceeded the total median net wealth of renters in 2013 by over 55 percent. 

The White/Minority Wealth Gap Expanded
The net worth of the typical white household increased by 2 percent over the past three years, while that of the typical minority household (non-white or Hispanic) dropped fully 17 percent.  This extended the gap in median net wealth between the two groups ($142,000 vs. $18,100).

It Helps to Have a College Education
Looking at the changes in wealth by education level, we see that the median net worth for a household headed by a person with a college degree increased 5 percent in 2010-13.  Meanwhile, the median net wealth of those with only a high school diploma or just some college fell by 14 percent.

Overall, Households Have Lowered Debt Costs
Median debt, including mortgages and all forms of consumer debt, declined 20 percent between 2010 and 2013.  Fewer families have high debt payment to income ratios (above 40%) than at any time since 2001.

Fewer Families Held Home Mortgages, and the Average Mortgage Level Declined
Exceeding the decline in homeownership rates during the period, the share of owners with mortgages declined from 47.0 percent in 2010 to 42.9 percent in 2013.  Furthermore, the average amount of mortgage debt also dropped by 5 percent. 

Higher Shares of Young Households have Student Loan Debt and the Typical Level of Student Debt Held is Rising
The share of households with student loan debt rose again in 2013 to reach an even 20.0% of all households.  Over a longer span of time, the increase in share has been significant – particularly for the young.  For those under age 40, the share with student loan debt is up from 22.4% in 2001 to 38.8% in 2013. During that same time period, the average level of student debt held by younger households also grew from $16,900 in 2001 to $29,800 in 2013 – while the median amount that the typical young household owed rose from $10,500 to $16,800.   

All told, the portrait that emerges from these data point to a continued widening of the wealth divide in the country by income, race/ethnicity, and education. And while there has been some improvement in the overall consumer debt load, the sharp rise in student loans is a real cause for concern for the ability of young adults to be able to afford to buy homes in the future.  Stay tuned for further analysis of this rich data source. 

Wednesday, September 10, 2014

INTERACTIVE MAP: The U.S. Population Has Aged Significantly Over the Past Two Decades

by Elizabeth La Jeunesse
Research Analyst
The older adult population has grown tremendously since the first of the baby boomers (born 1946-64) turned 50 in the mid-1990s. Between 1990 and 2010, the number of people 50 and over jumped by 35 million, an increase of 55 percent. This dramatic increase can be seen across US counties on the interactive map published as part of our new report, Housing America’s Older Adults. As the map shows, the share of population 50 and older grew substantially across the U.S. during the last two decades. In 1990, about 1 in 20 counties had a population where older adults made up 40 percent or more of its residents. These counties were mostly sprinkled throughout the Midwest and Florida. By 2010, however, that number had multiplied to around 1 in 3 counties, spread mostly across the Northeast, along the Canadian border, and into the West.

Click map to launch.  (May take a few seconds to load.)

The number of counties where half or more of the population was 50 or older also grew markedly—by a factor of more than ten—over this period. These counties can be seen in states across the nation, including Michigan, North Dakota, Texas, and Florida.

As detailed in the report, older adults all over the U.S. face a number of challenges including increasing risks of disability, isolation, and financial stress. The pressures on rural areas are particularly acute, given their larger older populations and the limited availability of services and housing options. The report documents many areas for action at all levels of government to ensure that older households are able to obtain affordable and accessible homes with the ability to remain connected to their communities and to receive needed long-term supports and services in their homes. But much of the responsibility for following through on these actions will fall on the local communities. As the map illustrates, the demand for housing to accommodate the aging population will be evident in a broad swath of communities across the country.

Tuesday, September 2, 2014

Housing America's Older Adults: New Report & Infographic

This week, the Joint Center released its new report, Housing America's Older Adults—Meeting the Needs of an Aging Population. According to the report, America’s older population is in the midst of unprecedented growth, but the country is not prepared to meet the housing needs of this aging group. The number of adults in the U.S. aged 50 and over is expected to grow to 132 million by 2030, an increase of more than 70 percent since 2000. But housing that is affordable, physically accessible, well-located, and coordinated with supports and services is in too short supply.

Read the full report online, or click the image below to see & share an eye-opening infographic about the report.