Wednesday, December 10, 2014

Survey: Many Homeowners Concerned about Invisible Health Risks

by Elizabeth La Jeunesse
Research Analyst
What makes a home healthy or unhealthy?  As Mariel Wolfson illustrated in her recent blog, this question is a multifaceted one. Old hazards persist, including lead paint, combustion pollution, formaldehyde, and radon. There is also growing awareness of other invisible pollutants, including volatile and semi-volatile organic compounds and endocrine disrupting chemicals. These elements enter homes not only through household products and goods but, as research from the Healthy Building Network shows, through building materials themselves. Achieving optimal ventilation remains essential to healthy indoor air quality. Attention should also be paid to the surrounding neighborhood, including access to health services and healthy food, walkability and accessibility, and levels of outdoor air pollution. Some communities are disproportionately affected by polluting industries and waste disposal sites in their neighborhoods, making it even more difficult for residents to enjoy a healthy home environment.

Households’ perceptions of health risks influence behaviors and in turn affect the home environment, so the Joint Center recently surveyed homeowners to learn about their ‘healthy housing’ concerns. These include but are not limited to worries about mold/moisture, indoor air quality, chemicals at home, and noise and lighting issues which might affect household health.

We found that roughly one out of four homeowners expressed some level of concern about an aspect of their home negatively impacting their household’s health. One out of ten households described their concerns as ‘moderate’ or ‘major’. High income households (earning $100K or more) were slightly more likely to express concern, as were households with one or more children.

By far the most frequently cited problem was indoor air quality, with more than two thirds of the concerned households identifying it as an issue. Water quality and harmful chemicals/materials followed, with around 30-40 percent of households citing them. As the chart below shows, these indoor health risks ranked even above basic safety issues. Least commonly cited problems were light and noise issues. 

Notes: Sample size is 529.  Households that expressed some basic level of healthy housing interest/concern were asked, “Which general category(ies) best describes your concern about the impact of your home on your household’s health?” Safety or comfort of the structure includes trip hazards, inadequate heating/cooling etc. Other basic safety issues include pests, lack of smoke detectors/locks/child safety features, etc.
Source: JCHS tabulations of Healthy Home Owner Survey, The Farnsworth Group.

When asked to be more specific about the source of their indoor air quality concerns, top issues cited by owners included managing household dust and/or pet dander, air pollution from indoor cooking/heating, and lack of sufficient ventilation. Over half of households concerned about residential indoor health risks identified these as problems. Just under half of those worried about indoor health cited chemicals from interior furnishings and from the building/structure itself as a source of concern.

Among all homeowners expressing concerns related to indoor health, more than half took at least one specific action to remediate their concern. Most frequent actions completed or planned in the near future included water filter installation, choice of paint with no or low airborne toxins, mold removal, and installation of room darkening curtains/shades. Less frequent actions included removal of asbestos and lead paint. 

Over the coming months, the Joint Center will analyze results from similar surveys of renter households, as well as of remodeling contractors, to better understand how healthy housing concerns and behaviors are playing out in the current residential remodeling market.

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