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'Green' Public Housing May Help Families Breathe Easier

Rates of asthma attacks lower in specially designed buildings

By Amy Norton
HealthDay Reporter

TUESDAY, Oct. 20, 2015 (HealthDay News) -- Low-income families living in "green" public housing may have fewer problems with asthma and other respiratory conditions, a new study finds.

Researchers found that children living in Boston's newer, greener public housing had fewer asthma attacks, hospital visits and missed school days, compared with their peers in standard public housing.

Adults, meanwhile, were less likely to report symptoms consistent with a condition called "sick building syndrome" -- which include dizziness, headaches, nausea and eye irritation.

The research, reported in the American Journal of Public Health, did not find a cause-and-effect link that proves green housing improves people's respiratory health.

But it makes sense that it would, said lead researcher Meryl Colton, who was at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health in Boston when the study was conducted.

It's known that indoor pollutants and allergens such as mold, cockroaches and cigarette smoke -- can trigger kids' asthma symptoms, explained Colton, who is now a medical student at the University of Colorado. And experts believe that exposure to those triggers partly explains why lower-income children are particularly hard-hit by asthma.

"So we've got a likely mechanism to explain why green housing was associated with fewer symptoms," Colton said.

Over the past decade, the Boston Housing Authority (BHA) has been moving toward greener public housing, Colton said. That has meant constructing new mid-rise buildings and townhouses with eco-friendly materials, solar panels on the roof, and a "tighter" exterior to make them more energy-efficient.

But besides cutting heating and cooling costs, the greener designs also improve indoor quality, Colton explained. Mechanical ventilation systems move the "bad" air out and the fresh in. And common sources of indoor pollution are absent -- units have electric stoves rather than gas ones, for example.

Green "policies" have been another key step, Colton said. Smoking is banned, and use of chemical pesticides has been slashed -- two moves the BHA has now extended to all public housing, according to background information in the study.

Instead of spraying toxic fumes, buildings now use "integrated pest management," Colton said. That includes sealing up areas where pests can get in, and quickly fixing water leaks that can entice unwanted visitors.

"They also educate residents on pest control, like limiting open food sources and reducing clutter," Colton said. "And if pests do get in, the buildings first use nonchemical methods, like bait traps."

To see how all of those steps might be affecting residents' health, Colton's team visited 235 families living in one of three Boston public housing sites: 100 lived in green homes, and the rest lived in older, standard units.

The group included 44 children with asthma, and the researchers found that those living in green housing were faring better. The kids were two-thirds less likely to have had an asthma attack in the past year, and 75 percent less likely to have made a trip to the hospital for worsening asthma.

Meanwhile, adults in green housing reported 35 percent fewer symptoms of "sick building syndrome," attributed to indoor air pollution in modern buildings that are tightly sealed, but not necessarily well-ventilated.

One medical expert not involved with the research was excited to see these study results.

Dr. Elizabeth Garland, an associate professor of preventive medicine and pediatrics at Mount Sinai School of Medicine in New York City, has studied the effects of green public housing in New York. In a 2013 study, her team found similar benefits among children with asthma who were living in green buildings in the South Bronx, she said.

"I think this really is the wave of the future," Garland said. In New York City, she noted, it is now law that all new affordable housing meet certain "green" standards.

There is still more research to be done, according to Colton. "Are these health benefits maintained over time?" she said. "Is it possible that they increase?"

Research into the financial side is also important. "Green housing does take a large initial investment," Colton said.

But, she added, the move could pay for itself in the form of not only lower energy bills, but lower health care costs.

"People sometimes think of 'green building' as an upper-middle-class luxury," Colton said. "But it can be much more than that."

Even when cities are not in a financial position to start building new public housing, they can switch to green policies, both Colton and Garland said.

Banning smoking and reducing chemical pesticides are two important steps, Garland said -- though, she added, that also means the public health system has to do a better job of helping people with smoking cessation.

Garland also suggested that whenever possible, people take their own steps to clear the indoor air -- by avoiding chemical-containing air fresheners and opting for less-toxic cleaning products, for example.

More information

The American Lung Association has more on indoor air quality.

SOURCES: Meryl Colton, M.S., formerly of the department of environmental health, Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, Boston, now at University of Colorado; Elizabeth Garland, M.D., associate professor, preventive medicine and pediatrics, Mount Sinai School of Medicine, New York; Oct. 15, 2015 American Journal of Public Health online

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