Searching through scholarly papers on residential, indoor environmental health concerns, it struck me how many times I read words such as ”inconclusive,” “still debated,” and “no effect” regarding the benefits of green building and asthma and other allergic diseases. For example, a paper titled, “Viewpoint: The future of research in pediatric allergy: What should the focus be?” published in Pediatric Allergy and Immunology (2012: 23: 5–10), concludes that, “Reduction of exposure to indoor allergens (house dust mites) might even increase the risk for allergy and should not be recommended,” given a prophylactic effect on the immune system through early childhood exposure to pet dander, dust, and other common household pollutants. This argument made some sense to me, given a South American upbringing, where conditions were much less hygienic than those in the United States, yet I observed my U.S.-born children and their friends becoming sick much more often than I remembered in my childhood, especially when my kids and I traveled abroad—where people from the United States are known for their low resistance.
I should clarify that I found no arguments against the detrimental effects of lead, cigarettes, and biocides, but recent studies seem to dampen the fervor of early publications on the health benefits of green building in both household occupant and health and commercial building productivity.
Some recent studies focus on high-performance housing, and ask whether our engineered calculations for outdoor air ventilation are adequate, warning of the consequences of miscalculation. One paper published in the Journal of Housing and the Built Environment urges vigorous research to identify potential human health concerns that may arise from the increasing popularity of net-zero energy homes. (Journal of Housing and the Built Environment, DOI: 10.1007/s10901-011-9260-7, “A review of possible health concerns associated with zero net energy homes,” Timothy L. Hemsath, Anna Walburn, Andrew Jameton and Matthew Gulsvig.)
Another paper points to the potential danger of workmanship defects in the federally fueled, fast-paced effort to retrofit hundreds of thousands of homes in short order, stating that “… in Cook County, Ill., 12 of 15 homes audited by the DOE Inspector General after receiving retrofits were found to have substandard work, and 5 of 6 furnace tune-ups had not been correctly performed, allowing the heating systems to either improperly fire or exceed maximum allowable carbon monoxide (CO) emissions.” (Environ Health Perspective, 2011 February; 119(2): A76–A79); “Avoiding Health Pitfalls of Home Energy-Efficiency Retrofits,” John Manuel.)
In the drive to meet global challenges, the pace of change can feel exasperatingly slow, but regrettable mistakes may come with well-intentioned initiatives made in haste, and the race toward carbon neutrality by 2030 is a matter of urgency. Improving building performance without a slow, scientific approach to environmental health, such as the rigorous research under way at the National Center for Healthy Housing, may come with unintended consequences, including increased exposure to serious indoor hazards through a hastily trained and a hastily deployed energy-retrofit workforce, and then progressively weakened immune systems.