June 21, 2018
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Energy can be saved without trading in health

By Kurt T. Johnson, Special to the BDN

As the president-elect of the Maine Indoor Air Quality Council, I am deeply concerned about the drive to tighten up homes to save fuel costs, without any understanding of the potential health impact.

Government agencies encourage and fund “eco-efficient” homes. We are all interested in saving on fuel costs. The new energy codes in the home building industry are a step in the right direction. Building codes often demand highly insulated structures.

It’s time we discussed the serious health impact on people living in these tight, energy-efficient homes. Without effective ventilation designed to reduce pollutants and toxins from indoor air, the public data conveys the warnings:

• One in three people have allergies severe enough to seek medical treatments.

• Molds and moisture produce allergens, irritants and sometimes become toxic.

• The U.S. Surgeon General considers asthma an epidemic, with over 9.5 million children affected — 13 percent of the population under 18. It is the leading killer of young children.

• In Maine, the child asthma rate is 20 percent higher than the national average.

• Radon is one of the leading lung cancer risk factors and Maine has high radon rates. In Androscoggin and Cumberland counties, 76 percent of homes had radon levels requiring action. Lung cancer in Maine is 20 percent higher than the national average. Nationally, radon kills 1 in 44.

• The CDC has declared formaldehyde a carcinogen. It is used extensively in construction — framing, flooring, walls, cabinets, carpeting, subflooring, furniture, etc.

• In a recent California study of new, energy-efficient homes, 98 percent had toxic levels of formaldehyde – perhaps most appalling is that baby furniture emits enough formaldehyde to produce toxic levels in a tight house.

• New computers release 48 known toxic chemicals. Our appliances release gases directly into the air and the everyday cleaning compounds remain in the air we are rebreathing in our tight, unventilated homes.

• Carbon monoxide is emitted by any home appliance with a flame, such as wood stoves, pellet stoves, oil burners, hot water heaters, gas heaters, gas ranges and gas fireplaces. Deadly carbon monoxide can build up in a home in a matter of hours.

The public domain statistics are staggering and too numerous to list. Beginning in the 1980s and 1990s, as we tightened up to conserve energy, the World Health Organization reported 30 percent of new or remodeled buildings had excessive complaints (sick building syndrome) and at the CDC, indoor air complaints rose from .05 percent in 1978 to 52 percent in 1990.

Canada, France and Scandinavian countries learned a long time ago what the U.S. public is slow to recognize — tight, unventilated houses risk increased health problems. Is it any coincidence countries with socialized medicine have lower incidents of asthma and respiratory statistics? And these same countries have controlled ventilation built into their housing codes.

Consumers have a responsibility to themselves to “do their homework” on all aspects of energy efficiency. A healthy home with energy solutions is a goal we can all attain with well-controlled ventilation.

Kurt T. Johnson is president-elect of the Maine Indoor Air Quality Council, based in Augusta. On the web: www.maineindoorair.org.

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