Is asthma being worsened by energy efficient homes?

guardian headline
Screen capture Guardian headline

Let's see, last year the Daily Mail ran a headline that asked Are energy efficient homes making us ILL? Toxic mould caused by poor air circulation could trigger 'sick building syndrome'. Now the Guardian, in a similar vein, runs Asthma could be worsened by energy-efficient homes, warns study with a stock photo of a kid sucking on a puffer. But it is the same story:

The number of Britons with asthma could almost double by 2050 because the air inside homes is becoming more polluted as they become more energy-efficient, a new report warns.... Airborne pollutants created by cooking, cleaning and using aerosols such as hairsprays will increasingly stay indoors and affect people’s health as homes are made ever more leak-proof to help meet carbon reduction targets, a report by Professor Hazim Awbi claims.

Then there is the Guardian's subhead: "Lack of ventilation caused by better insulation could create spike in indoor pollutants, research warns." But better insulation does not cause a lack of ventilation. If this were the case, our beloved Passive Houses would be killing people all over Europe, when in fact they are about the healthiest houses on the planet. They have tons of insulation but they also have an engineered ventilation system.

Furthermore that was the whole point of the study, to discuss ventilation; it was funded by Beama, a group that represents installers of ventilation equipment, and concludes that surprise! houses need ventilation equipment. Says a doctor:

While energy-efficient houses will help address climate change, it is important to ensure that adequate ventilation levels are maintained and indoor air pollution sources minimised to protect public health.

As a contributor to the Guardian, I know that the author doesn't write the title or the subhead. But these got it wrong on so many levels.

hrv ceiling drawing

This issue has been around for years; you shouldn't build an airtight house without properly engineered adequate ventilation, including probably a heat recovery ventilator. I wrote in 2010 In Green Building, You Can't Separate Energy and Health

An HRV will suck air out of the bathrooms, transfer its heat to incoming fresh air, and ensure that people aren't soaking in toxins that build up in a tightly sealed house. It eliminates the buildup of moisture that can cause mold.

But the real message, both with LEED towers and single family houses, is that you cannot worry about energy savings without worrying about air quality, they go hand in hand. If you make a building energy efficient then you have to worry about VOCs, formaldehyde, fire retardants and every other chemical that can build up; an efficient house has to be a healthy house.

We not only have to be careful about ventilation and the materials that we build our houses out of, but also what we bring into them. As Melissa notes in her post 8 things to never bring into your home- "Make your house a haven, not a toxic waste site."

Energy efficient houses don't make people sick; crappy houses do, houses that are not ventilated, that are built out of outgassing materials, and are filled with toxic chemicals. I don't know which is worse, the headline or the subhead, but they are both just wrong.

Is asthma being worsened by energy efficient homes?
No, it is being worsened by crappy homes.

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