Healthy home trend trumps green initiative

healthy home
Effects of Living in a Healthy Home (infographic from haywardhealthyhome.com)

Green building practices have been the trend for new homes over a decade.  Housing experts have touted the benefits of green building as environmentally friendly and money saving.  Health experts have also proclaimed the benefits of green home designs.  However, a revealing exposé in Remodeling Magazine discusses the health dangers of living in a green design and/or energy efficient home.  There is a healthy home trend that is trumping the green initiative.

The need for a healthy home

To describe how a green home’s air can become dangerous over time, Marisa Martinez uses the analogy of opening up the air-tight sealed bag of clothes from last summer and getting a whiff of the stale, plastic air (Breathing Easy: An Introduction to Healthy Homes; remodeling.hw.com; June 22, 2017).  Martinez discussed how builders and home owners have focused on reducing environmental impacts of their home and neglected the health effects from the new building directives.

Green building and efficient home designs focus on reducing system operating costs by increasing the structure efficiency, thus reducing the impact to the environment.  One of the outcomes of such a building design is having an air tight home.  The air-tight feature is to ensure that there is minimal energy loss from escaping air.  Owners and occupants of green homes are becoming ill because homes are air-tight.  The lack of proper ventilation and the decreased breathability of a home can make the inside air become stale.  And, over time, the buildup of interior pollutants can make the home toxic.

Increasing the awareness of green and efficient homes was a reason for the mandatory utility disclosures when selling a home in Montgomery County. This requirement was enacted in 2008 as a compromise from a proposed mandatory energy audit.

“According to Montgomery County Bill 31-07, enacted into Montgomery County Code Real Property 40-13b earlier this year, a home seller must provide potential home buyers the last twelve months of utility bills and information approved by the Montgomery County Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) about home efficiency improvements including the “benefit of conducting a home energy audit” before entering into a sales contract.”

Additional potential hazards can be encountered when renovating a green designed home because the air-tight feature can cause air pollutants to accumulate inside the home.  Materials in new carpets, flooring (finished wood or vinyl), and paints can produce toxic off-gases that are not ventilated out of the home.  Dust from drywall and other building materials pose a health hazard as well.

Martinez’s exposé flies in the face of research hyping the health benefits of green homes.  One of the flaws of the these studies is that the health outcome comparisons of occupants of conventional built homes and green designated homes typically focused on new homes.  The air quality issue that Martinez points out should be studied in older green and efficient homes, where the indoor air has had time to “mature.”

The green home movement was supposed to give us environmentally friendly, efficient homes that were also supposed keep us healthy.  But the trend from green and efficient building is now transforming to a focus more on healthy home environments with an emphasis on good indoor air quality.  Martinez stated that the good indoor air quality can be achieved by continuously exchanging the indoor air with conditioned outdoor air.  There are physical and environmental benefits of a healthy home, which include increased emotional well being and reduced respiratory distress.

Leading the effort to educate the housing industry and consumers on healthy home environments is Bill Hayward.  In an interview in Builder Magazine (Advocating for Fresh Air in Homes; builderonline.com; September 29, 2016) he discussed his journey in creating Hayward Healthy Homes after realizing his home was making his family ill.  Hayward stated “Thirty percent of the population has allergies and is physically affected by the indoor air quality. The worst air that Americans breath right now is the air within their house.” More information and a free guide on creating a healthy home can be obtained from Hayward Healthy Home (haywardhealthyhome.com).

Copyright© Dan Krell
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Home prices, power lines, and cell towers

home prices
Power lines, Cell towers, and home prices (infographic from bragg.com)

Anyone who has bought or rented a home has been told about lead paint, radon, and maybe even asbestos, as well as other potential hazards in the home.  But what about potential hazards brought about by technology, how do they affect home prices?  Many shirk away from homes that are close to power lines or cell towers because of health concerns; while some are repelled by the aesthetics.   Regardless, there is some impact on your home’s value when in close proximity to power lines and cell towers.

What is considered to be necessary for modern living, power lines and cell towers are fundamental to our lives.  And although many are wary of the health effects from living nearby these devices; they will still have wi-fi, and a microwave oven in their home, and they probably also use a cell phone.  All of which emit similar types of radiation.

According to the American Cancer Society (cancer.org), the type of radiation emitted from power lines and cell towers are non-ionizing radiation, like the electronic devices mentioned above.  Non-ionizing radiation does not remove particles from atoms, nor does it directly change DNA.  Power lines emit ELF (extremely low frequency radiation), which is a lower energy radiation than visible light and infrared.

Cell towers, on the other hand, emit radiofrequency (RF) radiation that is between FM and microwaves.  Although very high levels of RF can be damaging to body tissue, the American Cancer Society website states that cell phones and towers emit RF at much lower levels (of course, one should not stand next to a cell tower).  More about power lines, cell towers, and health concerns can be obtained from the American Cancer Society website.

Findings of a 2005 study conducted by Bond & Wang (The Impact of Cell Phone Towers on House Prices in Residential Neighborhoods. The Appraisal Journal. Summer 2005.) indicated that about 40% of the control group were concerned about health effects of living in close proximity to a cell tower; which compared to 13% of respondents already living nearby a cell tower.  Nevertheless, both groups were highly concerned about future property values: 38% of the control group would lower asking price by as much as 20%; while almost two-thirds of the respondents living close to a cell tower would lower the home price by as much as 19%.

Roddewig & Brigden’s review of the research into property values surrounding power lines was enlightening (2014. Power Lines and Property Prices. Real Estate Issues, 39(2),15-33.).  They stated that the appraisal industry does not automatically reduce prices just because of a property’s proximity to a power line, even though there has been history of concern over the environmental impacts.  And caution home owners, buyers, and real estate professionals to not substitute opinion for analyses of actual home prices.

They concluded that if there is a price impact on a home’s value, it is a small reduction.  They explained that “the real estate appraisal profession has been studying those prices since the 1960s.  Some of the many published studies have found adverse impacts to property prices and values while others have found no impact or statistically insignificant impacts despite media attention given possible health effects of exposure to EMFs.”

Roddewig & Brigden also found that the long history of research suggests that negative impacts on property values from power lines can be limited by proper “land use planning and subdivision layout procedures.”

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What’s the controversy with laminate flooring?

Infographic where formaldehyde is commonly off-gassed in the home. (from greatertorontobuilders.com)

Since my last installment of How your Home is Making You Sick, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has released and revised their analysis of certain types of Chinese laminate flooring. The initial release was found to have used an incorrect value for ceiling height, which calculated airborne concentration estimates about “3 times lower than they should have been.”

The increased interest in health concerns over certain types of Chinese laminate flooring was due in part to an exposé by CBS’ 60 Minutes (which aired March 1st, 2015) that investigated California home owners’ claims that certain types of laminate flooring sold by Lumber Liquidators was making them sick. The investigation alleged that the Chinese laminate flooring sold by Lumber Liquidators did not meet California Air Resources Board standards for formaldehyde emissions in wood flooring. Lumber Liquidators questioned the testing methodology and results (Lumber Liquidators; cbcnews.com; August 16th, 2015).

In a May 2015 press release, Lumber Liquidators stated that “Initial results of the indoor air quality testing program for certain laminate flooring customers – conducted by independent, accredited laboratories – indicate that over 97% of customers’ homes were within the protective guidelines established by the World Health Organization for formaldehyde levels in indoor air.” However, sales of the products in question were discontinued; and company has offered air quality test kits for those who have purchased laminate flooring from the company.

reduceformaldehyde
from “Laminate Flooring Test Results – Health Issues and Solutions” (cdc.gov)

Since the 60 Minutes exposé, the US Consumer Product Safety Commission (CSPC) tested samples of Chinese laminate flooring and along with the CDC issued “Laminate Flooring Test Results – Health Issues and Solutions”.   The consumer handout states that formaldehyde is found in many home products; and levels typically decrease after 2 years of installation. Recommendations in reducing health risks are also listed (cdc.gov/nceh/laminateflooring/docs/nceh-atsdr_laminate-flooring.pdf).

The February 10th CDC press release initial reported analysis conducted by the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry (ATSDR) and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s (CDC) National Center for Environmental Health (NCEH) of the CSPC data “…found that formaldehyde levels observed in select laminate wood flooring products could cause short-term irritation for people in general and in some cases exacerbate asthma.  The risk of cancer associated with long-term exposure to the observed formaldehyde levels is considered extremely small…” (ATSDR and CDC Analysis Finds Possible Health Effects Associated with Formaldehyde in Select Laminate Flooring; cdc.gov).

However, a correction to the analysis was made several days later indicated that that although “the final results are not yet available,” the estimated conclusions are to be close to these: Exposure to the range of modeled levels of formaldehyde in indoor air could cause increased symptoms and other respiratory issues for people with asthma and COPD; Exposure to the lowest modeled levels of formaldehyde could result in eye, nose, and throat irritation for anyone; and The estimated risk of cancer is 6-30 cases per 100,000 people (increased from the initial “Low risk of cancer” 2-9 cases per 100,000 people). The CDC cautions that these revised results are “very conservative” and “the calculated risk is likely lower than our modeled estimate.”

Even though the results are revised, the CDC states that their recommendations will likely remain the same – “we strongly stress taking steps to reduce exposures, which should alleviate respiratory and eye, nose and throat irritation.  These steps should also reduce the cancer risk.”

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Can a home make you sick

ConstructionHow safe are the materials that were used to build and finish your home?

There are a number of materials that were commonly used in the home that at one time were considered safe, but are now known to cause health problems.  And although some of these materials have been discontinued in residential buildings years after production and use, some can be found in older homes.  However, there are other materials that are of concern that are still used in building and furnishing materials.

Lead was used as a residential paint additive for many years to enhance the paints’ properties; it was thought to increase paint durability and speed up drying.  Since the acknowledgement that lead has deleterious effects on the nervous system, especially in developing children; there was a push to “get the lead out” of paint and other consumer products.  Lead paint was subsequently discontinued and banned in 1978 from residential paints.  Today, there are numerous disclosures about the possibility of lead paint existing in homes that were built prior to 1978; homebuyers are provided the opportunity to conduct a risk assessment to determine lead levels in homes where lead paint may exist.  Lead certified contractors must be used when making repairs and renovations to homes built prior to 1978 (epa.gov).

Before it was acknowledged that asbestos is linked to a number of serious health issues, including mesothelioma; asbestos was used for thousands of years.  The ancients mined and found many uses for asbestos.  Considered to be a “miracle mineral,” construction use of asbestos mushroomed in the late nineteenth century.  Although there were government bans on asbestos products during the 1970’s and 1980’s, asbestos is still used in some commercial applications (asbestos.com).

There has been a longstanding grassroots concern about vinyl and PVC materials because of the linked health issues thought to be from the off gassing and leaching of phthalates (phthalates are a group of chemicals used in the production of plastics).  Vinyl and plastic building materials have also been widely used in homes for decades: vinyl flooring has been used in bathrooms and kitchens; vinyl has been used in laminate flooring; and PVC piping has been used for plumbing.  The EPA has been and continues to study the production, use and effects of phthalates (epa.gov).

Imported drywall is a more recent issue that was reported to cause severe respiratory ailments; oxidized jewelry and corroded pipes were also highlighted. Although the bulk of the reports of problems associated with the imported drywall emanated from Florida, the Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) has collected hundreds of reports from eighteen states and the District of Columbia. A majority of the complaints reported that affected homes were built in 2006 and 2007; which coincided with a time when building materials were in high demand due to a considerable increase in construction and the rebuilding of hurricane-damaged states (cpsc.gov).

As a result of the increasing awareness of toxins in and out of the home, the “green building” movement has become popular.  Besides helping maintain a healthy environment, a key feature of green building is to also maintain air quality in the home; green building uses natural materials to avoid off gassing of toxins.  For example, formaldehyde based materials, which are can be found in some “manufactured” woods and some carpets are avoided.

More information about green building, air quality and safety of building materials can be found at the EPA and CPSC websites.

by Dan Krell ©
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Disclaimer.  This article is not intended to provide nor should it be relied upon for legal and financial advice. Readers should not rely solely on the information contained herein, as it does not purport to be comprehensive or render specific advice.  Readers should consult with an attorney regarding local real estate laws and customs as they vary by state and jurisdiction.  This article was originally published the week of December 30, 2013 (Montgomery County Sentinel). Using this article without permission is a violation of copyright laws. Copyright © Dan Krell.