The Health Professional’s Stake in Home Energy Performance

Why health professionals should consider the link between indoor air quality and a subset of home energy upgrades

The average American spends up to 90 percent of his or her time indoors. So it’s not surprising that poor indoor air quality (IAQ) can have a negative effect on our health—just as outdoor air pollution does. In fact, poor IAQ costs the U.S. economy more than $10 billion per year by worsening illness like asthma, and exacerbating allergy symptoms.

In many cases, it seems that the healthcare industry suffers a challenge similar to the one faced by the energy industry, focusing all too often on curing symptoms rather than resolving root causes. However, a compelling TED Talk, What makes us get sick? Look upstream with Dr. Rischi Manchanda, lays out a different approach to healthcare, just like RMI’s unique approach to transforming energy systems, by improving health where it begins.

Dr. Manchanda tells a compelling story of a female patient named Veronica who was suffering from chronic pain, the cause of which had been difficult to pin down. However, Veronica’s answers to Dr. Manchanda’s questions about her housing conditions revealed that her home was riddled with mold, water leaks, and other issues that needed to be fixed in order for her to get well.

The key takeaway is that our health and our indoor environments are inextricably linked. And, there is ample evidence that high performance buildings provide significant health benefits to occupants. Health professionals can do an even better job serving their patients by better understanding the role of IAQ in diagnoses, and can better understand ways to improve IAQ as a means to support the long-term health and well-being of their patients.

An unexpected path to improved health through improved homes

There is growing evidence that a subset of home energy upgrades—such as controlled ventilation, humidity control, and building envelope improvements (insulation and sealing drafts)—can improve IAQ as an added benefit to cost savings and increased indoor comfort. Certain energy upgrades lead to enhanced circulation of clean, fresh air and reduced dust and moisture in the home—resulting in lower humidity and occurrences of mold and other allergens.

For example, sealing drafts can keep moist air from cooking and bathing from entering a home’s walls where mold can form. Both insulation and draft-sealing can also prevent hot, moist air or pests from entering the home.

A recent study shows a 23 percent reduction in the number of children with not-well-controlled or very poorly controlled asthma in homes that receive asthma-control education, energy services, and repairs compared to children in homes that only received education. Also, consider the graphic below based on E4TheFuture research, which offers a useful summary about specific opportunities for energy performance improvements that have direct links to improved health outcomes:

Taken together, emerging research suggests an opportunity for health professionals to consider the role that certain home energy upgrades can play in alleviating IAQ-driven health symptoms and deliver better health outcomes.

Why aren’t more making this link?

Health professionals are the gold standard of “trusted professional,” and have heavy influence on decisions made by individuals as well as those made by their families and friends. Recommendations that health professionals provide us can—and often do—lead to fundamental changes affecting both people’s major decisions and people’s daily habits.

It isn’t yet commonplace for homeowners to consider the role of IAQ in homes, let alone how a subset of energy upgrades can improve IAQ. Similarly, healthcare providers may be unaware of the link between energy upgrades and health—or may find existing research to be too “soft” to put their weight behind it. Given the growing body of evidence suggesting this link—plus the growing availability of contractors who can deliver energy-efficient, healthy home improvements—it seems that health professionals should better understand the extent to which these particular energy upgrades should enter their toolbox.

A new resource for healthcare providers and homeowners

RMI’s Residential Energy+ team is deploying new educational materials to motivate health professionals to promote the benefits of home energy upgrades as preventative health and health symptom-reducing measures. We believe that greater promotion of these benefits by health professionals will expand the sources of motivations for homeowners to invest in whole-home energy upgrades. In turn, a growing pool of motivated homeowners will increase consumer demand for investments that deliver significant carbon emission reductions and improve air quality.

That’s why we partnered with NEEF to produce the Health Heroes infographic—which follows the first jointly-produced Home Heroes infographic targeting real estate professionals—to encourage health professionals to help make improved energy performance a priority for homeowners. We think the infographic can help inform and inspire health professionals to promote energy performance as well as provide concrete talking points and action items so they can promote home energy upgrades as a way to foster better health outcomes. By looking upstream and improving health where it begins, in the home, we can save money, reduce carbon emissions, and contribute to improving our society’s health.


Image courtesy of iStock.