Is your House making you Sick?

Frank Bradshaw and his 13-year-old granddaughter were fighting for their lives in a defective home built on expansive clay soil — soil that’s great for cotton farming but caused their concrete slab foundation to crack and develop plumbing leaks inside. Their doctors said their survival depended on getting out. Frank is a wheel chair bound disabled Vietnam vet with respiratory problems caused by Agent Orange and made worse by critical levels of mold in their home. His granddaughter has severe asthma caused by the mold. To make matters worse, he and his wife Sandee bought their home in Hutto, TX eight years ago but can’t sell it today due to its many construction defects that the builder won’t fix, defects seem to be in hundreds of homes and caused realtors to black-ball the neighborhood. 


Building Codes

Advancements in housing – from indoor plumbing to building codes and contractor licensing – were once driven by the need to protect the health, safety and welfare of occupants. But those objectives are too often overlooked today, as builders focus more on profits and protection from lawsuits with tort reform legislation.

Still, it’s important to remember how housing affects health, because conditions in and around the home can cause or contribute to disease and health concerns that put young children and the elderly at risk.

I learned this while researching for a paper on Soil Issues for Residential Construction in Texas. The paper described the challenges of building on expansive clay soil and the health effects of residual pesticides. Arsenic was used by cotton farmers for decades, both as a pesticide to control boll weevils and, in higher concentrations, as a defoliant at harvest time. The problem with Arsenic is that it stays in the soil for decades, and it can take a long time for symptoms of Arsenic poisoning to show up. Still, contractors continue to build new homes on old farmland, protected from liability by the Brownfields Law.

We tend to worry more about inside exposures to toxins, irritants, allergens, and gases that can cause disease and hurt our health, because that’s where we spend so much time. These contaminants include mold, mildew and pests that can trigger asthma, as well as asbestos, lead-based paint, radon gas, carbon monoxide, and even second-hand tobacco smoke.

Sulfur dioxide gases given off by the Chinese drywall has been blamed for foul smells, health problems, corroded copper pipes and wires, and depreciated home values. And if it can corrode metal, what might it do to your lungs and health? As described here, widespread problems with Chinese drywall in at least 19 states and about 100,000 homes hit the national news, caused lawsuits, and prompted Congressional action.

An Ounce of Prevention

Prevention is far less expensive than the cost to detect and remediate contaminants, and remediation is far less expensive than the healthcare costs if unsafe conditions are not resolved. But what’s the cost of a life? Unfortunately, most housing-related health hazards are overlooked until after illness develops, which is why I wrote this article.

Fire Sprinklers

Besides saving lives, home fire sprinklers (1) reduce fire damage by up to 97%, (2) reduce water usage to fight home fires by upwards of 90%, and (3) reduce the amount of water pollution released into the environment. That’s why the latest International Residential Code requires automatic fire sprinklers in new home construction, just like we see in nursing homes, assisted living facilities, apartment buildings, and commercial buildings. But builders have been opposing rules to require sprinklers in homes and have successfully lobbied many state legislatures to prevent adoption of the new building codes. 

National Center for Health Housing

I just discovered the NCHH and added them to our list of Resource Links. NCHH brings the public health, housing, environmental, and regulatory communities together to combat disease and injuries caused by hazards in the home. The 501(c)(3) nonprofit corporation conducts applied research, program evaluation, technical assistance, training, outreach, and political advocacy focused on reducing the health consequences of indoor exposures.