Climate Change Impacts Indoor Environment

By Potera, Carol | Environmental Health Perspectives, September 2011 | Go to article overview
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Climate Change Impacts Indoor Environment


Potera, Carol, Environmental Health Perspectives


In nature there are neither rewards nor punishments; there are consequences.

Robert G. Ingersoll, Some Reasons Why (1881)

For many years investigarors have been aware of potential links between climate change and outdoor air quality (1). Far fewer stud-ies have focused on climate change and indoor air quality, but a new report from the Institute of Medicine (IOM) concludes that the relationship between the two warrants further attention and action (2).

"There's not much research at this interface, and hard evidence is needed," says John Spengler, an atmospheric scientist at the Harvard School of Public Health, who chaired the committee that authored the report. "This report identifies indoor air quality as a priority that deserves an important place in climate change research and policy."

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency asked the IOM to independently investigate the issue. "Most people spend the majority of their time indoors, so it makes sense that people will experience climate change from a housing perspective," says Patricia Burrerfield, dean of the Washington State University College of Nursing, who reviewed the report. The IOM committee describes potential changes to residential and commercial buildings resulting from efforts either to mitigate or adapt to climate change.

Climate change mitigation plans seeking to reduce carbon dioxide emissions often tout the goal of reducing the amount of energy needed to maintain a comfortable indoor environment. That's because coal combustion for electricity production is a primary source of U.S. emissions of carbon dioxide (3). But steps such as weatherizing buildings to make them more energy efficient could create new indoor problems or worsen existing conditions, according to the report. For example, caulking and sealing leaks in buildings may alter airflow and concentrate indoor pollutants such as tobacco smoke, radon, and chemical emissions from building materials (4). And trapped moisture can spur mold and bacterial growth (5).

Severe weather presents another opportunity for indoor air hazards. For instance, Butterfield says, families may face an increased likelihood of flooded basements or mold in attics related to predicted increases in extreme weather. And an increase in cases of carbon monoxide poisoning after hurricanes has been traced to the improper use of portable gasoline-powered generators, which emit high levels of carbon monoxide (6). When generators are used properly with good ventilation, they are not a problem. But when used improperly close to or inside homes, people end up in emergency rooms or even dead. "It's a good example of the interplay we will experience as we adapt to climate change," Spengler says. He adds that new weatherizing materials and techniques may be commercialized faster than their health implications can be assessed. "We will invent all sorts of things as we adapt to mitigate climate change," he explains.

The report authors write that an "upfront investment" is needed to consider the potential consequences of housing-related adaptation actions in order to avoid problems and prevent the costs of medical care and lost productivity of building occupants. This investment might entail research that combines data from government agencies to understand how climate change affects environmental health, putting programs in place to certify products as helpful or nonhazardous, and training workers to properly install proven products. Models to ensure the safety of building materials already exist in the U.

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