Magazine article UNESCO Courier

Healthy Housing

Magazine article UNESCO Courier

Healthy Housing

Article excerpt

Although indoor pollution is often overlooked, it directly or indirectly affects the health of a broad spectrum of people, from those living in mud huts to those whose homes are in modern skyscrapers. This pollution can come from three different sources: outdoor air pollution (whose planetary impact was described in our December 1997 issue); building materials; and the activities of occupants.

A healthy home must be designed to protect its inhabitants from extremes of cold and heat, rain, noise, dust, insects, and rodents. It must be constructed on a well-drained site, and have access to running water and a waste-disposal system. Overcrowding should be avoided to reduce the risk of contagious diseases. Neither the heating system nor the cooking facilities should give off noxious fumes. Unfortunately, not everyone living in the Third World or in industrialized countries lives in these conditions. The very poor have to make do with insalubrious shelters on the edges of cities and endure a range of different kinds of pollution.

Another situation that is often overlooked, although it is very common, is that where the home is also a workplace. In such cases, the use and storage of toxic or dangerous chemical substances needs to be reviewed in order to make sure that people are better protected. In addition, the stress caused by the cost of housing, insecurity of tenure, and the threat of expulsion when a home is being illegally occupied, can have an important bearing on mental health.


In industrialized countries where current standards are well respected, these risks are generally very low. Architects are closely concerned with the structure of buildings and with the quality of building materials. The World Health Organization (WHO) nevertheless observes that in these countries, "the advent of air conditioning and energy conservation measures have been accompanied by growing problems of indoor air quality. . . . Some pollutants arise from insulation products, some from kerosene heaters, and others from modern housing materials. As many Europeans spend up to 90% of their lives in buildings, the health effects of the indoor climate are significant."

Some construction materials, including fibreboard, insulation foams and certain glues (for carpets or rugs, for example), emit organic products such as formaldehyde. Heat and humidity increase formaldehyde emissions and the gas seriously irritates the eyes. Paint, lacquer, varnish and other resins can also release volatile organic compounds into indoor air.

In 1976, members of the American Legion, an organization of U.S. war veterans, met in an air-conditioned hotel in Philadelphia. More than 200 of them came down with pneumonia and 34 of them died. Later, the bacteria that caused their deaths was identified and named Legionella pneumophyla. These bacteria proliferate in humid areas, in toilets, and poorly maintained bathrooms. Steps can be taken to prevent what became known as Legionnaire's Disease by means of simple hygiene measures, starting with very careful, regular cleaning of sanitary appliances.

The land on which buildings are sited may also contribute to pollution. Some kinds of granite or similar rocks contain traces of radium. As it breaks down, this naturally radioactive element produces radon, a radioactive gas that seeps through tiny cracks in walls, porous floors and building materials, and makes its way into home interiors. The better the homes are insulated, the more the gas accumulates. Radon's main affect on health is to increase the risk of lung cancer. Ten years ago in the United States, radon panic made radon detection all the rage. People bought themselves detectors similar to those used by nuclear technicians, even in areas where there was no danger whatsoever!


Construction materials can cause serious damage, especially when they contain asbestos. …

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