Overexposed and Underserved

Housing and health policymakers must be mindful of the social and structural factors that have created overexposed and underserved communities.

Written by Jeff Hurley, State Initiatives Manager, Building Clean

Interest in the relationship between health and housing has grown in recent years. Researchers have begun to look at the many characteristics within the built environment that influence an individual’s physical and mental health and well-being. Enhancements in the quality of housing and access to affordable housing can improve health outcomes and decrease health care costs. But beyond discussions on neighborhood amenities, access to health care, and the “cost burden” on families is the often-overlooked impact that indoor chemical exposure has on occupant safety. Moreover, the overwhelming evidence detailing the disproportionate exposure of harmful chemicals that Black, brown, and low-income families have compared to the general population is even more concerning.

Communities of color and folks with a low socioeconomic position or less education—many of whom are already predisposed to structural frameworks that hinder upward mobility—are overwhelmingly at risk of facing higher exposure to indoor and outdoor pollutants. The increased cognizance of air pollution has not mitigated the disproportionate exposure, best highlighted by a study from the Ohio State University that collected data on exposure to industrial toxins for different racial and socioeconomic groups. Researchers identified that Black Americans were more exposed than other demographic groups. In addition, socioeconomic status did not shield Black Americans from these discrepancies.

Where you live—and the products that make up where you live—matter. Housing is a source of exposure to various air pollutants as a result of off-gassing from unhealthy or degrading building materials. Indoor environments can allow pollutants to accumulate, resulting in indoor levels many times higher than outdoor levels, increasing the risk of asthma and infectious and respiratory diseases. Many of the building products that we use in our homes are created with toxic chemicals that persist after installation and can exacerbate and/or cause negative health impacts, ranging from kidney damage and cancer to reproductive and developmental disorders. Flooring, insulation, paints, and sealants may include chemicals such as PFAS, volatile organic compounds, phthalates, lead, and carcinogens. Increased exposure to these toxins can lead to undesirable health outcomes that can stunt brain and nervous system development, lowering intelligence and reading capabilities.

And not only does where you live matter, but also the condition in which you live. Perhaps the primary association between social inequities and health disparities is the quality of housing. Individuals who live in areas with concentrated environmental, social, and health risks are exploited by the ramifications of unhealthy housing. Researchers from Boston University called this growing link between health and reduced income as the “twenty-first-century health-poverty trap.” The cycle of living in unhealthy neighborhoods and homes can lead to poor health, stagnating social and economic mobility, creating a lack of resources or opportunities to leave the unhealthy environment and improve health.

These inequities mirror similar discrepancies for nonwhite and low-income communities from outdoor air pollution. Everyone is exposed to toxins outdoors, but your exposure could be more significant depending on where you live. More often than not, this burden falls disproportionately on communities of color. What may not be as obvious is the deliberate siting of hazardous waste facilities in neighborhoods where people of color already live, continuing a tradition of racial discrimination through zoning policies and targeting the path of least resistance. Race, regardless of income, was the dominant factor in an individual’s proximity to industrial pollution.

In what unfortunately should not come as a surprise, the disparate manner in which COVID-19 has impacted Black Americans is likely associated with their increased exposure to toxic air pollution. An analysis done by the journal Environmental Justice found that “increased per-capita COVID-19 death rates among Louisiana parishes are associated with higher estimates of pollution burden and larger percentages of Black residents.” This aligns with a similar study from the SUNY College of Environmental Science and Forestry, which concluded that an increase in exposure to hazardous air pollutants—such as formaldehyde, asbestos, and mercury—is associated with a 9% increase in death among patients with COVID-19.

Solving these issues is not a simple exercise. While it can be challenging to implement, a holistic approach that combines the expertise of housing and health advocates with community leaders is often the best start. Policies that work in unison to improve affordable housing with an eye towards tenant health and reducing racial disparities are more likely to achieve longer-term results. For example, the use of green building standards for low-income housing renovations can achieve significant health improvements, and federally subsidized rent assistance has led to lower emergency visits for asthmatic children. As part of the BlueGreen Alliance Foundation’s (BGAF) ‘Buy Local, Buy Healthy’ initiative of the Building Clean program, BGAF staff has encouraged state agencies to strengthen housing requirements for affordable housing policies to include healthy building materials that safeguard against toxic chemicals.

Chemicals and air pollutants don’t discriminate, but generations of systemic inequalities—from redlining to zoning and discriminatory housing policies—have cultivated a foundation that directly and indirectly widens the gap between the ‘haves’ and the ‘have-nots.’ Housing and health policymakers must be mindful of the social and structural factors that have created overexposed and underserved communities.

As residents and building developers consider materials to use—they should consider what health risks are involved with a particular building product. A number of resources are available to evaluate what chemicals may be harmful to occupants and installers, which products contain these materials, and if there are less harmful chemicals that can be used or healthier products available. The BlueGreen Alliance Foundation’s Building Clean website contains detailed information on how to evaluate products for harmful chemicals such as Health Product Declaration and Declare, along with product certifications like Cradle to Cradle and the GREENGUARD certification.