Friday, October 3, 2008

Can a Green Home Be Unhealthy?

In some cases, yes, according to building biologist, Athena Thompson. While researching and writing her book, Homes That Heal (and those that don't): How Your Home Could be Harm... she many people, “What exactly is green building?” Answers varied.

Builders, architects, developers, suppliers and manufacturers and other home-related professionals tended to have more elaborate answers including descriptions of sustainability and life-cycle analysis, more efficient use of energy and water, less toxic building materials, recycled content of products and so on. Many cited the U.S. Green Building Council’s (USGBC) LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) certification system.

However, when talking with homeowners and the general public, their descriptions were much simpler. They revolved around being healthier places to live and work in, more energy efficient, and better for the planet. When asked what they valued and wanted most from their home, across the board the answer was always “health” first.

So how healthy are green homes? Again the answer varies a lot. According to Thompson, “Many people still do not realize that all that is ‘green’ or ‘sustainable’ is not necessarily healthy. For instance, using products that have been manufactured from recycled materials might win you some green points, but are people looking at the low-level off-gassing of some of the ‘sustainable’ solutions and how this impacts the indoor environment and peoples’ health?”

For example, autism, asthma and other respiratory problems, behavior and learning problems, and cancer are all on the rise. Also the focus on energy–efficiency means “green” homes are built “tight” or sealed. Thus some ”sustainable designs” are prone to holding harmful fumes inside, as Jason F. McLennan notes in Philosophy of Sustainable Design.

When this was first discovered in buildings it was sometimes called the "sick building syndrome." Even back in 2000, Michael V. Ellacott and Sue Reed noted in their research paper that, “The increasing incidence of health problems associated with ‘tight buildings' can be partly blamed on the emission of volatile organic compounds (VOCs) derived from human activity and the presence of a range of synthetic furnishings, office equipment and building materials.’ For the rapidly increasing number of us who work at home, these health problems literally hit home.

As a first step, read Thompson’s book. Get more tips here and here. Consider getting the air in your home checked by someone certified by the American Indoor Air Quality Council. Then get a high-efficiency electronic air cleaner (EAC) that can connect directly to any size home’s HVAC system, one that makes your indoor air cleaner than fresh, is energy efficient, quiet and does not emit harmful ozone, as many conventional systems do.

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