By Philip Jalbert, Environmental Protection Agency
Would you live in a home that was not safe and secure? To be marketable, multifamily housing needs to be both. Moreover, to be safe and to feel secure, a home needs to be healthy. A healthy indoor environment is as attractive to tenants and homebuyers as is a safe and secure one.
We spend an average of 90 percent of our time indoors. Each year there are tens of thousands of deaths and millions of illnesses because of poor indoor air quality. Billions of dollars are spent every year on health care related to poor indoor air quality (IAQ), and the loss of school days and business productivity is enormous.
Some of the most common and serious indoor air quality issues are caused by: too much moisture—leading to mold and mildew; poorly maintained or operated combustion appliances that emit carbon monoxide (CO), nitrous oxide (NO) and particulates; volatile and semi-volatile organic chemicals (VOCs, SVOCs) from building materials and finishings; radon gas seeping into the home from soil under the home; and secondhand smoke. (Readers can find IAQ information and free
Acceptable indoor air quality (IAQ) and occupant health depend on many factors, such as: occupant behavior and practices (smoking, cleaning, cooking and home maintenance practices); proper building siting, design and construction; proper ventilation; and control of furnishings and other products and sources that emit hazardous pollutants indoors.
Indoor Air Quality is a particular concern in multifamily buildings. While indoor air quality is a potential concern in all types of housing, in multifamily buildings pollutants can move from unit to unit, and into common areas through openings in walls and ceilings, and through shared ventilation systems. Isolating individual units—often called “compartmentalization”—is sometimes needed to address IAQ issues in multifamily buildings.
How can you prevent exposure to second-hand smoke?
Smoking is an important occupant behavior not only for the person who smokes, but also for those who share the indoor space. In fact, when it comes to multifamily housing, depending on the degree of air sealing and design of a building’s heating, ventilation and air conditioning (HVAC) system, secondhand smoke can adversely affect non-smoking occupants in neighboring units. An estimated 3,000 Americans die each year from lung cancer due to exposure to secondhand smoke or environmental tobacco smoke (ETS). Secondhand smoke is also a significant asthma trigger and causes other important health problems, particularly in children.
The two main strategies for preventing exposure to secondhand smoke in multifamily buildings are to prohibit smoking in the building entirely, or seal individual units where smoke-free policies are not currently in place. About 10 percent of public housing is now smoke-free.
The Departments of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) and Health and Human Services (HHS) Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recently developed two smoke-free toolkits for multifamily housing. The toolkits are for residents, and public housing authorities and owners/management agents.
HUD also issued two smoke-free notices: HUD Public and Indian Housing Smoke-Free Notice (PIH-2012-25, May 29, 2012); and, HUD Notice on Smoke-Free Housing (H 2012-22, October 26, 2012). On October 4, 20102, HUD also published a Request for Information on smoke-free in the Federal Register.
Is radioactive radon soil gas an issue?
EPA’s current risk assessment estimates that exposure to radon in U.S. homes is responsible for 21,000 or 13.4 percent of all lung cancer deaths each year. The risk is highest among smokers. When combined with exposure to radon, smokers’ risk of radon-induced lung cancer increases about ten times.
More and more builders of multifamily housing are including radon-reducing features in new homes. In its 2011 annual survey of builder practices, the National Association of Home Builder’s Home Innovation Research Labs estimated that of the 223,400 multifamily housing starts:
• 19.4 percent included radon-reducing features, up from 15.3 percent in 2010; and
• 29.5 percent included radon-reducing features in the highest radon potential areas (Zone 1), up from 18.9 percent in 2010.
Radon source control measures such as active sub-slab soil depressurization (ASD) have other applications and potential benefits. A limited EPA funded study of Pennsylvania residences found that ASD systems can reduce indoor humidity and moisture levels during the non-summer months of the year. ASD systems are also used to manage soil gases and vapor intrusion. The American Association of Radon Scientists and Technologists (AARST) is consulting with EPA to develop a vapor intrusion mitigation credential as an add-on to the AARST-National Radon Proficiency program’s mitigation credential. www.aarst.org/
What’s the federal government doing about radon?
The Federal Radon Action Plan is a continuing Federal initiative. One result of the Plan is HUD adopting an unprecedented radon policy for multifamily housing (see above). HUD and EPA are two of nine Federal agencies participating in the Federal Radon Action Plan. The Plan works to reduce the radon risk in housing and schools owned, managed or financed by the Federal Government. The expectation is that Federal leadership by example will spur more private sector action on radon risk reduction.
Additionally HUD announced two new notices regarding radon:
• Office of Multifamily Development, Notice H 2013-03 (Jan. 31, 2013); and,
• Office of Public and Indian Housing, Notice PIH 2013-06 HA (Feb. 4, 2013).
The Multifamily Notice supplements the environmental review process and requirements for the identification and mitigation of radon in new FHA-insured mortgage applications. The Public and Indian Housing notice encourages Public Housing Authorities to plan and complete radon testing and mitigation when appropriate.
Do energy retrofits affect IAQ?
More than ever before American homes are being upgraded or remodeled. This trend is likely to increase in the future as efforts to improve building energy efficiency continue. The benefits of energy upgrades are tremendous—improved real property value, lower costs and sustained American jobs. However, energy upgrades can inadvertently worsen indoor air quality. This is true when there is not an appropriate assessment made before work begins or if work is done improperly.
To help guide upgrade activities, the Department of Energy (DOE) developed Guidelines for Home Energy Professionals. Working in concert with DOE, EPA
developed the Healthy Indoor Environment Protocols for Home Energy Upgrades—
to complement the Guidelines. The Protocols apply to existing single-family and multifamily low-rise residential buildings.
The pollutants to be concerned about are: asbestos, VOCs, moisture, CO, ETS, ozone, NO, lead, PCBs, radon, combustion emissions, and below ground contaminants.
The Protocols provide detailed guidance on assessment, and minimum and expanded actions to remedy problems for each of the pollutants. The protocols provide practical guidance on improving or maintaining indoor air quality and indoor environments during home energy upgrades or remodeling.
Another valuable resource when rehabbing occupied buildings is the IAQ Guidelines for Occupied Buildings under Construction, 2nd Edition (ANSI/SMACNA 008–2008), produced by the Sheet Metal and Air Conditioning Contractors’ National Association.
Can climate change affect IAQ?
A recent Institute of Medicine (IOM) study found that climate change is likely to make existing indoor air quality problems more widespread and severe. The IOM, part of the National Academy of Sciences (NAS), evaluated the state of scientific understanding of the effects of climate change on indoor air quality and public health.
Philip Jalbert is executive secretary with the Federal Interagency Committee on Indoor Air Quality at the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s Indoor Environments Division.