Looking to Strengthen the Equity Conversation? How About Including Building Materials!

HBN | August 2019 | Newsletter

A whole lot of meaning is packaged in the word equity—a term Webster’s defines as “fairness or justice in the way people are treated.” However, the easiest way to understand equity is often through pictures, like the one below. While this photo considers height as an inequity, in real life, income, access to food and health care are often at the heart of equity discussions. Surprisingly, a critical topic often overlooked in the equity discussion is where we spent 90 percent of our lives—in buildings.1 

Image source: http://interactioninstitute.org/illustrating-equality-vs-equity/


Oregon Metro, otherwise known simply as Metro, recently released a report discussing toxics reduction and equity. Its section on building materials connects building materials and equity, calling attention to the need to reduce community exposure to toxic building materials in an equitable manner. Building materials seem harmless and inert in our homes, offices, schools, or cafes. But in 1991, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) characterized indoor air pollution as “one of the greatest threats to public health of all environmental problems”.2 

A large proportion of indoor air pollution stems from building materials.3 In particular, asthmagens are of highest concern and contribute to indoor air pollution through the release of chemicals from the surface of building finishes.4 For example, carpet, furniture and wall decor release chemicals through degradation or abrasion.5 The chemicals end up in dust in our homes and can enter our bodies through the lungs, skin or mouth.6 Volatile organic compounds emitted from paints are also of concern.7 In fact, a study of children in Australia showed a strong association among indoor home exposure to VOCs and increased risk of asthma.8 Over 70 percent of building material asthmagens identified by HBN researchers  are not covered by leading indoor air quality testing standards.9  These hazardous wastes and products used in building materials disproportionately affect historically marginalized communities of color, children and low-income families.10 

Equity in housing is especially important for many families with low incomes who live in multifamily housing.11  Multifamily housing often poses challenges to achieving better air quality as pollutants easily travel between units due to inadequate ventilation. Residents are usually unable to improve building infrastructure themselves.12  

In Metro’s July 2019 publication, researcher Jennifer Allen called for increased collaborative policies when addressing the problem of toxics.13 Opportunities for action include research and education and convening cross-sector stakeholders for collective impact.14 Work performed for nearly 20 years here at HBN.

Healthy Building Network’s HomeFree Initiative is a solution for health equity in building materials 

The need for systems change and systems thinking that utilizes an equity-based framework was the inspiration behind HBN’s HomeFree initiative. Now on its fourth year, HomeFree utilizes the Collective Impact Framework to engage affordable housing practitioners and activists in developing solutions for these unique problems. 

HBN’s HomeFree cohort brings together the passion and expertise of affordable housing practitioners serving marginalized communities. Our partners possess critical knowledge of region-specific solutions. HBN works to connect the dots between chemical hazards and human health implications—including asthma, developmental delays, and cancer. At HBN we learn from our partners to co-create actionable strategies that lead to healthier lives. Our open-source data and best practices are accessible to everyone at no charge through the HomeFree website:

HomeFree resources include:

  • HomeFree Campus, a free online education platform delivering simple, science based information to explain why materials matter and provide actionable information to select safer products. 
  • HomeFree Champions, an advisory board of leading affordable housing practitioners and advocates. The board shapes and co-creates the HomeFree initiative and resources.
  • Demonstration projects, where affordable housing developers test safer products in their projects and share their experiences and successes with the larger community through workshops, presentations, and case studies. 

Information to action - ways to make a big impact 

Incorporating building materials into the equity discussion is only part of the solution. Product testing for chemicals of concern, biomonitoring, community health impact research, chemicals research, advocacy and education all stand to make a larger collective impact.15 

For funders looking to increase diversity and equity initiatives in their grantmaking, the building industry provides a blooming landscape to foster substantial impact within communities. Metro highlights some key questions to consider when funding proposals, including:16 

  • What is the specific toxics reduction action?
  • Are there particular populations or communities impacted more than the general population by the chemical/product/system in question?
  • Does the action consider and address the structural barriers and existing resources available to a population? 
  • Does the recommendation ameliorate the disparity or gap in accessing resources for a marginalized community? 

HomeFree empowers the affordable housing sector to shape and lead the change towards healthy building materials. As we achieve successful, affordable solutions, it means that everyone can benefit from safer materials. So often, sustainability standards and initiatives are cost prohibitive, developed for those with the most access and resources, in hopes that “someday” the solutions will trickle-down. In the meantime, children and the populations with the lowest income continue to bear the burden of toxic exposures and preventable health consequences. HomeFree is changing that old, unsuccessful paradigm. Its resources will result in healthier products for everyone, and amplify the prospect for a healthier planet. 

Visit https://homefree.healthybuilding.net/ and join the movement towards a healthy future for all.

Footnotes

[1] Cuneo, Monica et. al. Toxics Reduction and Equity: Informing actions to reduce community risks from chemicals in products. Oregonmetro.gov, 2019. August 14, 2019. https://www.oregonmetro.gov/toxics-reduction-and-equity-study

[2] Ibid. 

[3]  Environmental Protection Agency. “Fundamentals of Indoor Air Quality in Buildings.” Indoor Air Quality, 1 Aug. 2018, www.epa.gov/indoor-air-quality-iaq/fundamentals-indoor-air-quality-buildings#Factors.

[4]  Lott, Sarah, and Jim Vallette. Full Disclosure Required: A Strategy to Prevent Asthma Through Building Product Selection.Healthy Building Network, December 2013. August 14, 2019. www.healthybuilding.net/uploads/files/full-disclosure-required-a-strategy-to-prevent-asthma-through-building-productselection.pdf.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Singla, Veena. Toxic Dust: The Dangerous Chemical Brew in Every Home. Natural Resources Defense Council, September 13, 2016. August 20, 2019. https://www.nrdc.org/experts/veena-singla/toxic-dust-dangerous-chemical-brew-every-home

[7]  Lott, Sarah, and Jim Vallette. Full Disclosure Required: A Strategy to Prevent Asthma Through Building Product Selection.Healthy Building Network, December 2013. August 14, 2019. www.healthybuilding.net/uploads/files/full-disclosure-required-a-strategy-to-prevent-asthma-through-building-productselection.pdf.

[8] Rumchev, K, et al. Association of Domestic Exposure to Volatile Organic Compounds with Asthma in Young Children. Thorax, BMJ Publishing Group Ltd, 1 Sep. 2004. August 14, 2019. http://thorax.bmj.com/content/59/9/746.

[9] Lott, Sarah, and Jim Vallette. Full Disclosure Required: A Strategy to Prevent Asthma Through Building Product Selection.Healthy Building Network, December 2013. August 14, 2019. www.healthybuilding.net/uploads/files/full-disclosure-required-a-strategy-to-prevent-asthma-through-building-productselection.pdf.

[10] Cuneo, Monica et. al. Toxics Reduction and Equity: Informing actions to reduce community risks from chemicals in products. Oregonmetro.gov, 2019. August 14, 2019.https://www.oregonmetro.gov/toxics-reduction-and-equity-study

[11] Ibid.

[12] Hayes, Vicky et al. Evaluating Ventilation in Multifamily Buildings. Home Energy Magazine, August 1994. August 14, 2019. www.homeenergy.org/show/article/nav/ventilation/id/1059.

[13] Cuneo, Monica et. al. Toxics Reduction and Equity: Informing actions to reduce community risks from chemicals in products. Oregonmetro.gov, 2019. August 14, 2019. https://www.oregonmetro.gov/toxics-reduction-and-equity-study

[14] Ibid.

[15] Ibid.

[16] Ibid.