NRDC Prioritizes Safer Products in Energy Efficiency Programs

HBN | December 2019 | Newsletter

As part of their Energy Efficiency for All (EEFA) campaign, Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) partners with Healthy Building Network (HBN) and our HomeFree initiative to integrate healthier materials strategies to meet core energy program goals and achieve targeted health equity outcomes. These forward-thinking organizations are on the leading edge of holistic climate strategies that result in stronger outcomes for people and the planet. Through research and community action, they’ve learned that breaking down silos to inclusive policy interventions, is both efficient and effective for creating comprehensive change. 

Though important, merely reducing energy bills is not enough for NRDC. Especially when the weatherization workforce is exposed to toxic chemical releases from insulations and sealants. Moreover, indoor air pollution spikes from the chemicals released in air-tight dwellings are an additional health concern. Seeking holistic solutions, NRDC invested in HBN’s research for the collaborative report “Making Affordable MultiFamily Housing More Energy Efficient,” and specification guidance for healthier insulation and sealant options that are safer and more energy-efficient. Holistic strategies that offer solutions for the near and distant future are the paradigm-shifting, next-generation climate interventions people and the environment need. NRDC is at the forefront of this work.

NRDC Leading the Charge

Los Angeles—In 2018, the second-largest city in the United States saw 87 days of continuous smog (LA Times - 87 Smog Days). Today, wildfires burning in Southern California continue to pollute the air. We sat down with Michele Knab Hasson of the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC), whose office happens to be in the heart of Los Angeles. She assures us she can quite literally feel the air pollution. Hasson is NRDC’s Healthy People and Thriving Communities Program Policy Manager. She leads healthy building materials strategies for Energy Efficiency for All (EEFA) and has worked for years tackling some of the most pressing environmental justice issues of the times.  EEFA is a partnership between NRDC, the National Housing Trust, Elevate Energy and the Energy Foundation. Hasson lent us her time to discuss the interplay between building materials, health, energy efficiency, and climate change, as well as why NRDC is committed to holistic solutions.

Starting with Worker and Workplace Health and Safety

Health begins at home, starting with the construction professionals who build our residences. Like HBN, NRDC cares about the people who make and install building products and the effect that exposure to unregulated, unmanaged hazardous materials can have on their mental and physical wellbeing. In identifying solutions, NRDC continues to progress towards system-based solutions. One example moves away from the NRDC’s typical work with public utilities. They found synergy and a uniquely receptive audience among labor unions who were open to learning about healthier materials and education for the safety of their union members. In this regard, NRDC and HBN have made great strides. Hasson notes that working to ensure sustainable jobs and worker protection is fundamental for ensuring equity. Starting at the frontlines not only promotes healthier building materials and healthier practices. Offering frontline education like the resources provided by HomeFree is a blueprint for a better-informed workforce, healthier people and a healthier planet. 

Tighter Building Envelopes—Decrease Utility Costs, Increase Indoor Air Pollution 

Residents of affordable housing tend to be people of color. Hasson mentions that these communities “are usually on the front lines…bearing the heaviest climate burden.” Those that need energy efficiency, often experience the highest level of toxic chemical exposures and subsequent health disparities. Since the start of their interventions, NRDC’s and EEFA’s weatherization installations and policy work have helped decrease annual utility costs by an average of $207 per participating household. This ensures that families can turn on the air conditioning without the trade-off of everyday life necessities—food, medicine, housing costs, for example. However, a drawback of the improved insulation resulting from tighter building envelopes is that decreased ventilation can often exacerbate the effects of indoor air pollution from off-gassing, a term for when manufactured products release organic compounds and chemicals. Off-gassing is a common problem of building materials and consumer goods. 

While the $207 in savings is an immediate, urgent benefit with tangible positive impacts, the discussion about indoor air pollution can seem invisible and nonessential. Often, it is not the first priority of construction companies when selecting building materials and residents are not included in this conversation. She explains that by reframing the issue to center on quality of life and health, the conversation can start to flow. Prioritizing healthier materials is key in helping to provide positive impacts throughout the residents’ homes and lives. 

Co-Powerment—Community Voices Heard  

Concluding our interview, we ask: “What is the one thing you hope to see happen to this field in the future, particularly surrounding the issue of health equity and affordable housing?”

At the start of her response, she laughs—because the question is big, too big for one person to address. But, Hasson continues by noting the importance of tying together safer building materials, energy efficiency, and climate change. She says “at the end of the day when people have a conversation about climate, it's also a conversation about health equity and housing.” Ultimately, “the materials that we put in the home are just as important as all these other external climate impacts in [building] resiliency.” She believes that separating these issues continues to unintentionally perpetuate problems. For her, solutions arise when we begin to address the decades of disinvestment and silence that marginalized communities continue to face. Hasson talks about the idea of co-powerment: creating a space where marginalized communities lead and guide a conversation with their lived experiences. Without it, equity conversations are not really equitable, and low-wealth populations and affordable housing communities fall through the cracks. This unified view of our systemic connectedness to one another and the globe is key to Hasson’s approach and much of the progress her team has made.

The Inexorable Link Between Climate, Energy, Safer Materials, and Health Equity

Hasson and her team at NRDC and EEFA are trailblazers paving the way with innovative programs, practices, and policies that will have resounding impacts for the future, and rely on Healthy Building Network’s HomeFree program for guidance. Not only for the communities and issues they target for action, but also for the effective models for action that others will use as blueprints to adapt or adopt. Not only are they pressing forward toward holistic, health and outcome-driven solutions, most importantly, their work is co-designed and led by the communities that are most often overlooked. It is time for community voices to shape the cutting-edge solutions—NRDC, EEFA and HBN are leading the way collaboratively and from a place of unity. Congratulations to our partners, NRDC and EEFA, for getting it right.