Home Health to Public Health

Home energy audits and the resulting fixes are evidenced as having as much a direct impact on the home as with the residents themselves. In Making Your Dwelling Well, an article by Zinta Aistairs published in Rapid Growth earlier this month, we learned the benefits of “balancing” a home and potentially finding and tending to other more serious problems that may need attention.

Sealing a leaky window as heating bills rise, installing a new showerhead for conserving water, and changing the furnace filter all pay immediate dividends, contributing to smaller utility bills, comfortable inhabitants, and a warm place to sleep at night. Large kitchen and bathroom repairs or replacing a furnace or water heater can be expensive, but necessary as a home ages and shows its wear. Whether you are a homeowner or renter, it is satisfying to know your home is safe, clean, energy efficient, and comfortable for all inhabitants and furry or feathered friends. So if we are happy in the home, how does that correlate to our lives outside of the home? Is there a link to overall public health when our living environments are as they should be?

Paul Haan, executive director of Healthy Homes Coalition of West Michigan, believes part of the bridge from home health to public health lies in taking a more holistic approach to identifying and fixing problems with a home. This includes finding how the community fits in on a larger scale, and getting people engaged through education, classes, and practicing good old common sense.

“If I could wave a magic wand, I would first remediate all lead paint, then focus on air quality, and sealing and weatherizing the home," Haan says. "Air quality, lead poisoning, and fire are the three biggest things we need to worry about.”

Lead-based paint, which has been banned for use in homes since 1978, can still be found in many houses in our city. Any level of lead ingestion is toxic and dangerous to both children and adults, although exposure to dust from the paint is especially harmful to children age six and younger, potentially causing blood anemia and brain damage in extreme cases. Due to the high amount of development that occurs in those early years, young kids are extremely susceptible to the negative side effects of lead exposure. 

Pregnant women, even if exposed at very low levels, can transfer lead to their developing babies, and could even suffer a miscarriage. Serious neurological and gastrointestinal effects can develop, which can cause trouble in other body systems. Both men and women can suffer reproductive abnormalities as a result of lead exposure, potentially causing fertility issues and psychological distress down the road.

In 2000, 559 children ages 0-5 in Kent Couty were found to have elevated blood lead levels, with 90 percent of these children living in the City of Grand Rapids. Of those children, 90 percent belonged to low-income households and a majority were children of color. The Get the Lead Out! collaborative began in 2001 as a response to this disparity, and the Healthy Homes Coalition evolved out of the collaborative, incorporating as a nonprofit in 2006.

Healthy Homes continues to run the Get the Lead Out! program, as well as train landlords on how to comply with EPA regulations regarding lead. Other programs, like ClearCorps and a partnership with Calvin College work to test homes for lead, Radon and carbon monoxide poisoning. A partnership with the Kent County Health Department allows Healthy Homes to provide free carbon monoxide and smoke detectors to households with children. 

A lot of the air upgrades a household can make, Haan says, can actually be very simple. 

“Air quality upgrades would include removing fragrances from carpet, making sure the house is properly ventilated, and having air conditioning available for an asthmatic in the house," Haan says. "A properly sealed house keeps out pests and is cleaner and safer overall. Most of these are low-cost and common sense solutions."

While making sure homes are healthy and efficient is important, it's also crucial to ensure schools operate by the same standards. After all, the average child spends the majority of the day at school. 

Last November, Grand Rapids voters passed a five-year tax plan to fund a final budget of over $95 million called Warm, Safe and Dry. This initiative sets out to fix dozens of issues at over 50 schools in the Grand Rapids Public Schools (GRPS) system. These issues were identified as being hazardous to students’ health and included asbestos abatement at C.A. Frost and Union High Schools, among others. Congress Elementary will receive masonry work budgeted at $200,000 of the total $13 million set aside for the school. 

Naming the program “Warm, Safe, and Dry” indicates GRPS recognizes these three ideas as paramount to healthy surroundings. Time will tell, but these proposed fixes could go a long way in providing a healthy learning environment for kids getting an education in at GRPS, therefore keeping them in school, helping them focus, and maximizing their learning potential. (Rapid Growth highlighted the "Warm, Safe, and Dry" program in February 2012 here.) Not to mention, improving school performance helps a city attract and retain talent looking to build families. 

If kids are sick, they cannot go to school. To some degree, if they are not in school they are not learning and are therefore considered “behind” other kids their age. This can result in many negative side effects for the child, including both emotional stress and lifetime setbacks. On the flip side, if parents are ill because of health-related issues caused by their home’s condition, they may become unable to work and have trouble caring for their children. Without work, there is no money for rent, a mortgage, or bills. Without work, there is no stability. A healthy home is a true quality of life issue. A recent article in ShelterForce, a journal of afforable housing and community building, talks about the relationship between housing and health philanthropy and the need to combine these issues. 

Everything eventually comes full circle. To know there is a safe, warm, cozy place waiting for you when you get “home” is a true comfort. It allows the mind to rest and focus on the present without worry of sickness or fatigue. The energy derived from our surroundings truly mixes with the energy we put out to the world, keeping everything cohesive while we sleep soundly at night.

Photographs by Adam Bird