Energy efficiency can improve public health through weatherization of homes, reducing pollution, and making people’s homes safer. The American Council for an Energy-Efficient Economy (ACEEE) has a new Health & Environment program that is doing pioneering research to document how saving energy does more than save money — it protects health.
In the southernmost tip of West Virginia, where the state’s poverty rates are highest, Brenda Kelsor struggles with chronic breathing problems. She has bronchitis and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, and her home — an old trailer — was only making matters worse. It lacked central air conditioning and insulation so she found it difficult to breathe in both summer and winter, noting, “It’s hard to breathe … if it’s too hot or too cold.” After her home was weatherized, its indoor temperature remained pleasant and her utility bills decreased. “Oh, my god, it feels good in here,” she said about the difference. “This is going to help.”
Like Kelsor, many residents of rural areas such as McDowell County have inefficient homes with high energy bills. Efficiency upgrades not only save homeowners money but also can improve their health. Curtis Lindsey, the weatherization program coordinator for the Council of the Southern Mountains, said many local residents can’t afford to move or fix their homes. “They are freezing every winter. They’re burning up every summer. And weatherization can help people in that situation.”
The conditions inside a home can have a big impact on a person’s health, affecting exposure to indoor air pollution, allergens, disease-carrying vermin, and other hazards. Energy efficiency upgrades can make buildings safer and healthier. Weatherizing a home involves sealing up holes and cracks that can allow cold air — or pests — into the home. A residential energy efficiency program typically also repairs or upgrades appliances. This can reduce utility bills and eliminate health hazards caused when malfunctioning furnaces and hot water heaters spew carbon monoxide into a home.
Professionals like Mr. Lindsey who deliver weatherization services are typically trained in building systems and sciences. They identify hazards in a home and fix them. For example, they identify causes of moisture and ensure proper ventilation so that when the home is tightly sealed, air quality is maintained and mold doesn’t grow. These benefits are especially significant for vulnerable individuals such as the elderly, children, and people with respiratory illnesses, including asthma. By reducing a family’s utility bills, these efficiency improvements can also help those struggling to put food on the table.
Pollution & Air Quality
Reducing energy waste reduces pollution. By saving energy in buildings and making vehicles more fuel efficient, we burn less fossil fuel and reduce the pollutants they emit. Fossil fuel pollution contributes to four of the leading causes of death in the United States: cancer, chronic lower respiratory diseases, heart disease, and stroke. While our air is getting cleaner overall, four of every 10 people in the United States still live where the air is unhealthy. This pollution is especially harmful to children, the elderly, and people with respiratory illnesses such as asthma. One of every 13 US residents has asthma, now the most common chronic disease that sends our kids to the hospital. Each year, we spend more than $50 billion on its treatment.
Energy efficiency policies and programs have already reduced pollution equivalent to what would have been produced by hundreds of power plants and improved the fuel economy of tens of millions of new vehicle. These programs and policies hold the potential to reduce even more pollution.
Cleaner air means better health and longer lives, particularly for those with respiratory illnesses. We have no cure for asthma, but we do know what triggers attacks. Mold, exposure to cold air or sudden temperature changes, air pollution, and pollen are all culprits. Fortunately, these triggers can be managed, reduced, and in some cases even eliminated through energy efficiency measures. Sealing holes that let moisture into a house helps prevent mold, reduces the influx of outdoor pollution, and eliminates exposure to drafts and sudden temperature changes. Changing your furnace’s filter ensures that particles in the air don’t circulate throughout your house.
Energy efficiency directly benefits the health of the general public as well as families who make their homes more efficient. Yet so far, efforts to understand and quantify these benefits have been limited. ACEEE’s research in this emerging and promising field aims to provide critical information about the benefits to the public, energy and health policymakers, advocates, and stakeholders.
The first-ever Conference on Health, Environment, and Energy is being planned for December 2018 in New Orleans.
From the ACEEE blog on their 3 part video series exploring the health impacts of energy efficiency.