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Linking Health and Energy Efficiency

Did you know that people spend approximately 90% of their time in buildings – and 50% or more of every day inside their homes (source)? Not only did the COVID-19 pandemic with shelter in place restrictions increase the amount of time indoors, it has also shifted focus to health in buildings. Indeed, health in schools was made a priority with $2 billion allocated for ventilation and other building upgrades as part of the reopening plan in California (source). Locally, the County of Contra Costa recently launched the Asthma Initiative, an innovative new program that seeks to improve the health of individuals with asthma by educating them and improving their home environment with energy efficiency. “Healthy Home” programs, as they are called, are crucial in informing residents about potential home health hazards, many of which are not readily visible, like dangerous polluting culprits such as carbon monoxide. Indoor air quality can be worsened by mold, allergens, leaky windows, and poor insulation. Without proper air flow in a home, common activities such as cooking and cleaning can increase the level of indoor air pollutants as much as two to five times higher than outdoor levels (source). Even our water heaters and furnaces can expose us to harmful gases if the combustion systems are improperly sealed or old. Unsafe indoor air quality can cause asthma attacks, bring on allergies, and impact overall comfort. Installing energy efficient equipment in the home results in better physical and mental health, and comfort while also saving money on utility bills (source).

“It’s simple,” says Demian Hardman, Senior Planner with the County of Contra Costa, and the BayREN county lead, “healthy homes make healthy people.” There are several harmful contributors to the air quality in Contra Costa County; the large industrial facilities in the County contribute to poor air quality, especially for residents in housing near those facilities. Additionally, many of the homes in Western and Eastern Contra Costa and other historic areas are older, lack proper insulation, do not have efficient heating and cooling, and have older ductwork. These factors combined, have resulted in high asthma rates, as locals are exposed to particulate air pollution, especially for some communities along the County’s Northern Waterfront (Hercules to Oakley). 300,000 Contra Costa residents, or 25% of the county’s population, live in a census tract that ranks in the 95th percentile or higher of asthma rates statewide. (source). An estimated 4,950 Contra Costa County residents, mostly from lower socio-economic groups,  visit an Emergency Department for asthma related issues each year (source).

While asthma exacerbations can largely be avoided by home-based education and remediation of asthma triggers, these corrective measures are not traditionally covered by Medicaid nor included in traditional clinical care. Contra Costa’s pilot program, through a $500,000 grant from the California Department of Health Care Services and $100,000 grant through the Bay Area Air Quality Management District, seeks to tackle this problem by offering asthma education and home energy efficiency assessments to referred asthma patients through the County Health Services. Patients are offered a home energy assessment where they learn about the types of home upgrades they should make. Patients can also receive referrals to multiple program resources, including the County’s Weatherization program, BayREN programs, or Marin Clean Energy programs. These upgrades are available for residents living in single family and multifamily homes. What makes this project exciting is that “we get to work with health professionals that are already in touch with the community” shares Demian. “By dealing with energy efficiency through a health plan that serves low-income residents, we hope to decrease disparities in underserved areas and reduce the amount of Emergency Department visits in the county.” While the program only recently started, “it has provided eight referrals so far and it is exciting to see where it will go.”

While the Asthma Initiative is only available in Contra Costa County, there are other programs that can also help improve home health and comfort. For example, BayREN’s Single Family Home+ program offers education and rebates for energy efficiency programs throughout all nine Bay Area counties. Jeffery Liang, the Single Family program lead, shares that all participating program contractors receive Building Performance Institute training to better understand building science and how air circulates throughout a house, essentially becoming “house doctors!” Knowledge of these systems enables contractors to minimize the amount of dust and asthmagens flowing into living spaces. As energy efficiency and health programs start to ramp up, many organizations are looking forward to understanding how the Biden Administration’s American Rescue Plan will provide funding for building energy efficiency programs. 

Curious about improving your home's air quality? Find out what steps you can take by visiting BayREN’s Learning Center, contacting a BayREN Home Energy Advisor, or registering for 3C-RENs upcoming indoor air quality webinar on June 15th.