There is increasing evidence that the quality of our homes and cities is a critical determinant of cardiovascular disease, diabetes and lung conditions. As urbanization and economic change occur globally, whether we live in a house free of dust in a city with open parks and traffic regulations, or in a dusty tenement building next to a major road, seems critically correlated with our likelihood for having shortened life expectancy, poor nutrition, heart disease and lung problems. In this week’s blog post, we look at some of the mechanisms relating the “built environment”—our human-made surroundings of daily living—to the risk of illness. We ask the question: can we do for our hearts and lungs what the Bauhaus movement did for functional design?
Indoor air quality
If Dwell Magazine had a feature edition on designing a healthy home, they’d have to tackle the major issue of indoor air quality. Much research on the built environment’s impact on health was revealed through a series of studies onasthma among children living in low-income public housing units in the United States. Poor indoor air quality resulting from dust and dirt in public housing units was a major cause of emergency room visits during the 1980’s and 90’s among these children, leading to new programs for housing quality checks and maintenance, which we featured in a previous post.
A parallel concern about indoor air quality has been highlighted in the global health realm because of “dirty cookstoves”—the wood-burning stoves that many people in Asia, Africa and Latin America use to cook food indoors. Most people who use these stoves don’t live in an area where it’s easy to cook outside, or don’t have the funds to convert to a gas-burning stove, so wood smoke (just like from a campfire) accumulates in the home, where (usually) a woman is cooking for several hours a day, sometimes with a child strapped to her back. The studies on this cause of indoor air pollution reveal that the wood smoke significantly impairs the immune system; an Indian study found that those exposed are 2.5 times more likely to experience tuberculosis, and infants are 2.2 times more likely to acquire a respiratory tract infection, one of the leading causes of death among children worldwide. Lung cancer and emphysema have been similarly observed to increase in frequency among users of these wood-burning stoves, and the particulate matter from them acts as an eye irritant, leading to a 1.3-fold increase in the risk of cataracts among those exposed.