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Sick Homes Part One: Combating Poor Air Quality in Homes

Thursday, November 30, 2000 at 12:54 PM

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Americans are increasingly aware of the health problems created by so-called sick buildings. Indoor air quality in workplaces and public schools is now at least partially regulated by federal and state agencies. But no one is regulating the air quality in your home. Doctors say they're concerned about the recent jump in the number of cases of diseases like asthma that are linked to poor air quality. They're working with government and civic leaders to combat this emerging threat to public health. 90.3's Karen Schaefer reports.

Karen Schaefer- Jim Wadsorth just moved into his hundred-year old Cleveland Heights home a month ago. He had the house inspected for the usual structural flaws before he bought it. But now he’s working with private home inspectors Jim Jagger and Marko Vovk to find out if his house has other problems that could literally make him sick.

Wadsworth has heard about sick building syndrome, where toxins like dust mites and mold are trapped indoors, giving some people headaches, sore throats or watery eyes and triggering attacks in people with asthma. Wadsworth doesn’t have a health problem himself. But he is alarmed when Vovk shows him a potentially lethal black mold growing on a cardboard box in his basement.

Marko says he’ll have to send a sample to a laboratory for testing. But he believes it could be the same mold that sickened dozens of infants in Cleveland two years ago. Dr. Caroline Kercsmar heads the Asthma Center at Rainbow Babies and Children’s Hospital. She says the mold stachybotris atra proved to be a deadly infection.

Caroline Kercsmar- Young infants would come in acutely and desperately ill. They would often come in coughing up blood or with blood coming from their nose. This was thought to be a very rare condition, something that you would see one case every few years and suddenly we had eight or ten infants come in very severely ill and a few of them died.

KS- Doctors say indoor air quality in private homes is an emerging health problem in the nation’s major cities. In particular, they cite a huge jump in the number of children and adults with asthma, up as much as 60% from ten years ago. Dr. Kercsmar says there’s new evidence that asthma is directly linked to poor indoor air quality.

CK- Is it causative of pulmonary problems and does it worsen existing pulmonary problems? The answer to both questions is probably yes. Between 7.5%-10% to maybe as high as 15% of children will have an asthma-like condition sometime in their life. It’s the single most common chronic disease of childhood.

KS- Kercsmar believes most asthma attacks are completely preventable with proper medication and by avoiding environmental toxins that can trigger symptoms. Three of the best-understood triggers are dust mites, the volatile organic compounds given off by molds and mildews - and cockroaches. Stu Greenberg is Director of Environmental Health Watch.

Stu Greenberg- Cockroaches are a potent asthma trigger. Pest infestation is part of general health code, building codes for which we don’t need any new ordinances, but for which we need enforcement. In the Cleveland area it’s very uneven and probably in the city of Cleveland, it’s entirely inadequate. As with most environmental health concerns, it’s people living in low-income neighborhoods, people living in sub-standard housing that are going to be at the greatest risk.

KS- Greenberg says about forty Cleveland area organizations have joined forces to address the public health risks of poor home indoor air quality. The Cuyahoga County Coalition on Indoor Urban Environmental Triggers of Asthma is working with local, state and federal governments to collect new data and educate the public. Mark Vilem is the Cleveland Health Department’s Commissioner of the Environment.

Mark Vilem- Currently, there are no regulations governing indoor air quality. It is an emerging area and even at the federal and state level there are no current regulations. There’s guidelines and there’s a lot of research being done, but there is no specific regulatory authority for indoor air.

KS- Nonethless, Vilem says if a householder suspects a problem with mold or insects, the city will come and inspect the home. Low-income or fixed-income homeowners may qualify for city fix-up funds. If the property is rented, the landlord will be required to make the necessary repairs. John Sobolewski of the Cuyahoga County Board of Health says if you live in one of the Cleveland suburbs, there’s also help available through a federal grant from the Department of Housing and Urban Development.

John Sobolewski- It’s designed to really focus on identifying homes where we have children who are at risk and then looking at the mold and moisture problems of those homes, trying to change the environmental conditions and see if it has an impact on the health of those children. We’ve probably done initial screenings on probably a good thirty to forty homes.

KS- In Cleveland Heights, new homeowner Jim Wadsworth is pleased that just a few hundred dollars will fix his problems with mold and humidity. But environmental home repair costs can mount into the thousands of dollars. Tomorrow we’ll take a tour of a new home designed especially for people with illnesses linked to indoor air quality. We’ll find out just what it takes to make and keep a home healthy. In Cleveland, Karen Schaefer, 90.3 WCPN, 90.3 FM.

Additional Information

U.S. EPA Indoor Environments Division

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