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By Degrees: How Your Home's Air Quality Links To Climate And Health

Courtesy of Marcus Ponce de Leon

By Degrees is a new climate change reporting project by NHPR. One major focus of the project is the connection between pollution and our health.

Last week, we talked about outdoor air quality in New Hampshire. But scientists are exploring the ways indoor air quality affects us too.

Syracuse University Professor Jensen Zhang says long-term exposure to particulate matter and everyday household products can cause serious health problems.

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"If exposure gets too high, it will increase the risk of cancer. But we really don't know how much exposure will actually lead to the cancer."

Improving indoor air quality is not a simple task. Switching cleaning products can help. But bringing clean air into our homes is what's most needed, and the air conditioners, fans and ventilation systems that do that can contribute to climate change. 
"We have to introduce enough fresh air to dilute pollution indoors. So all these strategies require energy, and the more energy you use, the more carbon emissions it will cause."
Some housing activists in New Hampshire are working with tenants to help them address the indoor air quality problems that could be harming their health.
Marcus Ponce de Leon is a member of the Manchester Housing Alliance, an organization that advocates for more high-quality, affordable housing in the city. He joined NHPR's All Things Considered host Peter Biello to talk about his work for housing justice. 

So how much time do you spend worrying about indoor air quality? Is that a growing focus for you?

Indoor air quality is definitely a growing focus for me, particularly with everything going on during this pandemic. I mean, just recently, I believe it was last week, they came out with another study that was indicating that it's far more airborne than we had initially thought with the initial, you know, three feet.

COVID-19, or the coronavirus, is more airborne than you thought.


And is air quality in the housing stock that is available particularly dangerous in some way? And if so, what way is that?

So New Hampshire in general is a market where there is a lot of old housing stock from the early 1900s, if not the late 1800s. And a lot of it's been converted into multi-family units. And in doing so, a lot of people here in the area don't actually do full renovations. They'll sort of do letter as best as mitigation where they're just covering it up for a period of time. And so what happens over time with different tenants and even people who've been there for a long time is that, you know, things get moved around. There's wear and tear on the unit. And so in the process of that happening, you have a lot more asbestos exposure and lead paint exposure. That's not necessarily being treated. And so then you have, on top of that the fact that housing here is not necessarily adequate in the sense that you do have families of five or more living in a one and two bedroom apartment. And so that is made much worse still, because there's no room to even circulate air, you know, much less allow for dissipation of the danger.

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And do tenants that you work with raise concerns like the ones you've just mentioned?

Yeah. So the Manchester Housing Alliance and actually now the Granite State Organizing Project also, we've been working to have tenant rights forums so that people understand exactly what their rights are in these situations where housing quality isn't isn't up to par. And in many of those situations we've had renters here in the Manchester area specifically bring up those as direct concerns that they're dealing with.

And when they raise concerns about their health, what specifically are they saying? Are they complaining about lead paint, or cockroaches, or asbestos or something else?

So we've seen complaints about infestations, about lead paint, even asbestos exposure as well.

And in your experience, are communities of color more likely be living in housing with these health and safety issues?

In general, inner-city communities tend to be more comprised of BIPOC populations. And so, yes, that's a fair assumption for sure.

There are some connections to climate change here that aren't talked about as often. So I wanted to ask you, what climate change issues do you think need more attention to help people like the ones you work with?

So I think that comes right back down to the same the same topic again, which is housing conditions. You know, you have a lot of buildings that, again, are not necessarily brought up to code with insulation guidelines and everything from today. And so there's a lot of heat dissipation that happens. And in many of these buildings, actually, the heat is typically cranked up to 70, 75, 80 degrees on a regular basis. And so there's a lot of waste. And that's obviously an impact from the fossil fuel angle of things as well.

Peter Biello is the host of All Things Considered and Writers on a New England Stage at New Hampshire Public Radio. He has served as a producer/announcer/host of Weekend Edition Saturday at Vermont Public Radio and as a reporter/host of Morning Edition at WHQR in Wilmington, North Carolina.
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