Institute of Medicine Says Climate Change Worsens Indoor Air

By Steve Gigliotti
Steve Gigliotti
Steve Gigliotti
June 27, 2011 Updated: June 27, 2011

BOSTON—According to a recent report, poor indoor air quality costs billions in lost productivity. Climate change and extreme weather worsen indoor air quality. Tightly weatherized buildings can be bad for the people inside them.

"America is in the midst of a large experiment in which weatherization efforts, retrofits, and other initiatives that affect air exchange between the indoor and outdoor environments are taking place and new building materials and consumer products are being introduced indoors with relatively little consideration as to how they might affect the health of occupants," said committee Chairman John D. Spengler, Akira Yamaguchi professor of Environmental Health and Human Habitation, Department of Environmental Health, Harvard School of Public Health, Boston, in a press release. "Experience suggests that some of the effects could be negative. An upfront investment to consider the consequences of these actions before they play out and to avoid problems where they can be anticipated will yield benefits in health and in averted costs of medical care, remediation, and lost productivity."

The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) asked the Institute of Medicine (IOM) to study the effects of climate change on indoor public health. The report set priorities for action.

The report made three main points. Poor indoor conditions cost the nation tens of billions of dollars in lost productivity, due to the exacerbation of illnesses such as asthma and allergies. Poor indoor air quality hampers work and learning. Climate change may worsen indoor environmental problems. There are opportunities to mitigate or adapt to climate change.

Floods are top among the threats to indoor air quality. Chemical pollutants from the outdoors, and indoor emission pollutants are other hazards to indoor air.

Extreme weather conditions of abnormally heavy rains and snows and severe storms are causing dampness, moisture, and flooding. These environmental conditions, according to the report, break down of barriers between the indoor and outdoor environments. This encourages the growth of fungi and bacteria and may cause building materials to decay. This decay may lead to chemical emissions.

The Institute of Medicine recommended the EPA take steps to mitigate the risks of unhealthy indoor environments. Among them were, “facilitating in the revision of building codes with respect to climate-change projections and that promote the health and productivity of occupants.” Codes might have been set based on conditions that have changed. Building codes may not be appropriate for changed conditions.

The government can save significant money for remediation of damaged or polluted buildings if it plans properly to adapt to climate change, the report said.

‘Climate Change, The Indoor Environment, and Health’ may be read at

Steve Gigliotti
Steve Gigliotti