Advocates for sustainable design could find a lot to like in President Barack Obama's 2013 State of the Union address. Fans of design period may have cheered when President Obama mentioned 3-D printing as a new future for American manufacturing—but the President went further. "Let's cut in half the energy wasted by our homes and businesses over the next 20 years," the President said. To be sure, not everyone cheered; the eminent astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson took to Twitter to snark, "Times have changed: Kennedy: 'Let's go to the moon.' Obama: 'Lets repair our infrastructure.'" Still, as Think Progress notes, President Obama is making progress on his energy-efficiency pledges. For starters, he may issue an executive order to bolster the White House's energy-efficient building program, and his administration is on track to create 5 million clean-energy jobs.
With any luck, the next four years will see the Obama administration track progress toward its energy-efficiency goals and the many benefits that flow from cleaner buildings. In the meantime, the White House is applying its approach to building better infrastructure to the homes where we already live—the everyday infrastructure that affects us the most.
In early February, the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD)—acting in concert with the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE), U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, and the White House Council on Environmental Quality (CEQ)—unveiled the Advancing Healthy Housing initiative, an interdepartmental effort to improve living conditions and home safety across America. The thinking behind Advancing Healthy Housing is of a piece with the Obama administration's approach to infrastructure: Making homes healthier can reduce the strain of injuries and illnesses on the healthcare system while also improving productivity across the labor force.
"It represents an important new vision to address the nation’s health and economic challenges caused by preventable hazards," said HUD Secretary Shaun Donovan, describing the "Advancing Healthy Housing: A Strategy for Action" initiative. "This plan, developed by the Healthy Homes workgroup… focuses the attention of many federal agencies on the public health impact of poor housing quality in the entire country."
Secretary Donovan unveiled the strategy during a panel session representing leaders from across the federal government. The panel, which met at the National Building Museum in Washington, D.C., included U.S. Surgeon General, Vice Admiral Regina Benjamin; EPA director Lisa Jackson; CEQ chair Nancy Sutley; DOE deputy secretary Daniel Poneman; Cancer Survivors Against Radon treasurer Marlene MacEwan; and HUD Office for Healthy Homes director Jon Gant. (Gant is pictured above at the lecturn; other speakers, from left: Donovan, Sutley, Benjamin, Poneman, Jackson, MacEwan.)
In turn, each panelist discussed aspects of the five major goals for addressing housing standards. Those goals include establishing healthy-home standards; encouraging the adoption of healthy-home standards at the federal, state, and local levels; developing a workforce prepared to implement healthy-home standards, from construction to remodeling; embarking on a public education campaign to educate Americans, in particular low-income and vulnerable populations, about the standards for healthy homes; and supporting taxpayer-funded research to study healthy housing.
Jackson said that Americans spend about 90 percent of their time indoors. Americans spend about 70 percent of their time in a home. Often, the air indoors is more polluted than it is outdoors. "People think about the EPA, they think about the great outdoors," Jackson said. "They don’t necessarily think about buildings and the great indoors. But like so much else, protecting people, which is our job—protecting human health and the environment—cannot happen if we don’t think about the indoors."
Of particular concern is exposure to radon, a threat discussed by Jackson and MacEwan. An invisible contaminant, radon causes lung cancer. The fraction of mortal lung cancer cases caused by radon every year kills almost as many people as leukemia or lymphoma. The Advancing Healthy Housing initiative advances various federal efforts to eliminate radon exposure by coordinating these efforts through a consolidated campaign.
HUD Office of Healthy Homes deputy director Matthew Ammon introduced a second panel featuring members of the President's task force on environmental health risks and safety risks for children. The talk narrowed the focus of the discussion of healthy homes to environmental factors that affect early childhood development—another topic from President Obama's State of the Union.
Efforts to curb invisible contaminants and improve living standards for millions of Americans may never match the romance of sending astronauts to the Moon. But by insuring healthier homes—and by reducing the strain that unsafe homes represent to the U.S. healthcare system and labor force—the Advancing Healthy Housing campaign makes great achievements all the more feasible.