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Health threats can begin where you should be safest: the home

The link between housing and illness and injury is incontestable. A home’s structural features can increase risk of falls, burns and other injuries; elevate lead levels in the blood; and exacerbate other conditions, such as arthritis. Poor indoor air quality, caused by contaminants such as radon and mold, contributes to cancers, cardiovascular disease, asthma and other illnesses. Poor water quality can trigger gastrointestinal illness and a range of other conditions, including neurological effects and cancer. Poisonings can be caused by chemicals in and around the home.
Westside Organization residents enjoy a community park.

The negative impact of environmental health hazards is disproportionately felt by low-income people and people of color, who often live in aging homes and in neighborhoods in need of investment. And the groups most at risk of illness are children below the age of six and pregnant women. A few stats from the “Surgeon General’s Call to Action to Promote Healthy Homes”:

  • Sixty-four percent of carbon monoxide poisonings that end up in the emergency room occur at home.

  • Nearly one in 15 homes in the United States have dangerously high levels of radon, which is the leading cause of lung cancer among nonsmokers.

  • Among the significant contributors to asthma are pests and pest dander in the home. For example, studies show that 84 percent of U.S. homes have a bedroom with detectable levels of dust-mite allergens, many at asthma-causing levels. Eighty-two percent have similar levels of mouse-related allergens.

  • More than one-third of all adults 65 years of age and older fall each year, and children under 5 years old are another high-risk group. Of all deaths caused by injuries at home, 53.7 percent are due to falls.
NeighborWorks member Westside Housing Organization, in Kansas City, MO, takes healthy homes very seriously, and was a vital partner in the work that led to the city winning the Robert Wood Johnson Culture of Health prize in 2015 — which came with a $25,000 grant.

Westside Housing partnered with the Kansas City Health Department and Children’s Mercy Hospital to focus on preventing and reducing the impact of environmentally triggered illnesses.

 “We view housing differently from many community development organizations,” says Executive Director Gloria Ortiz Fisher. “We clearly see the intersection of housing, health and sustainability.”

Children’s Mercy Hospital trained four Westside Housing staff members to conduct healthy home assessments to identify indoor hazards that may cause illness in children. To date, homes of 39 low-income families with children six years old and under have been assessed. In addition, Westside received a three-year, $85,000 grant as part of its partnership with the Kansas City Health Department, allowing it to conduct 16 lead-paint abatements.
We are confident that healthy homes will continue to be a focus for governments and health care organizations for the long-term.

One example: Picture a small trailer home with many holes in the floor, allowing mice and rats in — leaving droppings everywhere. The family raised chickens and the feed was not well contained, attracting unwanted critters. The family's 3-year-old child relied on oxygen to breathe. 

The Westside team educated the family on how to create a healthier environment, pulled out the carpeting and installed flooring to cover the holes in the floor and keep rodents out. It also removed dust mites and droppings and sealed pipes and windows.
“We saw so much need and little funding,” says Westside Construction Manager Marlene Dade. “So we addressed the biggest problems and tried to educate the family about the habits that lead to poor health.”

While minor home repairs and other actions can reduce and prevent illness, larger needs such as new heating or plumbing systems often are needed and are out of reach of those with low incomes.

Westside and Children’s Mercy Hospital are seeking funding to continue and expand the program, and plan to train three additional staff in healthy-home assessments this year.

In addition, Westside has transitioned its multi-family rental homes to smoke-free environments, and with additional funding from the Kansas City Health Department, is “growing” its urban gardens, which contribute to a sense of community and the health of the residents.
“This work is not incidental to Westside’s mission. It is our mission,” says Fisher. “We are confident that healthy homes will continue to be a focus for governments and health care organizations for the long-term, and that partnerships with nonprofits like ours are critical to intervening in environmentally triggered illness.”

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