Housing and the Indoor Environment: Where toxic exposures can be up close and personal

Posted by Kathleen Cooper, Senior Researcher, CELA

As we begin to emerge from nearly three months of sheltering indoors, we must remember that housing – being able to pay for it, clean it, supply it with affordable energy and clean water – is among the key challenges and social inequities revealed by the COVID pandemic.

Recent life changes indoors have ramped up use of hand sanitizers, surface disinfectants, disposable masks, and single-use plastics, unfortunately creating a big setback in addressing the plastic-dominated waste crisis.

Outdoors, there has been awe and delight at how the environment has responded to the great “human pause.” These altered indoor and outdoor realities are inseparable from the urgency of the work done by many of our sister clinics on the Colour of Poverty campaign, the Black Lives Matter awakening, and renewed calls for Indigenous justice in Canada (recalling that much Indigenous-led activism has arisen from deplorable on-reserve housing conditions). The result is now worldwide calls for a just and green recovery.

Central to all recovery plans should be affordable and safe housing for all. That safety includes ensuring environmental protection extends to the indoor environment.

While outdoor environmental risks are more commonly recognized, CELA’s many years of research and policy analysis highlights the equal importance of the indoors, where we spend 80 to 90% of our time.

For over 20 years we have addressed toxic substances and effects on vulnerable populations, particularly children, finding that many toxic exposures of concern occur in indoor air and dust. For myriad reasons related to developmental stages, physiological and behaviour differences, children are more vulnerable and have higher exposures than adults potentially creating lifelong health concerns. Children living in low income circumstances are at even greater risk.

As a founding partner of the Canadian Partnership for Children’s Health and Environment (CPCHE), CELA has helped to create excellent and still highly relevant educational resources about the steps individuals can take to create healthy home environments for kids. (And in case you are concerned about the COVID-effectiveness of “green” cleaning or reusables, see: A Complete Guide to Non-Toxic Cleaning and Disinfecting During the Coronavirus Pandemic and Reusables Are Perfectly Safe During COVID-19, Health Experts Rule).

The research focus on indoor environmental health is often on indoor air, for example if mould spores are present or if consumer products are releasing volatile chemicals. But, indoor dust can be of equal or greater concern. It can be contaminated with lead from old peeling paint, now-banned flame retardant chemicals worn off of older consumer products (think electronics, anything with a foam interior, etc.), or from the indoor use of pesticides.

Dozens of hazardous chemicals have been identified in indoor air and house dust with levels routinely higher in older, poorly maintained buildings creating greater risks for low income families. Older homes may also contain lead in drinking water supply lines.

Regulating indoor hazards is a complicated mix of federal, provincial and local rules that can inadequately or only indirectly address exposure sources. For example, federal regulation of toxic chemicals in consumer products has often been far too slow and when taken, too limited, (think Bisphenol A in baby bottles when fetal exposure to pregnant women is the exposure window of greatest concern). Even when action is taken, hazards like old leaded paint or deteriorating but still-useful durable goods, create indoor exposure sources for years to come, again, a disproportionately greater concern in low income circumstances.

RentSafe – Focus on Mould

Mould is among the top indoor environmental health concerns faced by tenants in Ontario according to multiple RentSafe surveys. While landlords in Ontario are required to maintain housing that is fit for habitation, shortcomings and gaps in tenants’ rights leave Ontario renters at risk. Health consequences of mould can include persistent cough, worsening of asthma symptoms, and other respiratory problems with children often at greatest risk. It grows when there is excess moisture whether from leaks in roofs, ceilings, older windows, faulty plumbing, lack of kitchen or bathroom ventilation, damp basements, that is, when housing is inadequately maintained.

To address mould, RentSafe partners have created resources to help tenants and their doctors, including two complementary guides, and a sample letter for use by busy physicians. While these resources will help tenants negotiate with landlords or move cases to the Landlord and Tenant Board (LTB), more barriers are possible during the tribunal process. If such cases go to LTB, low income tenants have no money to hire mould experts, local public health or property standards officials inconsistently respond to mould problems, and board members may be ill-informed.

To address these legal barriers, CELA is working with the Clinic Resource Office, several general service and specialty legal clinics, and other RentSafe partners in medicine, public health, property standards, as well as tenant advocates, to address tenants’ legal needs at the LTB. These efforts will seek to address two key areas – health effects and issues of remediation and prevention – with the goal of saving judicial resources by efficiently assisting legal counsel across the province when they represent tenants with mould problems in substandard housing.

Indoor Use of Pesticides

RentSafe surveys also prioritized problems with pests and pesticides. Research at CELA confirms that pesticide use indoors is different than outdoors (as discussed in a recent webinar). Exposure is more immediate and can be much higher than, for example, pesticide residues on food, especially if there is overuse in response to repeat infestations.

Pesticides also don’t break down as quickly indoors than out. While pests can occur anywhere, they are more likely in older, poorly maintained buildings where Statistics Canada data show a close correlation with income – as age of housing increases, income levels drop. Health risks of this pesticide use can include short-term skin and respiratory irritation and over the long term, greater risk of some cancers.

Pesticide use indoors is also regulated differently than uses outdoors. At the federal level, there is inadequate consideration of longer chemical persistence indoors and some health endpoints are not yet considered including emerging evidence of endocrine disruption. Notably, exposure assessments take no account of greater use and exposure under low income circumstances.

Regulators try to make up for these limitations by conservatively setting restriction limits. But, upon regulatory re-evaluation some limits have been found inadequate, often due to excess risks to children. The result can be further restrictions or bans on the most hazardous pesticides for which extensive exposure will have already occurred. Moreover, within limited federal enforcement actions, across Canada commercial pest control companies (i.e., those hired to spray indoors) have a multi-year history of violations.

Nobody wants pests in their home. In addition to advocating for stronger federal and provincial regulatory protections, including crucial prevention steps via improved housing maintenance, CELA with continue to create educational materials. For example, see a recently updated version of our Bed Bugs fact sheet about low risk options to address bed bugs and noting tenants’ rights when faced with these pests in rental housing.

Precaution, Prevention, and Social Justice

The list of our work on indoor issues continues with radon, asbestos, and drinking water contamination with lead and PFAS chemicals. Despite such exposures being indoors and often originating from consumer products versus smokestacks or effluent pipes, they are important public health concerns.

Indoor exposures are thus crucial to include in CELA’s policy analysis and law reform advocacy. We seek precaution and prevention and informed substitution to achieve inherently safer alternatives to toxic substances. But to be effective for those who are most vulnerable CELA’s advocacy must continue, and increase, in solidarity with fellow social justice advocates, including taking action on the Colour of Poverty, and addressing poverty reduction and affordable housing for all.