Columbia Law School Center for Climate Change Law: Report Finds that Climate Change Could Affect Indoor Air Quality

Columbia Law School Center for Climate Change Law

 

Cullen Howe   By J. Cullen Howe, Environmental Law Specialist, Arnold & Porter LLP

On June 7, 2011, the Institute of Medicine of the National Academies issued a report, Climate Change, the Indoor Environment, and Health, finding that climate change could affect indoor environments as outdoor conditions change.  In particular, the report found that attempts to create more energy-efficient buildings and heating, ventilation, and air conditioning (HVAC) systems could interfere with building ventilation, potentially exposing people to indoor-emitted pollutants such as chemical emissions and environmental tobacco smoke.  The report was commissioned by the EPA to summarize the effects of climate change on indoor air quality and health.

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The report found that elderly, low-income, and people in poor health all are vulnerable to both exposure to temperature extremes and the effects of exposure.  Those populations experience excessive temperatures almost exclusively in indoor environments.  In addition, as extreme weather events increase, this could lead to more frequent power outages that expose people to potentially dangerous conditions indoors, such as extreme heat or cold, or exposure to harmful emissions such as carbon monoxide if people use portable back-up generators.

In addition, efforts to make buildings more energy-efficient may restrict ventilation.  The push to improve buildings' energy efficiency has spurred more rapid introduction of untested new materials and building retrofits that limit and alter air flow and may concentrate indoor pollutants such as chemical emissions and environmental tobacco smoke.  For example, a building that is tightly sealed might protect occupants from one set of problems, but would increase their exposure to other problems given that such buildings have decreased ventilation rates and higher concentrations of indoor-emitted pollutants.  Other risks include chemical emissions as old building materials get damp and corrode either from increased dampness outside or from poorly designed HVAC systems.

The report makes a number of recommendations to EPA to mitigate these effects, including expanding or developing programs that identify at-risk populations, implementing ventilation standards for public buildings, conducting research about the potential adverse health effects of climate change mitigation and adaptation efforts, revising building codes to reflect expected climate changes, and educating the public about the effects of climate change.

Reprinted with permission from Green Building Law Update Service.

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J. Cullen Howe is an environmental law specialist at Arnold & Porter LLP. Much of Cullen's work focuses on climate change, where he attempts to educate lawyers and the public at large on the enormous cooperation necessary to adequately address this problem. In addition to his work on climate change, Cullen is the managing editor of Environmental Law in New York, edits the Environmental Law Practice Guide, Brownfields Law and Practice, the Environmental Impact Review in New York, and has drafted chapters in the Environmental Law Practice Guide on climate change and green building. Mr. Howe is a graduate of Vermont Law School, where he was the managing editor of the Vermont Law Review, and a graduate of DePauw University, where he was a member of Phi Beta Kappa.

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