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Indoor air pollutants in low-income housing and in many child-care centers may put children at health risk

In areas prone to high radon levels, homes occupied by limited-resource households have significantly higher levels of radon than those occupied by higher income households, and some child-care centers have unsafe levels of radon, lead and mold, according to a new study at Cornell University.

"We found levels of pollutants in homes and child-care facilities that we should be concerned about," says Joseph Laquatra, associate professor of design and environmental analysis in the New York State College of Human Ecology at Cornell. "Even low levels of exposure to some of these pollutants is dangerous, and if you have a child who lives in a home with high radon, lead and mold levels and then spends the day being exposed to those same pollutants in a child-care facility, that child may be at significantly higher risk for lead poisoning, cancer, asthma attacks and allergies."

Laquatra, who conducted the study with colleagues Lorraine Maxwell and Mark Pierce, both in the Department of Design and Environmental Analysis with Laquatra at Cornell, will report these findings at the Ninth Annual International Conference on Indoor Air and Climate in Monterey, Calif., July 2.

The indoor environmental experts tested indoor air pollution levels in a representative sample of 328 houses and 75 child-care facilities in six nonmetropolitan counties (Chenango, Columbia, Essex, Franklin, Wyoming and Hamilton) in New York state.

They also found that the homes of lower income residents had higher levels of carbon monoxide, probably because 60 percent of the homes in the study had no functioning kitchen exhaust fan, the researchers said. In addition, 16 percent of the homes in the study had asbestos problems, and 10 percent had basement mold.

"Limited-resource households have disproportionate exposure to radon and other indoor air pollutants, most likely because of lower quality housing and housing deficiencies that create pollutant pathways, such as foundation cracks and dirt basement floors, as well as chipped paint, friable asbestos and leaking combustion equipment," Laquatra says.

"Lead poisoning in children leads to lowered intelligence and behavioral problems. Mold is a trigger for allergies and asthma, both of which lead to school and work absences, productivity losses and increased health costs," Laquatra says. Exposures to asbestos, carbon monoxide and radon can lead to early death.

"Health officials and policy-makers agree that indoor air pollutants pose serious health risks, and they expend considerable resources to raise public awareness of these risks. But for low-income households, resources for pollutant abatement are negligible, which generates a dilemma for public policy," Laquatra says.

A follow-up study at Cornell is examining the effectiveness of teaching low-income household members practical management strategies to minimize their risks of exposure to indoor air pollutants.

The study was supported, in part, by a U.S. Department of Agriculture Hatch Grant.

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