The Case for Government Regulation Over Indoor Air Pollution
By Kesiah Clement
Last spring I took a course titled, Environmental Law, Technology, and Justice which examined how environmental laws in the United States were originally created to protect public health. I learned that while the federal government does have measures in place to regulate outdoor air pollution, there is little government oversight on indoor air pollution. In fact, indoor air pollution has always often been ignored and is an invisible issue when it comes to promoting public health.
Why does this matter? Well, indoor air pollution can include various molds, building materials, carpeting, air fresheners, personal care products (such as perfumes or hair sprays), tobacco smoke and household cleaners. Poor indoor air quality can contribute to or cause a number of infections, allergies, chronic lung diseases (such as asthma), lung cancer and even other forms of cancer.
According to the Environmental Protection Agency, Americans spend approximately 90% of their time indoors. This means that most of us are constantly living in tightly sealed spaces—in a toxic bubble of sorts. Although air pollution is typically regarded as an outdoor concern, the fact is, indoor levels of pollutants can be two to five times higher than outdoor pollutant levels, and in some cases, it can be 100 times higher. At the end of the day, smog, truck exhaust, and smoke billowing up from factory smokestacks do not really matter as much as what the air is like in your home.
While the EPA’s Clean Air Act regulates 6 widespread air pollutants, certain toxic and hazardous air pollutants, as well as greenhouse gases, the Clean Air Act only applies to outdoor air pollutants. The EPA website even states that there are currently no regulations or standards for airborne mold contaminants—even though indoor mold can cause wheezing and coughing that can turn into chronic asthma, as well as other prominent lung diseases. To remedy this lack of regulation, the EPA claims to “offer assistance in protecting your indoor air quality” by providing suggestions and information on how to promote good indoor air quality. But what if you don’t have the resources or the means to control moisture or achieve healthy indoor air quality?
The answer to that question lies in the context of each state’s laws. Individual states have the responsibility and power to regulate indoor air pollution and mold—some states do, while some don’t at all. But even if every state regulated indoor air quality, the state government can’t regulate it in all areas, such as privately owned residences and homes. However, the state can regulate indoor air quality in public schools, and other public buildings, and even through rent laws and regulation if they choose. For example, Washington D.C.’s own Air Quality Amendment Act passed in 2014, outlines rights for tenants dealing with mold in residential units. However, not every state outlines what to do if indoor air pollutions arise in rental homes.
Often times, it is minority, low-income populations that rent homes. In fact, the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development collected data from 2010 to 2014 and found that households with less than 30% of the median American family income were twice as likely to rent a house than to buy one. Owning a home comes with higher upfront and continual costs, so for individuals with very little disposable income, the investment of buying a home is daunting. This leaves many low-income individuals stuck in the rental housing system—as a result, their indoor air quality is dictated by their landlords.
Kesiah Clement (SFS’19) is an undergraduate studying Science, Technology, and International Affairs and a student fellow with the Global Health Initiative.