Green buildings have better indoor environmental qualities, and deliver direct health benefits to those who work in them or live in them.
Americans spend an average of 90% of their time indoors. Indoor environments with low air circulation can concentrate pollutants 2 to 5 times higher than in outdoor air. Contaminants found in indoor air include organic compounds (e.g. formaldehyde, pesticide, fire retardant), microbes (e.g. bacteria, mold), inorganic gases (e.g. ozone, carbon monoxide, radon), and particulate matter (second-hand smoke, dust, smoke from fires).
Building-related illnesses include infections (e.g. Legionnaire’s disease), headache, nausea, nasal and chest congestion, wheezing, eye problems, sore throat, fatigue, chills and fever, muscle pain, neurological symptoms, and dry skin. That’s quite a list, and it should be apparent that indoor environmental quality is very important to health and well-being.
Green buildings have better indoor environmental qualities, and deliver direct health benefits to those who work in them or live in them, according to a review conducted in 2015. The review looked at 17 different studies of the relationship between green buildings and health. Green buildings had lower levels of volatile organic compounds, formaldehyde, allergens, nitrous oxide, smoke, and particulate matter.
The improved indoor environmental quality translated to improved self-reported health outcomes, and improved self-reported productivity. Only one study used objective health outcome metrics, but it is instructive. Thiel et al compared results at a children’s hospital in Pittsburgh before and after it moved from a non-green to a green facility. After the move, there was less employee turnover and open positions filled faster. Blood stream infection rates declined 70% and the number of corrections that had to be made to medical records declined 49%. Not only that, but patient mortality was expected to be 11% higher after the move, because the case load became more severe. However, the green hospital actually had a 19% decrease in patient mortality.
In a more traditional office setting, 263 employees were studied before and after they moved from a non-green building to a green one. After moving, they reported a 56% decrease in absences due to asthma and respiratory allergies, a 49% decrease in absences due to depression and stress, and an improvement in productivity (productivity was measured using an index that does not lend itself to a numerical comparison of before and after).
Thus, the data look promising for green buildings. At the same time, confounding factors could explain some of the improvements observed, and the fact that many studies used self-report data suggests that caution should be used in interpreting the studies. Studies using more objective data are needed.
What about the financial performance of green buildings? The next post will explore that.
Allen, Joseph, Piers MacNaughton, Jose Laurent, Skye Flanigan, Erika Eitland, and John Spengler. 2015. “Green Buildings and Health.” Current Environmental Health Report. Downloaded 7/9/2017 from https://link.springer.com/content/pdf/10.1007%2Fs40572-015-0063-y.pdf.
Singh, Amanjeet, Matt Syal, Sue Grady, and Sinem Korkmaz. 2010. “Effects of Green Buildings on Employee Health and Productivity.”
Thiel, C.L., Needy, K.L., Ries, R.J., Hupp, D., Bilec, M.M. (2014). “Building Design and Performance: A Comparative Longitudinal Assessment of a Children’s Hospital.” Building and the Environment. 78, August 2014, 130–136.
American Journal of Public Health. 1665-1668. Downloaded 7/9/2017 from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2920980.
U.S. Institute of Medicine. 2007. Green Healthcare Institutions: Health, Environment, and Economics: Workshop Summary, Chapter 4. The Health Aspects of Green Buildings. National Academies Press. Viewed online 6/10/2017 at https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK54149.