The Public Health Law Center has spent two decades working to phase out and regulate commercial tobacco products, promote health equity, and combat the legacy of systemic racism in the U.S. through local, state, and federal policy change. Climate change is one of the largest public health challenge facing our nation and world, with global consequences but also localized health impacts. We have recently expanded our work to include the pursuit of healthy buildings, especially in the context of indoor air quality and its intersection with climate change and climate justice.
We are focusing on public housing in particular, because due to systemic and institutional racism and lack of access to resources across many marginalized populations, public housing residents are disproportionately Black, Latinx, elderly, people living with disabilities, single-income, and single-parent households with children. As a result of a history of redlining and environmental racism, public housing residents often experience disproportionate amounts of pollution from industrial sources of many kinds. This includes pollution occurring within the home. In fact, research shows that children living in homes with gas stoves, particularly those living in households that use gas ovens as a source of heat in the winter months, are more likely to experience asthma symptoms and be diagnosed with asthma than those living in homes with electric stoves. Burning gas indoors has also been shown to create spikes in nitrogen dioxide, a pollutant that has been shown to exacerbate asthma symptoms in children, at levels that would violate limits that would apply to outdoor air pollution. While there has been some movement towards removing oil and gas from residential buildings across the country, these efforts often omit residents living in public housing. This is a health equity and environmental justice issue, because all too often public housing residents are unable to access the resources that would help alleviate some of those exposures. Public housing currently does not require access to air conditioning across the board, and buildings are often old and under-resourced, meaning they are inefficient, more expensive to heat and cool, and not built to withstand the effects of climate change in the long-term. These issues are all interconnected and intersecting, meaning that we need to address them holistically.
The Public Health Law Center’s ongoing climate justice work aims (1) to ensure that the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development’s (HUD) mandate to ensure the safety of its residents is updated to reflect a growing understanding of all the causes of indoor air pollution; and (2) to connect some of the financial resources available for energy efficiency and climate change resilience with Public Housing Agencies and those living in HUD-assisted housing.