November 19, 2012
As Minnesotans gather in their homes to celebrate Thanksgiving, state releases plan for making those homes safer and healthier
"Healthy Homes" plan calls for integrated, community-based approach to problems like lead poisoning, mold, asthma, radon, carbon monoxide, and physical injuries
As Minnesotans gather at home with family and friends this week for the Thanksgiving holiday, the state will be rolling out its new Minnesota Healthy Homes Strategic Plan (HH Plan) for making those homes safer and healthier.
The HH Plan is a joint effort of the Minnesota Department of Health (MDH) and the Minneapolis-based Sustainable Resources Center (SRC). Officials say Healthy Homes is not so much a program as a way of doing business, so that healthy housing becomes the expectation for everyone in Minnesota.
The HH Plan calls for a community-based, multi-faceted approach to creating healthier living spaces. The plan uses a coordinated, holistic strategy to address health threats like lead poisoning, injuries, asthma, radon, carbon monoxide, and other problems related to moisture or poor ventilation.
Healthy Homes is focused on upstream prevention, according to Dr. Ed Ehlinger, Minnesota Commissioner of Health.
"Unsafe, unhealthy housing makes people sick and costs us all money," Commissioner Ehlinger said. "Our objective is to reduce illness and its related costs by reducing hazards before they become a problem."
"Thanksgiving week is an especially appropriate time to introduce this new plan," Commissioner Ed Ehlinger added. "Having a safe and secure home is one of the many blessings people will be celebrating, and we believe the HH Plan will help make our homes healthier places to live.
The Health Homes strategy represents an important step forward in addressing health hazards found in the home, according to SRC Executive Director Dan Newman.
"Instead of focusing on individual problems, in a piecemeal fashion, this approach requires us to look at the big picture," Newman said. "That includes the way homes are built, laws and policies that relate to housing, and things that residents can do themselves to lower their health risks. We believe that this approach will be more efficient and have a greater positive impact on human health than focusing on individual risks, one at a time."
Commissioner Ehlinger emphasized that Healthy Homes will be a broadly-based effort, tapping into available resources throughout the community. He noted that CDC funding for lead poisoning prevention and other healthy-housing activities was cut by 94 percent last year, so a creative, collaborative approach will be necessary.
"Minnesota is poised to be a national leader as health, housing, safety, and planning organizations find better ways to work together," Commissioner Ehlinger said. "MDH won't be doing this work alone. We will need to enlist the help of a variety of partners, in both the public and private sector."
Potential partners in the Healthy Homes effort include local government agencies and programs in areas like public health, housing, building codes and code enforcement, community planning, community action programs, and early childhood education. Other possible collaborators include housing contractors and developers, higher education, environmental advocacy groups, and health insurance plans. Non-profit foundations may also be an important source of financial support.
The link between housing issues and human health is well-established, SRC Director Newman noted. Problems addressed by the HH Plan include:
- Respiratory Health. One in 14 children and one in 13 adults in Minnesota have been diagnosed with asthma. The illness disproportionately affects low-income families and people of color living in substandard housing.
- Lead Poisoning. Over the past 17 years, MDH and its community partners have achieved an 87 percent reduction in the number of children with blood lead levels above 10 micrograms per deciliter (μg/dL), the level currently defined as "elevated in state law". Last year, however, over 3,000 Minnesota children exceeded the more conservative CDC "reference level" of five μg/dL. A key source of lead exposure is dust from chipping, peeling or flaking of leaded paint in homes built before 1978, when use of lead-based paint in homes was banned.
- In-Home Safety. Between 1990 and 2008, deaths from unintentional injury declined by 38 percent among Minnesota children aged 14 and under. However, falls remain the leading cause of childhood injuries requiring treatment in Minnesota hospital emergency departments. The number of deaths related to falls, in adults 65 and over, is substantially higher in Minnesota than elsewhere in the nation. Residential fires accounted for 80 percent of Minnesota fire deaths in 2011, and 29 percent of homes where fire deaths occurred had no operable smoke alarm.
- Moisture, Pests, Contaminants and Poor Ventilation. Infestation with bugs or rodents, and contamination with mold, can trigger allergies, asthma and other respiratory problems. Surveys have found that 10 percent of housing units in the Twin Cities metro area have exterior water leaks, and 8 percent have interior leaks, contributing to possible mold problems. Many homes have issues with radon, which causes lung cancer, and carbon monoxide, which can cause accidental death.
To address these issues, the strategic plan emphasizes implementation of the "Seven Principles of Healthy Homes," Newman said. "That means making sure that all homes are dry, clean, free of injury hazards, well-ventilated, pest-free, contaminant-free, and well-maintained."
MDH Environmental Health Division
MDH Communications Office