Impact of Climate Change on the Domestic Indoor Environment and Associated Health Risks in the UK
There is growing evidence that projected climate change has the potential to significantly affect public health. In the UK, much of this impact is likely to arise by amplifying existing risks related to heat exposure, flooding, and chemical and biological contamination in buildings. Identifying the health effects of climate change on the indoor environment, and risks and opportunities related to climate change adaptation and mitigation can help protect public health.
We explored a range of health risks in the domestic indoor environment related to climate change, as well as the potential health benefits and unintended harmful effects of climate change mitigation and adaptation policies in the UK housing sector. We reviewed relevant scientific literature, focusing on housing-related health effects in the UK likely to arise through either direct or indirect mechanisms of climate change or mitigation and adaptation measures in the built environment. We considered the following categories of effect: (i) indoor temperatures, (ii) indoor air quality, (iii) indoor allergens and infections, and (iv) flood damage and water contamination.
Climate change may exacerbate health risks and inequalities across these categories and in a variety of ways, if adequate adaptation measures are not taken. Certain changes to the indoor environment can affect indoor air quality or promote the growth and propagation of pathogenic organisms. Measures aimed at reducing greenhouse gas emissions have the potential for ancillary public health benefits including reductions in health burdens related heat and cold, indoor exposure to air pollution derived from outdoor sources, and mold growth. However, increasing airtightness of dwellings in pursuit of energy efficiency could also have negative effects by increasing concentrations of pollutants (such as PM2.5, CO, and radon) derived from indoor or ground sources, and biological contamination. These effects can largely be ameliorated by mechanical ventilation with heat recovery (MVHR) and air filtration, where such solution is feasible and when the system is properly installed, operated, and maintained. Groups at high risk of these adverse health effects include the elderly (especially those living on their own), individuals with pre-existing illnesses, people living in overcrowded accommodation, and the socioeconomically deprived.
A better understanding of how current and emerging building infrastructure design, construction, and materials may affect health in the context of climate change and mitigation and adaptation measures is needed in the UK and other high-income countries. Long-term, energy-efficient building design interventions, ensuring adequate ventilation, need to be promoted.