Children's environmental health

Children, housing and health

Housing illustration

The most extreme health impact of housing is found among the poorest sectors of societies in the form of a complete lack of housing, which affects millions of adults and children worldwide. Lack of affordable housing for low-income households may mean diverting family resources from expenditure on food, education or health towards housing needs. Beyond this, both the physical structure of houses and their location can involve health risks.

Important parameters in indoor environments include the thermal climate, noise and light, and exposure to a large number of chemical, physical and biological pollutants and risk factors. While these parameters are also affected by human-related activities and outdoor sources (such as vehicle and industrial pollutants or local vegetation and insect ecology), human exposure is modified by housing such as building materials, number and size of rooms and windows, ventilation and energy technology. For example, a "leaky" house can lead to dampness and mould which may result in various forms of respiratory illness and allergic reactions; the use of building materials such as asbestos or lead-based paint can increase exposure to these toxic substances; the use of inflammable or weak material such as wood, plastic or cardboard - particularly common in urban slums - poses increased risks of injuries; building design will influence exposure to disease vectors such as mosquitoes; inadequate ventilation or overcrowding will cause exposure to different pollutants and pathogens; poor lighting or heating will influence both physical and mental health as well as participation in activities such as education; and so on.

The location of housing and the organization of neighbourhoods also have public health implications, in particular in rapidly urbanizing developing countries, where a growing proportion of the population live in informal settlements or slums, often on the periphery of major cities. If housing is located on floodplains or steep hillsides, near sources of traffic, industrial activity, solid waste dumps or vector breeding sites, and away from services such as sanitation, transportation, schools or health facilities, public health and especially children's health will be affected directly (for example, through sanitation) or indirectly through access to food and education. In addition, organization of neighbourhoods has been shown to have an effect on mental and physical health, school attendance and performance, or prevalence of violence and crime.

Referring to housing as a "risk factor" would mask the important role that it plays in providing a setting for daily household and community activities. At the same time, it is important to acknowledge the important and complex roles that housing and neighbourhood design play in public and children 's health and to promote systematic inclusion of health in the design of housing, housing technology and the urban and regional planning processes.

Extracted from: The World Health Report, WHO, Geneva, 2002.

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