Dr. Elizabeth Baca: Building's Impact on Health & Wellness

SDGBC Healthy Buildings & Communities Conference 2014 Opening Keynote by Dr. Elizabeth Baca

Dr. Elizabeth Baca serves as Senior Health Advisor in the California Governor's Office of Planning and Research.

In terms of health, the U.S. lags behind many other countries. While there are many factors that impact health, our environment is a huge factor. Studies show that some of the top health concerns in our community such as asthma, diabetes, obesity, etc., can be prevented and treated by addressing environmental factors in the buildings that we live, work, study and play in.

How we define health really matters. To build buildings and create environments that improve our health, we need a paradigm shift in terms of how we approach the entire process.

In the built environment, particularly at the microscopic level, that are numerous factors that impact human health. Examples: mold, dryrot, volatile organic compounds, dust mites, etc. On the macro level, we have to consider where we place our buildings, their relationship with one another, and how we get people to and from those locations.

Building healthy communities requires the input of multiple stakeholders and the collaboration of government and private entities.

According to the County of San Diego's Health & Human Services department just three behaviors and four diseases represent 50% of deaths in the San Diego region. Dr. Baca has found a strong correlation between childhood obesity and environment. Some building materials contain chemicals that have a direct impact on health, such as in the example of certain flame retardants that function as endocrine disruptors.

USGBC Northern California launched the Building Health Initiative in recognition that health and wellness are vital components of sustainability and green building.

Someone in the audience brought up the issue of toxicity of fire retardants that are still required by certain codes/statutes to be used in specific products. The Kaiser hospital network recently adopted a policy that requires that children's hospital beds do NOT contain retardants. Dr. Baca stated that initiatives are underway at the state level to loosen retardant requirements to address this issue.

What's the Takeaway?

In general, as people at all levels become more aware of the health impacts of our built environment, initiatives begin to spring up. As various organizations work together on these initiatives, we begin to see real results.

Real progress requires awareness, and willingness to collaborate.