I grew up in California’s wine country with mild and wet weather throughout the winter. My family’s three-bedroom apartment would be mostly warm and cozy during those months but the bedroom I shared with my younger sister would be damp and cold. After a few weeks of steady winter rain, the faint smell of mildew would creep into the room while mold crept up the baby blue walls. Initially, I would complain of the cold, but overtime I realized that the mold was impacting my well-being. My headaches, which I believe were an allergic reaction to the mold, made me feel miserable. My parents addressed my discomfort by washing the walls with bleach and warm water and placing a space heater in our room. Mold would return after a few weeks and I would resume my complaining. After this continuous cycle of discomfort, my parents allowed me to sleep in the living room, which contained the main heat-generating source for our home. I solidified my seasonal routine overtime. I would sleep in the living room most nights during winter and I would sleep in my own room on the top bunkbed during the months when it was not too cold and damp. This experience provided me with an early understanding of how my bedroom made me feel and represented a clear connection between my home environment and health. My family made a small change in response to discomfort which did not interrupt my short-term learning, did not result in a visit to the emergency room because of respiratory problems, and usually did not result in any missed days of school or work for my parents or myself. The mold would go away during the non-rainy months that made up most of the year and there was no significant damage to our property.
My personal story focuses on mold. It does not highlight any other indoor environmental conditions that can impact health. According to the National Center for Healthy Housing, a healthy home is designed, constructed, maintained, and rehabilitated in a manner that is conducive to good occupant health. My definition of a healthy home is a place where a person is safe, free of harm from indoor environmental exposures and is a regenerative space that meets the basic needs that people deserve. This broad definition incorporates all of the key elements of healthy homes identified by the US Department of Housing and Urban Development, the US Centers for Disease Control and the US Environmental Protection Agency. This includes but is not limited to an environment free of mold, lead, allergens, asthmagens, and carbon monoxide, any elements that will lessen unintended injury, harmful pesticides and carcinogens. According to the National Center for Healthy Housing’s 2017 Healthy Housing Fact Sheet, the home is possibly the most dangerous place for a family. Approximately 40% of homes have at least one health or safety hazard. 35 million homes have issues like broken heating and plumbing systems, holes in walls and windows, roach and rodent infestations, falling plaster, crumbling foundations, leaking roofs, mold, exposed wiring, radon, heaters unvented to the outdoors, toxic chemical exposures, broken stairs, missing smoke detectors, lead, and other hazards. The National Center for Healthy Housing also stated that it estimates 500,000 children between the ages of 1 – 5 have elevated lead levels, 24 million people have asthma, 27,000 adults die from unintentional falls, 21,000 people die from radon-related lung cancer and 400 people die from unintentional carbon monoxide poisoning not linked to fires. These statistics tell half the story of what a healthy home means to the many millions of people impacted in a variety of ways by conditions that should be outdated. I learned this lesson, much later in life, during my time as the Director of Environmental Health at WE ACT.
A little over 10 years ago, I moved to New York City to begin my dream job as the Environmental Health and Community-based Participatory Research Coordinator at WE ACT for Environmental Justice, an organization that would forever hold a deep place in my heart. I learned very quickly about healthy homes in a housing market that is nothing short of oppressive. I put my skills as a trained environmental health professional to use as I searched for my own apartment in the big apple. I recalled the impact of mold on my 8-year-old self while also being cognizant of my training in public health school on what to look for while inspecting an indoor environment. I thought about how to look for pests, how to look for peeling paint, and to note structural factors in addition to neighborhood and building conditions. I wanted to make sure that I felt safe and happy in an environment where I could thrive. When I settled into my Hamilton Heights apartment, I began a journey learning about an untapped public health force– the thousands of building owners, maintenance staff, building managers, neighbors, and advocates. Everyone living in or somehow connected to our housing system can mobilize to create the most effective intervention possible for addressing health disparities; they can ensure HEALTHY SAFE AFFORDABLE HOUSING IS AVAILABLE FOR ALL PEOPLE. As I spoke to WE ACT members, university students, researchers, thought leaders, organizers, local elected officials, gentrifiers, displaced community residents and donors, something became clear: Healthy and safe homes can transform lives. I observed how a community that nurtured each other, was free of landlord harassment, and had increased ventilation could bring a smile and decreased stress to a grandmother’s day to day life. I witnessed how a moldy bathroom transformed into a well-ventilated space with no peeling paint and absent of mildew could help someone control their child’s asthma and drive down their blood pressure. I saw the possibility for a future where a thriving community included a healthy, safe and affordable home.
Ogonnaya Dotson-Newman is a program officer in the Environment program at The JPB Foundation. JPB’s mission is to advance opportunity in the US through transformational initiatives that empower those living in poverty, enrich and sustain our environment, and enable pioneering medical research. JPB’s Environment program enables resilient communities to benefit the health and well-being of low-income and underserved communities. Ogonnaya manages the environmental health portfolio focused on detoxifying natural systems and the built environment by eliminating indoor and outdoor pollutants. Ogonnaya comes to JPB with years of experience in community-based participatory research, partnership and collaboration for organizing around complex environmental issues, and environmental justice. Most recently, Ogonnaya was the Assistant Director of Public Housing and Health based at the New York City Housing Authority and the New York City Department of Health and Mental Hygiene. Ogonnaya holds a Master’s in Public Health with a focus on Environmental Health and a certificate in Health Geoinformatics. Ogonnaya fills her time laughing, cooking, and liking all things related to sloths.