Victims of unhealthy homes

Housing deficiencies like dampness, mould, darkness and excess noise can contribute negatively to our children’s health, regardless of where they live and their social background. However, some are more at risk than others.

Our analysis defines unhealthy homes as buildings with structural or environmental issues that affect their indoor climate. An alarming 26 million out of the 79 million European children under the age of 15 live in unhealthy homes. Our research shows that several of these risk factors are linked.

This means that 26 million children live with at least one of the deficiencies and many of them live in homes with two or more.

In fact, children living in homes with one of the four risk factors are 1.7 times more likely to report poor health. Whereas children being exposed to all four factors are strikingly 4.2 times more likely to report poor health.

Illustration of dampness, darkness, temperature, noise
Illustration of illness living in unhealthy homes

Childhood health issues related to poor indoor climate
Common household issues like dampness, mould, and poor insulation have been linked to several serious childhood health issues.

Secondary effects of these conditions also include higher school absence rates, loss of work for adults and loss of healthy life years.

How do unhealthy homes make for unhealthy children?
When our bodies are exposed to building deficiencies that create poor indoor climate, we become vulnerable to a variety of illnesses4.

Previous research shows that people are 40 percent more likely to have asthma when living in a damp or mouldy home5. Today, 2.2 million Europeans have asthma, which can often be linked to their living conditions5. Analyses done in previous Healthy Homes Barometers showed that Europeans who live in unhealthy homes are significantly more likely to report health issues like this6.

Illustration of building deficiencies
This year’s analysis focuses on children – and the results are not positive. We see a clear link between poor indoor climate and poor childhood health, especially in children who are at a higher risk of developing respiratory conditions in the first place. Children living with unhealthy indoor climates were significantly more likely to report eczema, coughing, wheezing, asthma, allergy and poor respiratory health. These are health issues that often follow children into adulthood. So, your childhood home could determine your adult health.
Image of child sleeping
Quote of low income children

The suburban disadvantage
Urban and suburban populations are growing across Europe. While cities are attractive, principally for their economic activity, people generally move to the suburbs to be close to work opportunities and cultural activities, while seeking a better quality of life in terms of housing cost, pollution, noise and more space7.

However, the type of home – single-family home or multi-family home – and its location in an urban, suburban or rural area, will influence how severe the problems with housing deficiencies and their impact on childhood health can be. Therefore, we need to look at where the issues occur to get a full overview of the problem.

The Healthy Homes Barometer 2018 showed that suburban areas have roughly twice as many single-family homes as urban areas, and this could prove to be an increasing challenge.

In this barometer, we find that children in single-family homes which are typical of suburbs, are more likely to experience fair to bad health when their homes are too dark or too cold compared to children in multi-family homes.

Damp, dark and cold single-family homes 
Bigger homes do not always equal better ones. Single-family homes, which are typical of suburbs, are more likely to have several exposed exterior elements per dwelling, which is where deficiencies like dampness and cold indoor climates most often occur7.

In turn, children living in single-family suburban homes are especially vulnerable to the health effects associated with having a poor indoor climate.

That is particularly concerning, because suburban growth in Europe has significantly outpaced urban growth. From 1961-2011, urbanization has gone up 30 percent and suburbanisation a striking 47 percent7.

We know that residents of single-family homes are more likely to be owners than those living in multi-family homes. This influences decision-making when it comes to renovations, as private homeowners tend to be less informed about when renovation is needed and the potential health and economic benefits of renovation8.

Furthermore, our research shows that when it comes to deficient housing, it is the home itself that plays a role in the likelihood of contracting illness. In other words, housing deficiencies are likely to have a negative impact on residents’ health, regardless of available income8.

Low-income families are more vulnerable
Although poor indoor climates are found to have the same effect on rich and poor, The Healthy Homes Barometer 2019 shows that children from low-income families are more likely to live in homes with structural deficiencies.

Those in the lower 20 percent on the household income scale are nearly 25 percent more likely to live in homes with deficiencies like a leaky roof or inadequate heating.

Children from low-income households were also more likely to report lack of daylight in their homes. This is a consistent trend across almost all countries included in the study. Moreover, children from low-income households, who are at a higher risk of experiencing poor health in general, are at an even higher risk of health issues related to poor indoor climate.

Illustration of urban and suburban growth
4 WHO, 2009. “WHO guidelines for indoor air quality. Dampness and mould”
5 Fraunhofer, 2016. “Mould and dampness in European homes and their impact on health”
6 Healthy Homes Barometer 2017
7 Healthy Homes Barometer 2018
8 Healthy Homes Barometer 2017