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Asthma NZ CEO Says Proposed Healthy Homes Approaches Still Not Enough

Asthma New Zealand CEO says Healthy Homes announcements still not enough. More must be done to improve housing and its contribution to respiratory illness.

CEO of Asthma New Zealand , Katheren Leitner, says more must be done to reduce New Zealand’s shockingly high rate of respiratory illness, and housing as a contributing factor. Says Katheren, “both National and Labour are promising to build more houses using a building code that created the problem in the first place. Neither approach outlined is enough to seriously impact the shocking state of NZ’s housing stock. NZ has high asthma rates, in fact one of the highest asthma rates in the world - and housing is a huge contributor to this”.

Whilst the intention to provide a warm, dry home is applauded, Katheren says “it is time to treat problems not symptoms. Do we know if what we are currently doing is working? Have we measured it? Are we using the rigor of science to improve the health of home? The purpose of our homes is to keep us safe from the outdoors”, says Katheren, “respiratory stats get thrown around at every election, as if for dramatic impact but very little with scientific rigour ever gets implemented”.

“Many people return to New Zealand having gone years overseas without any asthma flare-up and find themselves having regular asthma exacerbations. Time and again our Nurses sit in homes so cold they can see their breath when talking to patients. They go into children’s bedrooms and record internal temperatures of 9° degrees. Equally we go into homes that have heat pumps that are not being used because of the cost of power. The NZ Building Code currently has no heating requirement for homes, only for early learning centres and aged care facilities. There are many homes that meet Healthy Homes standards (underfloor and ceiling insulation along with a heat pump) yet inhabitants are sick with respiratory illnesses as a result of living in their home.” Katheren says ratings tools are helpful only if they contribute to the health and wellbeing of inhabitants.

“It is not just about ‘putting products in’, but how we are building. Air-tightness for example, it may be that the building envelope (walls, ceilings, doors and windows) has so much leakage that warm air from a heating device goes straight out through the gaps. It is great that we are pushing for floor and ceiling insulation, what about the walls? Windows are a huge issue. New builds must be double-glazed however most of the window joinery is aluminum, aluminum is the 7th best conductor of heat – put your hand on your aluminum window frames after a very cold night and the problem will be obvious. A home ventilation system is only helpful if operated exactly as per manufacturer's instructions, which includes changing filters very regularly. If you don’t, then air quality may be worse than before the system was installed. Curtains can cause even more issues as they become damp and mouldy. Moisture is only one of the issues that make up the health of a home”.

Within the Healthy Homes debate many vested interests exist, both political and commercial. Asthma New Zealand’s sole agenda is the wellbeing of patients. Asthma New Zealand nurses are in the community every day with patients - and the organisation is effectively the patient voice. Says Katheren, “Asthma New Zealand represents our most vulnerable. 87% of those living in hardship suffer from some form of respiratory illness. Our focus is on the health and wellbeing of New Zealanders, and this begins with the homes in which they find shelter”.

Katheren hopes to see the building code overhauled to deliver healthy homes as a minimum standard, and would welcome a political party that seriously commits to this.

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