Updated: Nov 23, 2020
Many of us are well-versed regarding the effects of diet and exercise on wellbeing, but physical environment is less often addressed.
However, it is estimated that the NHS spends at least six million pounds a year on conditions associated with poor living conditions (Parliament UK, 2011).
The Marmot Review (2010) found that there was a distinct correlation between living standards and health; it found that, excluding those with long-term disabilities, the life expectancy for the poorest communities was seventeen years lower than that of the richest.
The poorest communities also experienced the highest rates of childhood obesity and smoking, while engaging in less physical activity, and struggling to meet the five-a-day fruit and vegetable requirements.
There are a range of issues which impact on our health, including housing and community. In this article, we will look at environmental factors which contribute to poor wellbeing, and look at simple changes we can make to overcome these.
Housing is one of the most important factors for good health and wellbeing. However, according to The Health Foundation (2017), as many as 1 in 5 homes do not meet the basic living standards for the UK.
Housing can directly impact an individual’s health through risk of accidents. According the World Health Organisation (WHO), more people die from accidents in their own homes than traffic accidents; as many as 6,000 home fatalities as opposed to approximately 2,000 on the roads.
Other direct factors include building materials and construction, and radon levels:
• Mould may build up in a home as a result of damp and poor ventilation. This may lead to children developing long term conditions such as asthma and allergies.
• 1 in 10 lung cancers are caused by radon levels in the home.
Housing can also have a significant impact on mental health; in 2015, as many as 32% of homeless people reported a mental health problem, and people without a fixed address were ten times more likely to experience a depressive episode than the general population.
Among those who have a fixed address, those who live in social housing were one and a half times more likely to suffer a mental health problem, and four times more likely to state that their housing affected their health.
And the impact of housing issues in general population is prevalent; according to a study by ComRes, as many as 1 in 5 (21%) English adults surveyed reported housing impacting upon their health in the last 5 years.
Another significant factor is not just the house itself, but the wider community as a whole. The wider community influences our health and wellbeing in a range of ways; for example, water, air and food quality, security and crime, and service provision among others.
In the UK, water wholesalers have to make tap water drinkable by law, and the UK has one of the safest water supplies in the world. However, there is still some regional variation, and more affluent areas often have more funding to ensure the safety of their water.
Therefore, while there is still some ‘water inequality’, the water is generally safe and drinkable without the need to boil or purify it.
However, as many as 1 in 9 people globally do not have access to clean water. Water supplies may be polluted by lead, plastic microfibres, bacteria and parasites, synthetic hormones and drugs.
In Flint, Michigan, for example, the water supply was polluted by lead piping, leading to a water crisis. There has been evidence to suggest that poor water quality is related to racial and economic inequality, as such many people will not have the luxury of ‘just moving’.
Air pollution is a major risk factor for a number of diseases including asthma, lung cancer, ventricular hypertrophy, Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s Diseases, mental health conditions, autism, retinopathy, fatal growth and low birth weight.
Generally, our air quality in the UK is good, but poorer around more densely populated areas. As with water quality, this may mean that some groups are adversely affected by living in crowded conditions.
Many city councils have attempted to combat this by introducing more parks and ‘green spaces’ to town centres; the Air Quality Expert Group has said, however, that,
‘Overall, vegetation and trees in particular are regarded as beneficial for air quality, but they are not a solution to the air quality problems at a city scale.’
As such, as a society we should keep campaigning for greener spaces in our cities, but also consider other means of reducing air pollution, such as more public transport, less use of fossil fuels, and encouraging cycling, walking to work etc. instead of using personal vehicles.
Creating A Healthy Home
While we don’t always necessarily have a choice in where we live due to social or economic circumstances, there are certain ways we can reduce the impact on our health.
• Test your water - If you are concerned about the quality of water in your area, you can check it with a home water quality test kit, or go to the .Gov website for advice regarding reporting water issues.
• Invest in a (GOOD QUALITY) water filter - There are a number of water filters available, but most general water filters will only remove a few contaminants. Clearandwell found that Brita and Pur filters ranked poorly in water purification and product quality, however, recommended a few alternative options, such as the top-rated Berkey, or reverse-osmosis systems which are known to remove 99% of contaminants in water, among others.
• Get gardening! A study by NASA in 1989 found that a number of houseplants have the capacity to purify air in the home, reducing the impact of chemicals such as formaldehyde, benzane and trichlorothyrene. These plants include Spider Plants, Snake Plants, Peace Lilies, Devil’s Ivy, and Flamingo Flower among others.
• Reduce anxiety and stress with aromatherapy - No matter what your living situation, you can soothe your troubles with aromatherapy. A number of oils are known to help with anxiety, including lavender, chamomile, rose, yang ylang. And your home will smell nice too!
• Air purifiers - Most air purifiers remove particles such as dust from the atmosphere, making them useful if you have asthma or allergies. However, many do not remove harmful gases such as VOCs (volatile organic compounds) or Radon.
If you are concerned with either of these gases, an alternative to neutralise these would be a carbon air filter. However, they are quite expensive, so check your radon levels before investing. As a general rule, radon areas in the UK are highest in the north, South West, Wales and Birmingham.
• Air dehumidifiers - If you have a problem with mould in your home, you may also choose to try an air dehumidifier. These can be useful if you have asthma and/or allergies to certain mould spores. You can also buy all-in-one purifiers and dehumidifiers.
* Self-building – If it’s an option, then building your home as opposed to buying it can save you money and allow you to create something perfectly suited to your needs.
• Chemical cleaning sprays may have adverse effects. There is evidence that they can trigger and even cause respiratory problems, irritate the eyes or throat, cause headaches, and even cancers. You may wish to swap your usual cleaning products for eco-friendly alternatives, or perhaps make your own.
Our environment is a central part of our wellbeing, so it is crucial to make our homes the healthiest places that they can be. But it’s wider than just us.
For our own health, and the health of our families, we need to keep our homes safe, but also to stay involved with social environmental issues to ensure living standards are upheld in our communities.