Regulating the Great Indoors

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Scholar argues that environmental law and policy should expand its scope to inside areas.

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Americans spend nearly 90 percent of their days indoors. Yet, existing environmental regulations do not cover indoor areas. This begs the question: How safe is the air we breathe inside our own homes?

In a recent paper, Arden Rowell, a professor at the University of Illinois College of Law, argues that effective environmental law and policy should include not only the outside world, but also the inside world.

Most current environmental law and policy echoes popular beliefs about what constitutes the environment—the natural, outside world. Environmental legislation itself, however, does not usually specify that the environment it seeks to regulate is solely the outdoor environment. For example, the U.S. National Environmental Policy Act aims to regulate the “human environment” with no signifiers that the environment constitutes the outdoors alone.

In Rowell’s conception of the environment, land is not devoid of its status as a part of the environment after four walls are built on it. Rowell defines the environment as “an interconnected whole.”

Rowell explains that most statutes governing air pollution typically apply only to outdoor contexts. To illustrate, she points to the federal Clean Air Act, which regulates air pollution, and explains that it only covers outdoor air quality, leaving indoor air quality wholly unregulated by the statute.

Rowell describes various instances where indoor environmental quality issues emerge and are handled only by a “patchwork of legal approaches and theories” that fill in the gaps. She explains that indoor environmental quality issues are covered by other approaches, including tort law, property law, and landlord and tenant law, and by various different federal and state actors.

This patchwork includes regulation by agencies that traditionally do not enforce environmental protections but supplement with indoor air quality recommendations and standards. For example, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration has issued warnings about the carcinogenic effects of inhaling the residual particles left from vaping indoors. And the Occupational Safety and Health Administration has issued standards for indoor air quality in workplaces.

Organizations, such as the World Health Organization, which issued guidance about harmful indoor air pollutants from gas stoves, are another part of the patchwork of law and policy for indoor areas.

And tort law also functions to protect consumers’ indoor environment, providing a means through which consumers or residents can seek recourse for harms caused by environmental quality issues. For instance, scholars have called for tort action to protect inmates experiencing severe illnesses after confinement in a prison built over a toxic waste site.

Rowell argues, however, that this patchwork system is insufficient to ensure safe indoor environments. Instead, she proposes the adoption of comprehensive environmental regulations at the federal level that specifically address indoor air quality.

Rowell suggests that lawmakers should amend environmental statutes to incorporate indoor spaces. Rowell hopes that traditional environmental law experts and environmental researchers can work together with legislators to establish indoor environmental quality standards and regulations. Because many outdoor environmental issues are mirrored in the indoor environment, Rowell notes that lawmakers can apply existing standards and requirements to indoor spaces.

Rowell concedes, however, that concerns about overreaching by the federal government may present challenges in integrating indoor spaces in environmental law and policy.

The Commerce Clause and Property Clause of the U.S. Constitution, for example, would allow the government to regulate many government-owned indoor spaces, some indoor work places, and mobile environments, such as cars and planes.

Regulation that impacts indoor spaces, such as private homes and religious facilities, may be harder to issue because they are not automatically covered by power-granting constitutional clauses. Rowell explains that the government’s ability to exercise federal jurisdiction over privately owned indoor spaces will depend on how broadly the government’s authorities are interpreted.

Rowell concludes that environmental laws that fail to regulate indoor spaces are ineffective at protecting humans from certain environmental hazards. As the outdoor environment becomes increasingly hostile to human life, regulating indoor air quality is integral to protecting human health.