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Housing a key to kids' health, study reports

Where children live can have as big an effect on their health as the food they eat, the shots they receive and the medical ailments they have at birth, according to a report released Monday.

The findings, compiled from nearly 100 anecdotes from doctors, nurses and social workers around the country, indicate doctors should ask their patients more questions about conditions at home, said Dr. Megan Sandel, one of the report's lead authors."For many of our patients, being able to get them better housing is one of the best medical interventions we can do for them to help them stay healthy," said Sandel, a pediatric resident at the inner-city Boston Medical Center, where the report was compiled.

Over the last year, the doctors received nearly 100 e-mailed anecdotes from health professionals in Boston, Los Angeles, New York, Philadelphia and Seattle, describing how bad housing adversely affected a young patient's health.

Using those stories and dozens of articles from medical journals, they estimated the impact of substandard housing on children's health. The doctors concede the figures are impossible to verify.

But the report says chronically ill children who teeter precariously between sickness and good health are more likely to suffer setbacks when their housing is inadequate.

At urban hospitals in particular, the report says, children routinely arrive in emergency rooms with problems made worse by inadequate housing: asthma from dust, mold and cockroaches, and burns from exposed heaters.

Many children also show up malnourished because their parents are forced to choose between paying the rent or buying food - a syndrome health professionals call "heat or eat."