Our interior spaces have an enormous impact on our health and productivity. From designing for an active lifestyle to proper lighting, insulation, and acoustics, how we build our buildings matters. One often overlooked aspect of how buildings influence people’s health are the chemicals found in building materials.
Globally, there are limited regulations of chemicals used within building products, and unfortunately there are toxic chemicals found in some everyday building products that have the potential to harm human and environmental health.
Evidence increasingly shows that toxic chemical exposures in general are costing countries billions of dollars and millions of IQ points. Although these toxic chemicals affect all of us, they are disproportionately impacting the health of children, communities of colour, and low-income families.
Building and construction materials contribute to these potential exposures. Because we spend an estimated 90 per cent of our time indoors, we are constantly interacting with the materials that surround us, creating countless opportunities for exposure.
Toxic chemicals can have huge and complex impacts on the health and wellbeing of people and the environment not just when installed in indoor spaces, but also throughout a product’s entire life cycle. For example, communities near factories can be exposed to air pollution and industrial waste during the manufacturing of products, workers can be exposed on the job during the manufacturing and installation processes, and building occupants can be exposed while the product is in use. Some individuals suffer multiple exposures because they are affected in all of those instances.
In addition, toxic chemicals can be released when materials are disposed of or recycled. When manufacturers use recycled materials in new products, sometimes toxic chemicals come along for the ride, inhibiting a circular economy and exposing more individuals to hazardous chemicals—even those that have been phased out as intentional content in products. For recycling to work and subsequently reduce waste, toxic chemicals must first be eliminated from products.
The rise in construction taking place means more materials and greater potential impacts. It is estimated that over the next 35 years, 2.5 trillion square feet of buildings will be renovated or constructed globally, an area equal to the entire current global building stock.
There are many examples of hazardous chemicals in building products, in homes, and ultimately in people. Your choice of drywall could release mercury into the environment. Your paint could have chemicals that interfere with how hormones work in the body. Your insulation could include an asthmagen. Your carpet could introduce toxic “forever” chemicals into your home. Chemicals can migrate from products into the air in buildings or can deposit on surfaces or dust, where people can be exposed by inhaling or ingesting it or through direct absorption through our skin.
Young children often see greater exposures because of their smaller, developing bodies. They frequently place their hands in their mouths, ingesting dust and the chemicals that lodge on dust particles, and breathe up to three times more air pound-for-pound than adults. Some of these chemicals can also pass from mothers to babies through the placenta or breast milk. In fact, a study showed that babies may be born with over 200 chemical pollutants already in their blood.
In the age of COVID, it’s also important to consider how chemical exposures influence our ability to fight disease. In addition to contributing to underlying conditions that make individuals more susceptible to adverse impacts from COVID-19, such as cancer, some chemicals can also impact our immune systems’ ability to fight infectious disease and the effectiveness of vaccines.
The COVID crisis has also led to an increase in marketing messages containing questionable health claims around antimicrobials added to myriad products, including building materials. While some products need antimicrobial preservatives to protect the product itself from mould, mildew, or spoilage, antimicrobial technologies added to products have not been shown to have any human health benefits. There is no evidence that the addition of antimicrobials to building products lowers the rate of infection; in fact, some antimicrobial substances can cause direct physical harm to human health.
So, what can you do?
One important step toward safer materials is an understanding of what products are made of and whether or not they are hazardous. We believe you have a right to know what’s in the materials in your buildings, and an increasing number of building product manufacturers are disclosing this information through programs like the Health Product Declaration (HPD) and Declare. Transparency is the first step to understanding and avoiding hazardous impacts on building occupants and throughout the lifecycle of a product.
Awareness about these issues is growing, and demand for safer materials is driving innovation. For example, many manufacturers have already phased out the “forever” chemicals once pervasive in carpet, and some large retailers have introduced policies to remove them from the products they sell. Despite the lack of regulatory pressure on chemicals in products, change is still possible. When product specifiers and purchasers know what to ask for and exert their collective power, markets can move for the better.
Try starting with interior finishes, for example:
- Prefer products that have disclosed content through Health Product Declarations.
- Choose drywall made from natural gypsum and avoid synthetic or FGD gypsum.
- Choose paint that is low in VOC content and emissions, and free of alkylphenol ethoxylates (APEs).
- Choose a safer flooring product type such as linoleum or ceramic tiles rather than vinyl.
- Choose a safer insulation product type such as fiberglass insulation or formaldehyde-free mineral wool insulation.
- Avoid building products marketed as “antimicrobial” or “containing antimicrobials” and making health claims.
Each decision you make about the materials you use, each step toward using healthier products, can have big impacts within a housing unit, a building, and in the broader environment. Collectively, these individual decisions also influence manufacturers to provide better, more transparent products for us all. Ultimately, this can reduce the hazardous chemicals not just in our buildings, but also in our bodies.
Not sure where to begin? Resources to help you understand toxic chemicals in building products and make safer material selections are available from Healthy Building Network. Check out these product guidance resources for information on safer paints, floors, insulation, and more.
Rebecca Stamm, senior researcher, works with the team at HBN to conduct vital building materials research. She has a B.S. from Rose-Hulman Institute of Technology and M.S. from Purdue University, where she studied Chemical Engineering with a focus on materials. Rebecca has worked extensively in materials research, including more than three years in building materials manufacturing and six years of building product and chemical hazard research and analysis at HBN.
Since 2000, HBN has defined the leading edge of healthy building practices that increase transparency in the building products industry, reduce human exposures to hazardous chemicals, and create market incentives for healthier innovations in manufacturing. A team of researchers, engineers, scientists, building experts, and educators work to reduce toxic chemical use, minimize hazards, and eliminate exposure, especially to those chemicals of concern that are deemed unnecessary or fail to improve product performance. HBN promotes the development of affordable green chemistry solutions that support a healthy, successful, circular economy.