The health of buildings and that of their occupants are intrinsically connected.
As data show that people spend up to 90% of their time inside buildings, it is crucial that these structures are designed and constructed in safe and healthy ways for their occupants.
Humans surrounding themselves in built structures for much of their lives begs the question: what is the built environment made of? 30,000 pounds of industrial chemicals are produced per person every year in the United States, and many of these are used in building products. Plastics and other materials used in building products can contain a variety of chemicals, such as PFAS (per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances), flame retardants, and phthalates. Many of these chemicals serve a purpose in the built environment, but research demonstrates that these chemicals can have negative consequences for human health. And in many cases, safer alternatives are available.
The production of building materials affects human health during all phases of the life cycle (of both building products and humans). And not everyone is affected equally.
The Collaborative for Health and Environment (CHE) recently hosted a webinar series to explore the impact of building products on human health. Green Building Alliance was proud to partner with CHE, BlueGreen Alliance, the Program on Reproductive Health and the Environment, Healthy Building Network, the Center for Environmental Health, and the Children’s Environmental Health Network for this important discussion! Below are some important takeaways from the three webinars.
The Building Materials Life Cycle & Human Health
During the manufacturing process, the production of materials like plastic or steel can release harmful compounds like acetone or benzene into air, water and soil.. Exposure to these compounds is not only an occupational hazard for workers, but also for people who may live or work near these manufacturing plants. Exposure to these chemical byproducts can also adversely impact the development of children and pregnant women.
Installation and Use
During installation and over the course of the useful life of the product, additives to these building products can be released, causing harm to construction workers and building users who occupy the space. These additives may persist in the air or on surfaces long after the initial installation if not cleaned stringently— and paradoxically, even certain cleaning products can endanger building users. Dust that builds up in homes and workplaces can also contain traces of chemicals like fire retardants and lead.
Once building materials have reached the end of their useful life, or if the building itself gets demolished, its materials must be disposed. One of the most common methods, incineration, can release more hazardous chemical byproducts into the atmosphere, again affecting the health of nearby individuals.
How are Building Materials Affecting Human Health?
When individuals are exposed to toxic chemicals, adverse health effects can occur. They may not be present immediately in all cases, but they can begin affecting human health before humans are even born.
Toxic chemical exposures during pregnancy, infancy, and childhood are a particular concern. These chemicals can affect fetal development--one study found that babies are born with 200 industrial chemicals and pollutants already detectable in their bloodstream. Chemicals like phthalates or volatile organic compounds (VOCs) can have negative neurological, endocrine and respiratory effects, leading to the development of chronic illnesses like asthma or learning disabilities in young children.
As children begin crawling and exploring the built environment by themselves, they can come in contact with contaminants present in furniture, on surfaces of floors and walls, and even in building insulation. A study in California found that polybrominated diphenyl ethers (PBDE) levels in young children’s blood are equivalent to the amount of those found in the bloodstreams of adults occupationally exposed to those chemicals. Chemicals in cleaning products used to disinfect these spaces can also adversely affect the health of young children.
Environmental Justice Impacts
The adverse health impacts of toxic chemicals in building products affect different populations with varying severity. Socioeconomic differences are one of the factors influencing the way that these risks spread over populations. In that regard, as is often the case with other environmental and human health issues, Black, Indigenous, and People of Color (BIPOC) communities may be disproportionately exposed to certain chemicals.
Many chemical manufacturing and refining plants are located in low-income communities of color, meaning that BIPOC individuals are disproportionately exposed to these chemicals in their home environments. Older homes in low-income communities often still contain dangerous building materials such as lead. These homes are also more likely to have structural inadequacies, like a poor air exchange rate, that expose inhabitants to potentially dangerous conditions outdoors.
More robust science and policy solutions, as well as safer product selection during the construction process, are needed to protect human health from these hazardous chemicals in building products. These solutions must be designed and implemented in an equitable and inclusive manner to create a sustainable and healthy environment for all communities.
Solutions Moving Forward
Informed Building Product Selection
Those making decisions about new construction and renovations of existing buildings can make choices that help to protect occupants from chemical exposure, at least until policy catches up with the scientific data on healthy materials and practices. Making more informed building decisions and choosing better products can protect vulnerable and historically marginalized populations, specifically low-income communities and communities of color, who are often disproportionately exposed to toxic chemicals.
Investigating sustainability and health information over the complete lifecycle of each product (manufacturing, installation, use and disposal) will result in healthier buildings for all.
According to Healthy Building Network, renovations that select carpeting and furniture without PFAS see a reduction in accumulated PFAS by 78%. The Silent Spring Institute also found that replacing furniture in homes and buildings significantly reduced exposure to flame retardants. A study by the Natural Resources Defense Council, Healthy Building Network, and partner organizations compared insulation products with one another. All the products pose some hazards, but the study found that fiberglass insulation products, with roughly 35% of hazardous additives unlike their counterparts with >90%, are comparatively healthier than insulators like spray foam, mineral wool, and other products that have been treated with formaldehyde and flame retardants.
Healthy Building Network, in an effort to make building product information more accessible, compiled a health ranking for building products that is free and available to the public. Materials like flooring, insulation, paint, adhesives, and more are listed here from “best” (green) to least favorable (red) and includes extensive information to expand on each items’ ranking.
Additionally, activity patterns of property owners and tenants can also create a healthier environment within buildings. Habits like regularly removing the dust (where hazardous chemicals tend to collect), cleaning with healthy household products, and opening windows for better air flow can all reduce the exposure to harmful chemicals indoors.
Increasing the overall demand for proven healthier building products, more retailers and manufacturers may follow through updating current practices and ensuring better, healthier materials and production methods. Following a consistent push from consumers, expect greater product transparency from companies and an increase in pursuing clean and green certifications like International Living Future’s Declare, or Products Innovation Institute’s Cradle-to-Cradle, to make purchasing decisions easier.
Crucial Policy Changes
Other interventions that can ensure better building in every community are changes to policy and to the science that influences it. The federal Toxic Substances Control Act (TSCA) provides authority for EPA to address chemical hazards, but implementation has been slow and incomplete. Ideally, it is recommended for the EPA to start considering more exposure pathways, quantify those exposures and associated health risks to include chronic diseases (not just cancer) across populations and improve the use of science in policy making. It is also imperative that the science used to collect this data be expanded and improved. More information about what EPA can do now is available from the Program on Reproductive Health and the Environment.
Funding For Healthy Buildings
For private residents, individual homeowners, and even public housing authorities and other institutional builders, making healthier building decisions is easier said than done. Even if all the information is readily available, the funds might not be. Luckily, there are many federal and local programs available to help offset the cost of home improvements and may make clean and green materials more accessible.
At the federal level, incentives like those included in the Inflation Reduction Act offer tax credits for specific home improvements lending to efforts positively affecting climate change. Other programs include the Healthy Homes Partnership and the Healthy Homes Demonstration grant program. Habitat for Humanity also offers a home repair program, helping families to maintain safe and healthy homes. More local opportunities include the Allegheny Home Improvement Program which offers low-interest and no-interest loans to low-income families to rehabilitate or improve their homes, and the Urban Redevelopment Authority which offers a variety of home assistance programs, including home-improvement loans with no repayments due so long as the owner continues to occupy the home.
Healthy Buildings for All
Toxic chemicals in building products impact the well-being of everyone who spends time indoors, especially communities that are at a historical disadvantage. Spending 90% of our time inside means that the buildings in which we learn, work, and play, as well as the materials they are made with, matter. By using available knowledge and resources to make more informed purchasing decisions, and by pushing for improved transparency, science, and policies, we can move forward toward healthier and more sustainable buildings for all.
If you would like to learn more, all three webinars in this series along with many others dealing with similar topics are available on the Collaborative for Health and the Environment website.