In addition to the smog on the horizon searing our lungs, the sun’s ultraviolet rays baking our skin, and the distracted driver bearing down on us as we cross the street, we can add to our list of potential health concerns the walls, flooring, pipes and other components of the buildings we live, work and play in.

As the post-industrial era deepens, maybe we should start wearing hazmat suits.

In addition to the smog on the horizon searing our lungs, the sun’s ultraviolet rays baking our skin, and the distracted driver bearing down on us as we cross the street, we can add to our list of potential health concerns the walls, flooring, pipes and other components of the buildings we live, work and play in.

As the post-industrial era deepens, maybe we should start wearing hazmat suits.

According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), Americans spend approximately 90 percent of their time indoors. While we might think we’re safer inside, building materials, which don’t currently have ingredients lists, are getting more complex — and sometimes more toxic — all the time. Indoor environments are a growing health concern. 

Asbestos removal worker via Shutterstock.

Health concerns about our indoor environment are nothing new. Asbestos, a naturally occurring mineral once widely employed by the building industry because of its insulating and fire-retarding properties, has been shown to cause lung cancer and mesothelioma. Its use is now tightly regulated. 

More recently, the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission launched what it would later characterize as "the largest compliance investigation in agency history" after the commission began receiving complaints in 2008 from people living in homes constructed with imported drywall (drywall panels, also known as "wallboard," are fastened to wooden studs after a home is framed, then spackled and painted, to construct the walls and ceilings of many homes).

Much of the drywall was later traced to China. In lab tests, some but not all Chinese drywall samples emitted hydrogen sulfide gas at higher rates than U.S.-made products. Tests showed a strong association between the gas’s presence and corrosion of metal parts in affected homes, most of which were built in 2006 and 2007.

Although testing demonstrated that gas emissions were significantly reduced over time, the commission requested that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) consider undertaking a comprehensive study of potential long-term health effects. In February 2011, the CDC announced that the evidence of potential health effects it had evaluated did not warrant such a study.

However, there is a movement to require that drywall be marked with the manufacturer’s name or a unique identification code, the manufacture date, and the source materials.

While the highly visible nature of the corrosion blamed on drywall led some homeowners to worry about health effects, other building materials may pose greater risks.

Knowns and unknowns

The concern today is not primarily over things that we know about. It’s about the potential health effects of chemicals — and, at times, the materials themselves — that are components of building materials of whose presence, or toxicity, we are often unaware.

Some are hiding in plain sight, like polyvinyl chloride (PVC), commonly used for plumbing.

Others, like formaldehyde, used as an adhesive in wood products, are not easy to identify because of a lack of labeling on building products.

The same can be said of pesticides and flame retardants, epoxy coatings, polyurethane and bisphenol A (BPA).

Two emerging recycled products — fly ash and synthetic gypsum, both byproducts of coal-fired power plants — are causing some alarm.

Synthetic gypsum is used in 45 percent of today’s wallboard, said Jim Vallete, a senior researcher with the Healthy Building Network, a nonprofit that advocates for greater transparency in building materials.

According to tests done by the EPA, it’s also been shown to have higher concentrations of mercury, a known developmental toxicant, than regular wallboard.

Coal fly ash, which also can contain toxic levels of mercury and other toxins, is used as filler in cements, wood products, carpeting and other building materials. Vallete estimates that fly ash is found in 20 percent of carpet backing.

Another emerging building material, spray polyurethane insulation, comes with health concerns, as well. While it is easy to apply and contributes greatly to a building’s energy efficiency, it is a suspected neurotoxicant.

Health concerns over flame retardants, some of which have been linked to reproductive health issues and others, are among a few building materials that public attention has flared up over recently.

BPA is another. A 2008 National Institutes of Health study concluded that BPA — often used to line plastic and metal containers to prevent corrosion — is a likely contributor to the development of breast cancer and cancers of bone marrow and lymph nodes, among other blood-producing areas of the body.

While many manufacturers have voluntarily stopped using BPA in baby bottles and other containers used to store food and beverages, the substance is still found in paints, floor sealants and flooring adhesives.

While consumers have expressed concerns about the toxicity of BPA-lined food and beverage containers, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration has rejected a ban on BPA in food and beverage containers. The FDA encourages food and beverage manufacturers to voluntarily share how much and where BPA may be in packaging or to eliminate it. And some have.

Adding to the issue’s complexity is a growing awareness of the potential adverse health effects surrounding a product’s full life cycle.

PVC, for example — currently the third most used plastic in the U.S. — has long been used in plumbing and pipes that convey water. But one of the chemical components key to its manufacture, a class of chemicals known as dioxins, is a known carcinogen and developmental toxicant.

PVC piping via Shutterstock.

Dioxins are released at the end of PVC products’ life cycle, slowly leaching into the groundwater at landfills or escaping into the air when it’s sometimes burned.

The Healthy Building Network estimates that of the 30 million tons of PVC produced globally each year, 75 percent goes to building materials.

The popular U.S. Green Building Council’s (USGBC) Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) rating system has responded. In 2011, it launched the LEED for Healthcare rating system, which bans PVC from projects it accredits.

Lack of transparency

A lot of the time, there’s no real way for a builder — or us — to know if PVC, BPA, coal fly ash, synthetic gypsum or other potentially hazardous materials are in a building.

Perkins + Will, a Chicago-based architectural firm, has made this unknowability a focus. The firm runs a project that lists building material components (along with their known or suspected health effects) in an effort to encourage transparency in the building field.

The project, and its precautionary list of 25 building materials it recommends builders and consumers be aware of, has gained national attention. Some of the more well-known chemicals on the list include: arsenic, BPA, mercury, polyurethane foam (used in insulation), PVC, and urea-formaldehyde (see the full list here).

The transparency project has logical beginnings. When the firm set out to design a cancer center at Maimonides Hospital in Brooklyn, N.Y., which opened in 2003, it wanted to do the sensible thing: construct and outfit the center with building materials that contained no known or suspected carcinogens.

Turns out this was an impossible task — though the firm came close to its goal.

If it’s impossible to design and build a toxic-free cancer center, leaders in the firm thought, what about homes or office buildings, that no one has specifically set out to make nontoxic?

Given the nature of the modern era, there’s no way to have perfectly harmless building materials, said Peter Syrett, a Perkins + Will architect who runs the firm’s transparency project with a colleague.

We made a complicated world. "Name a ‘green’ product? I really can’t," Syrett said in an interview with Inman News. "It’s not how we [as a culture] do things now."

Well, he can name one.

"I was in Mali. I saw a guy repairing his house. He had a bucket of water; he would scoop up earth to make mud and lather the mud into the wall," Syrett said in an interview with the New York Times earlier this year. "That’s a sustainable product."

It’s not about finding a perfectly harmless product, however.

Mud dwelling image via Shutterstock.

Beyond a return to the prehistory of mud huts and reed cabanas, building products, as fully modern materials, come in, at best, only shades of green, Syrett said — one of the compromises of civilization.

Some large companies have jumped on board with the transparency movement. Google, for example, demands transparency for all of the products that go into the new buildings it erects.

Since there’s no ingredient list that accompanies most building products like the one that comes with our frozen burrito or our cup of yogurt, the company sends a questionnaire to the building products manufacturer to learn what’s in each product.

As awareness grows there are more tools for builders to use. The Pharos Project, an endeavor of the Healthy Building Network, aims to provide information on where to get building materials that have full disclosures.

The new green

Some, including the almighty market, see health as the new green.

And health is a lot easier to understand, and possibly to care about, than certain notions of "green," which tend to settle into hard-to-place abstractions.

"Not everybody understands what sustainability is," said Aaron Smith, director of sustainable building solutions at Assa Abloy, a global manufacturer of door-related products, "but most people understand human health."

Green building image via Shutterstock.

Assa Abloy, in response to growing customer demand, Smith said, has found less-toxic materials to plate its metal goods with, has eliminated some hazardous cleaning chemicals, has removed PVC from all of its products where found, and is trying to eliminate formaldehyde from all its door products.

Citing the Perkins + Will Transparency guide and the Living Building Challenge as inspirations for the movement and growing customer demand for healthy building products, there has been progress, he said. Though some items are proving harder to eliminate than others.

PVC was doable, Smith said, but formaldehyde, a cheap, effective bonding agent used in many wood products and which customers are increasingly demanding elimination of, is proving more difficult. Formaldehyde is a suspected carcinogen and can cause asthma in some people.

There’s just not a lot of economical substitutes for formaldehyde available right now, Smith said. But he expects that to change as demand for its removal continues to grow.

Real estate developers, too, are becoming aware of the health effects of the products in their buildings.

But it’s a big challenge finding products that are both healthy and durable, said Amanda Kaminsky, sustainable construction manager for New York City-based The Durst Organization Inc.

Because of the company’s business model of long-term ownership, it has begun to focus on the potential health impacts to tenants of each component of its buildings, Kaminsky said.

BPA in epoxies and resilient flooring has been a particularly difficult building product to work around, she said, because suitable substitutes are difficult to find.

Gray shades of green

And as health concerns rise with building products, sometimes the "green" building industry is at odds with itself.

The popular USGBC LEED rating system, for example, gives credit for recycled content. However, sometimes that recycled content has adverse health effects, said Bill Walsh, founder and executive director of the Healthy Building Network.

Fly ash and synthetic gypsum, coal-fired power plant byproducts, are two prime examples. It’s increasingly sustainable, economically and environmentally, not to dig new gypsum out of the earth for this filler. But is it healthy?

More stringent air pollution controls require coal-fired power plants to clean their combustion exhaust. The result is fewer heavy metals and toxicants in the air, but more in the fly ash and synthetic gypsum, which are used more and more as a recycled product in building materials.

This is just one example of the complexity of modern buildings, the health concerns they provoke, and the minefield we must pass through as we enter the next era of sustainability (and what it means).

But this complexity is beginning to be addressed as the indoor environmental health of the buildings we live in becomes a growing topic of attention.

Whatever happens, it won’t be a black-and-white solution, said Chris Youssef, an interior designer at Perkins + Will who helps run the firm’s transparency project with Peter Syrett.

In reality, it’s a weighing system, Youssef said. "Every modern material has a problem with it," he said.

"People want red lists," he said. "It’s not about that."

It’s simply about making building materials healthier.

"We want manufacturers to come to us and ask, ‘What can we do better?’" Youssef said.

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