How the materials you choose affect our health

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Materials can pose potential health issues

With modern lifestyles that are increasingly focused on indoor activities, architects—and the buildings they design—play an enormous role in the public’s health and well-being. Certain design elements, such as inviting stairways and plenty of natural light, are obvious methods to enhance the health of building occupants. So, too, are the avoidance of known toxic substances, such as asbestos and lead. But the growing use and intricacy of chemically treated and synthetic materials that make up our buildings make for a more complicated picture. The materials we select for the buildings where we live, work, learn, and play can cause potential long-term health issues for all occupants.

Air quality

Typically, the primary gauge for the impact of materials on health has been air quality. The materials we choose can affect the air we breathe at every stage of the process, from manufacturing, to construction, to active use and maintenance, and finally to end-of-life recycling or disposal. In some cases, emissions are byproducts of the manufacturing or construction processes needed to make or utilize the material. These processes can lead to undue impacts on the fenceline communities near factories, including a decreased standard of air quality.

In other cases, the materials themselves can emit sometimes-dangerous compounds during active use. For instance, the recognition of the negative health effects of volatile organic compounds (VOCs) has led to the proliferation of low-VOC options in paints, carpets, cabinets, and other products. And of course, architects today would never consider specifying asbestos, with our now-common knowledge of the once-ubiquitous material’s links to lung cancers and other diseases.  

Absorption

Harmful chemicals contained in building materials can also be absorbed through contact with skin. For instance, Chromated copper arsenic (CCA), a pesticide/preservative to guard against lumber rotting in outdoor use (e.g., decks), was phased out by the EPA in the early 2000s because the arsenic could be present in the surface of treated wood, exposing anyone coming in contact to arsenic via absorption. Like many toxic materials, this is a concern in particular for children, who can also ingest substances through commonplace hand-to-mouth contact.

Other materials that raise concerns surrounding absorption include phthalates, or plasticizers. These chemicals are used to manufacture plastics, including flexible polyvinyl chloride (PVC), and are used everywhere from flooring to upholstery to wall coverings to ceilings and roofs. Phthalates are also common in many household items, including food packaging, toys, and personal hygiene items; but as some phthalates are known endocrine disruptors, they can have unwanted or unknown effects on the human hormone system, including reproductive hormones.

Taking action

Fortunately, our growing understanding of the complex interactions between human health and the built environment is driving the availability of health-focused materials information, as architects ask for additional information and manufacturers respond. Resources such as Health Product Declarations® (HPDs) and Declare labels, product certifications such as Cradle to Cradle, and certification and rating programs like LEED v4, WELL Building Standard, and Living Building Challenge provide architects and clients important information and incentives to consider potential health issues associated with materials.

Health Product Declarations

The Health Product Declaration® (HPD) Open Standard provides a standardized reporting format for building product contents and related health data. Created by a product’s manufacturer, a completed HPD reports building product ingredients, including residuals, at various thresholds as low as 100 parts per million. They are an excellent tool to obtain more detailed information about material ingredients and potential health issues, but do not include any analysis of that information. For in-depth recommendations, designers may consult with materials science professionals.

Cradle to Cradle Material Health Certificate

Materials disclosures are often complex and require expert analysis to interpret the data. Third party certifications, such as Cradle to Cradle’s Materials Health Certificate (C2C MH), describe whether a product meets certain standards for chemical disclosure and makes continual progress towards eliminating potentially harmful substances. The C2C MH is issued at four levels of performance: Bronze, Silver, Gold, and Platinum. Each level represents additional rigor in assessing a percentage of product ingredients and removing chemicals of concern. Third party certifications are key to making informed decisions based on potential health impacts. We offer guidance on how and when to use materials transparency information in our Materials Transparency and Risk for Architects white paper.

Keeping health at the forefront of decision

As we continue to learn more about the role the built environment, and the materials within it can affect human health, architects and designers will face a growing demand to incorporate these considerations into their work. Focusing on expanding our arsenal of information—and our understanding of how to best utilize that information—will go a long way in advancing responsible design that makes health a top priority.

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