Tanya T. Mejia and Anna Suarez

Protecting Public Health from Household and Construction Chemicals

Downtown Washington, DC

This post was written by Tanya T. Mejia, AICP, LEED AP BD+C, WELL AP AIA|DC -- of Perkins Eastman Architects and the AIA|DC Design and Wellbeing Committee -- and Anna Suarez -- of the Mesothelioma + Asbestos Awareness Center.

The role of the built environment in promoting health and well-being is a growing trend in the spheres of public health, building design, and urban planning. Consumers and occupants have increasing demands for transparency on topics such as nutrition, material safety, and chemical concerns. In the building industry, designers, and manufacturers have the responsibility to provide guidance for building design and product selection, while simultaneously staying up-to-date and informed on the most important considerations and strategies. Increasingly, the selection and management of building materials are at the forefront of both managing negative health risks and of designing environments which positively contribute to occupant health.

In considering environmental factors which could negatively impact human health, those existing closest to home are often overlooked. Although conversations about pollution conjure images of smokestacks, the reality is there are much less obvious materials which can have a substantial impact on health. The degree to which a pollutant affects health depends on its concentration and length of time of exposure. The average American spends 90% of their time indoors, making the impact of any pollutants in the indoor environment very significant. These pollutants can include minor irritants such as odors, or more serious chemicals can serve as asthmagen triggers, endocrine disruptors, or carcinogenic materials.

Pollutants can be introduced into the indoor environment by the very materials used to construct the building. Designing for improved air quality by requesting information on material content, utilizing passive design strategies, and incorporating ventilation best practices is a way to combat the health risks and establish healthy indoor environments. While there are obvious physical benefits such as reducing the prevalence of sick building syndrome or periods of poor air quality, incorporating sustainable building strategies can also improve the overall performance of occupants. According to a study from Harvard University, indoor air quality can impact building occupants across nine different intellectual categories, such as responding to crises, strategizing ideas, and utilizing information. The average cognitive function scores were 61% higher in green buildings as compared to conventional buildings.

Consumers assume that dangerous chemicals are regulated by government agencies, but most often, the optimizing the built environment for human health and safety happens in the private sector. With the vast quantities of new products and chemicals, combined with limited resources at the federal level, we cannot rely on government regulations alone to ensure that buildings achieve their highest capacity for positive health effects. When the Toxic Substances Control Act (TSCA) was passed in 1976, more than 60,000 known chemicals were grandfathered into use at the time and assumed to be safe unless proven otherwise. Since that time, thousands of chemicals have come into the market with little to no verification of known risks.

As an example of an existing toxicant, asbestos is a known cause of serious lung diseases and the only proven cause of mesothelioma, an extremely aggressive cancer. In 1989, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) issued a ruling banning asbestos-containing materials under the Toxic Substances Control Act. However, only two years later, this decision was overturned by the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals for not meeting the high burden of proof established by TSCA. Today asbestos is a highly regulated material, but because it was so widely used in previous decades, it can still be encountered during the renovation, maintenance, or demolition of older buildings. It is estimated that insulation contaminated with asbestos can still be found in 15-35 million buildings in the United States. Other common places in which asbestos can be found include insulation around pipes, furnaces, textured paints and patching (e.g., popcorn ceilings), and vinyl flooring materials.

Last year the Frank R. Lautenberg Chemical Safety for the 21st Century Act was signed, requiring the EPA to evaluate the chemicals included in TSCA. The first group of chemicals under review includes asbestos and nine others. Hopefully, this will provide a path to banning or further restricting the manufacture and use of these dangerous materials, but this will likely be a slow process. A final decision is not expected anytime soon and, in the meantime, professionals in the building industry still have to address toxins and air quality concerns across a spectrum of products and building types.

The selection of materials has always been fundamental to the craft and science of architecture and the larger building industry. The considerations concerning the impact of materials on building occupants have become more complex as our knowledge of chemicals has evolved. With an increasing focus on health and well-being in the marketplace, the building industry needs to take a holistic approach to the selection and use of building materials and consider the health impacts of building materials on occupants and the public. However, with an already overwhelming array of factors and deadlines to consider in any building project, how can designers incorporate the promotion of public health through responsible material use and selection?

A key step is to establish a system of continued education and information exchange for designers, clients, and manufacturers. To understand how to best select and design for better material choices, designers must first understand what is in a variety of building products. Designers can call on manufacturers to disclose the content of their products, similar to a nutrition label so that any known risks can be identified. Once the content of products is known, design professionals and manufacturers can then work to optimize the selection and design of products to cause the least harm and ideally result in positive health outcomes.

Fortunately, there are now dozens of programs, labels, and certifications to assist in the disclosure, transparency, and optimization process. With established frameworks, information can be more readily translated and used to inform the product selection process. While the array of information can be overwhelming, online databases such as Portico (currently limited to an Early Access Program) and Mindful Materials (powered by GIGA’s Origin) provide a searchable compilation of products that lists all known applicable information for each product. Manufacturers can stay on the forefront of the market by submitting relevant information, and designers can start to make more informed choices based on that information. Design firms can also enroll in the Mindful Materials program and inventory their existing material libraries to eliminate products of concern.

Additionally, there are now several green building certification programs that address material health within a whole-building framework, for both new and existing buildings. Some of the most prevalent certification programs include LEED v4 (which includes new credits around material transparency), the Living Building Challenge “Red List” (which lists specific chemicals to avoid in products), and the WELL Building Standard (which includes material health strategies, asbestos remediation requirements, and air quality monitoring).

While design professionals are not typically scientists or toxicologists, they are still in the position to advise clients on the impact of material selection on air quality and health outcomes and discuss how they can best meet specific goals for each project. The American Institute of Architects released a white paper in 2016 detailing how professionals can manage risk while advancing material health considerations and industry ethics on their projects. Increasingly, clients look to designers to provide recommendations on issues of remediation and renovations, material selection, and health and well-being for occupants. Additionally, many corporations and healthcare providers, such as Google and Kaiser Permanente, are already banning certain material ingredients in their properties.

While the health risks of certain products such as asbestos have largely made it into the mainstream consciousness, there is a multitude of chemicals and products for which the potential health impacts have not yet been fully established. For design firms, it may help to identify critical materials for each project type and prioritize the understanding and selection of those products. For example, avoiding asthma-inducing chemicals in a senior living facility, identifying potential asbestos contamination in an existing residential renovation, or prioritizing healthier flooring materials in a daycare may become part of the project goals for occupant health.

As the building industry continues to trend toward greater occupant health and safety, professionals in the field will have to meet the growing demands of clients. The tools and standards which have already developed in response to this need will greatly help designers and architects alike. Hopefully, these standards will continue to permeate and become integrated within educational programs as well as internal corporate and institutional standards so that health can be recognized as a significant aspect of sustainability.