Materials in Buildings: the impact on health of those who work, learn and play within them.

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“the next phase of market transformation for the built environment is going to be led by material performance …” 

Health and wellbeing issues relating to the materials we specify, purchase, build with and dispose of has been increasingly arising in discussions of late. These may be within CSR, Environmental ISO workshops or in events such as the Specifi series (recent London). Indeed it is unusual for wellbeing in relation to materials not to be on the agenda for sustainability events.

In addition, within sustainability related meetings with clients, contractors and facilities management organisations, the issue of material health raises, often in reference to Grenfell, asking the question – do we really know the wider impacts on what we specifi, build with, maintain, replace  or dispose of?

Alongside this there is a rapidly growing interest in health related material standards such as Declare, RedList, Portico Fitwell and Well

A welcome addition to the debate is the (forthcoming) Materials Wellography from the Well Build people at IWBI. Below is an extract from their recent blog release which provides a very useful insight to the importance of materials and products we work with day in and day out.

Materials WELLography; your guide to the connection between the materials and products that make up the built environment, and the effect they have on the health of those who work, learn and play within them.

Materials make up our world. Much of the industrialized world is built from man-made, industrial chemicals. The chemical industry converts raw materials into more than 70,000 different chemical substances that make up our world. As the global population increases and urban centers expand, so do both the demand for manufactured goods and the rate of chemical production, which is projected to grow three times faster than the global population and to double every 25 years.1

The quantity and variety of chemicals on the global market makes the task of tracking chemical hazards both critical and extremely difficult. An estimated 95% of chemicals, used largely in construction, lack sufficient data on human health effects.,2 Although various countries apply their own framework for the management of chemical production and use, these are not harmonized globally, so different chemicals are regulated to different extents in different countries.

Life cycle of building materials and exposure hazards. Exposure to harmful chemicals can happen at various stages in the lifecycle of a commercial material or product. Below is an example of this lifecycle:

  1. Exposure can occur when contaminants are released into the environment during manufacturing or materials extraction.3, 4, 5, 6
  2. Throughout occupancy of a built space, chemicals used in furniture, furnishings, paints, adhesives and coatings can off-gas and end up in indoor dust, compromising air quality. 7,8,9,19 Proper ventilation practices and materials selection can help minimize indoor air contaminants. For more information on the benefits of adequate ventilation, refer to the Air WELLography
  3. Finish, maintenance and renovation work often involve dust-laden contaminants, fumes, solvents and gases. This is especially problematic in the absence of the exposure and ventilation controls typically required in production or construction settings.
  4. Construction and demolition work often include exposure to large amounts of dust (made up or and carrying chemical substances), as well as solvents, and other hazardous substances, for example those  associated with use of diesel-powered heavy equipment 10,20. Fortunately, improved awareness of exposure risks in maintenance, renovation and demolition has prompted additional work safety measures through various voluntary standards.

Environmental and Health Impacts. Chemicals used in building materials and byproducts made during their manufacture can persist in the environment. Even small concentrations of these chemicals can find their way into organisms in high enough doses to cause damage. The accumulation of toxicants in water or soil has implications for human health as these chemicals can advance up the food chain and accumulate in human tissue. 14

Long-term, large-scale biomonitoring studies have helped to show the impact of policy changes on human exposure risks. For example, a Swedish study involving long-term testing of human breast milk for the presence of the pesticide DDT and its residues has shown a significant decrease of the chemical following its restriction and later ban. A gradual decrease in PCB is also evident, likely due to efforts to move away from the chemical across the European Union. In contrast to the decline of these two chemicals over time, concentrations of the flame retardant PBDE was found to increase along the same timeline, consistent with increased across EU states. 21

Market forces at work. As evidence of the environmental hazards and health issues related to chemicals accumulates 15, an increasing number of hazard assessment tools emerge in the building material sector. These evaluation tools are being introduced and used in the marketplace as means to differentiate products and ingredients with lower hazards and to certify greener chemical ingredients in consumer products. Despite gaps in data and regulation, the good news is that we have a growing repository of tools at our disposal that can provide direction in understanding the tradeoffs of materials and products over their life cycle.

Careful evaluation and selection of building materials and products is an important and effective first step to identifying safer materials across installation, use, maintenance and disposal. In the long run, the call for the prioritization and responsibility of advancing safer chemicals and sustainable materials can lead to an improved, data-rich market, comprehensive regulations and policy reforms and a shift towards safer chemicals and investment in green chemistry.

Access the full IWBI article here. And download the excellent Well App for news and articles.

References noted above can be found via the IWBI article.

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