Tag Archives: Health

Microbiome inspired green infrastructure: rewilding the city, one human body at a time.

person holding photo of roots

Green roofs, living walls, urban green landscape could prove to provide more benefits than first thought. In addition to the obvious nature, biodiversity benefits and the biophilic wellbeing and air benefits, connection to nature can also rewild the microbiome ecosystems within our bodies leading to better health. (Microbiomes are the billions of microbes that live on and within our bodies and regulate our health)

With the first law of ecology, (and that oft quoted John Muir sound bite) that everything is connected, it is not so surprising that the microbiome in our bodies is connected to the wider natural eco-system. A topic I touched on with Specifi building engineers in Leeds recently!

In FutuREstorative I talk of rewilding nature, buildings and people. Rewilding is not just about reintroducing big predators such as the wolf, or reintroducing missing parts of any natural ecosystem chain, but about ‘creating conditions that allow the emergence of natural responsiveness and development’. This is regenerative, not restricting what we allow nature to do, but seeing the the way we design, construct and maintain the built environment as a part of nature, not apart from nature

Yet, the next frontier in rewilding and indeed, in the evolving sustainability nexus of buildings and wellbeing could well be within the human body itself. Researchers are exploring ways to ‘rewild’ the microbiome of urban dwellers whose microbiome state maybe below par (due to urban environments and lack of nature) back a more natural and healthier state.

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A vision for the future: microbiome-inspired green infrastructure (MIGI) and multi-sensorial, multiculturally inclusive, and foraging-friendly green spaces (created by the paper author).

A paper published in the journal Challenges, explores the human body as a holobiont—that is a ‘host along with billions of microbial organisms working symbiotically to form a functioning ecological unit’— that has the potential to enhance both human and planetary health. And the way we design cities can be a vital contribution. In the paper, Jake Robinson of University of Sheffield UK and Jacob Mills and Martin Breed of the University of Adelaide in Australia propose that urban planners focus on creating microbiome-inspired green infrastructure to “innovative living urban features that could potentially enhance public health via health-inducing microbial interactions.”

The paper notes that ‘connecting with nature, both physically and psychologically, has been shown to enhance our health and wellbeing, and adds to other recent calls for the inclusion of the environment-microbiome-health axis in nature–human health research’

A call for microbiome inspired green infrastructure – “innovative living urban features that could potentially enhance public health via health-inducing microbial interactions.” – would certainly widen the project design team to include biologists and microbiome professionals.

Robinson, J.M.; Mills, J.G.; Breed, M.F. “Walking Ecosystems in Microbiome-Inspired Green Infrastructure: An Ecological Perspective on Enhancing Personal and Planetary Health.” Challenges. 2018, 9, 40.

Source (and borrowed inspiration for the title) for this blog post appeared in Anthropocene Magazine in November 2018

Header Image: Jenny Hill, Swinsty Reservoir, United Kingdom, Unsplash

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Recent Reading : Edition 2

This is the second edition in a 2019 series covering pieces I have been reading online and in print that I think are worthy of further sharing. Followers on twitterlinkedin,  and to a lesser degree on Instagram will be aware that I regularly share items relating to sustainability, the built environment and our relationship with the outdoors and nature. However posts there can be flitting and often difficult to track down and return to. They will hopefully have a longer life here …

Articles, papers and images that catch my eye, or as a result of a search I move into my ever growing Instapaper (and occasionally Evernote) Library. This enables me to read offline, and importantly to keep and or return to for reference: here are a few recents:

Sustainability

It is worse, much worse, than you think. The opening line from David Wallace-Wells’s Uninhabitable Earth continues: The slowness of climate change is a fairy tale, perhaps as pernicious as the one that says it isn’t happening at all, and comes to us bundled with several others in an anthology of comforting delusions: that global warming is an Arctic saga, unfolding remotely; that it is strictly a matter of sea level and coastlines, not an enveloping crisis sparing no place and leaving no life un-deformed; that it is a crisis of the “natural” world, not the human one; that those two are distinct, and that we live today somehow outside or beyond or at the very least defended against nature, not circumscribed and literally overwhelmed by it; that wealth can be a shield against the ravages of warming; that the burning of fossil fuels is the price of continued economic growth; that growth, and the technology it produces, will allow us to engineer our way out of environmental disaster; that there is any analogue to the scale or scope of this threat, in the long span of human history, that might give us confidence in staring it down.– there is a free chapter to read here, if you haven’t read it as yet!

Climate Change and Consciousness. Alan Watson Featherstone’s blog thoughts  ahead of Findhorn Foundation’s international conference ‘Climate Change & Consciousness: Our Legacy for the Earth.

DeepMind Wind Predictions: 4 Ways A.I. Is Saving the Environment How A.I. can be harnessed to reduce the mounting affects of climate change 1. Protecting Scarce Supplies of Water in Arid Regions2. Real-Time Crop Data Will Inform Future Farmers 3. Climate Modeling Offers Extremely Long-Term Forecasts 4. The Big Data of Weather Forecasts Make Solar Panels More Lucrative


Built Environment

Guardian Concrete Week . A series of hard hitting articles: Guardian Cities celebrates the aesthetic and social achievements of concrete, while investigating its innumerable harms, to learn what we can all do today to bring about a less grey world

What Would a “Green New Deal” Look Like for Architecture? – Ocasio-Cortez’s plan,in line with the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC)’s most recent warning that the world has about a decade to get climate change under control, would see buildings as mini power plants that can not only produce enough energy to supply their own needs, but also fuel vehicles and send excess energy back to the grid. (Something explored in FutuREstorative)

The Nature of Air the latest publication from Terrapin Bright Green sheds light on the financial burden of poor air quality as well as the atmospheric mechanisms by which earth is able to addresses air pollution in an energy efficient and circular manner

AI, Machine Learning, construction and bots A great overview from colleague Paul Wilkinson: Construction is waking up to the opportunities posed by artificial intelligence and machine learning to mine rich data and deliver powerful business insights and predictions.

Using public health data to inform building practice  Angela Loder & Regina Vaicekonyte on how the WELL Building Standard™ (WELL™) uses public health data and how projects can use this data to inform their project health goals.

Bringing wellbeing to construction with Red List compliant, biophilic net-zero site accommodation. Blog on Chicago-based Pepper Construction who unveiled its Net Zero Jobsite Trailer in November at Greenbuild show at the end of last year.


Outdoors / Nature

Why rewilding? – Rewild Everything! In our attempts to tame and control nature, to de-wild the natural world, we also tame, control and de-wild ourselves, and in the process lose fundamental parts of us that make being alive meaningful and enjoyable. We deny parts of ourselves that frighten and inconvenience us, ignore messages from our animal bodies as we stare at screens under artificial lights, inside concrete buildings kept at artificial temperatures to boost ‘productivity’.

Free Photo Book: NASA Celebrates Earth’s Incredible Natural Beauty Earth,  a free photo book from NASA features stunning imagery captured over the years by various NASA satellites. .

Free Solo Alex Honnold, now 33, has been a legend in the sport for a while, with a rack of insane firsts and nobody-will-evers hanging from his harness (except he doesn’t usually wear one of those). With a goofy grin and a bad haircut, he has been fighting a single-handed battle against gravity, and winning. When, on 3 June 2017, he free-soloed the freerider route on El Capitan, the New York Times described it as “one of the greatest athletic feats of any kind, ever”. Then the film about that climb – Free Solo – came out, and the world outside the climbing community sat up and took note. It is a brilliant, beautiful film – not just the story of an incredible physical performance, but a very human story of a remarkable, beguiling character.

Previous Reading Recently Edition 1

Bringing wellbeing to construction with Red List compliant, biophilic net-zero site accommodation.

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… making sure our employees in the field have the same wellbeing …

Readers of this blog, attendees at my presentations, and those I consult and audit with, will recognise my advocacy for implementing wellbeing aspects (that we increasingly build into our projects), for those who are constructing the projects – and into the site accommodation.

It is extremely encouraging to catch up with news from Chicago-based Pepper Construction who unveiled its Net Zero Jobsite Trailer in November at Greenbuild show at the end of last year.

The Net Zero Jobsite Traile is a 12×60-foot structure ‘designed to focus on the human experience, productivity, and quality from every aspect to make sure employees in the field have the same wellness features as those in a traditional office setting.

“Most people spend about 90% of their time indoors, and that environment has a significant impact on our health,” says Susan Heinking, AIA, LEED Fellow, Pepper’s VP of High Performance and Sustainable Construction, who led the project. “That philosophy also applies to the men and women working on our jobsites. We want our trailer to match our values.”

The ‘trailer’ is fitted out with RedList compliant furniture and materials, with recycled felt over the conference room providing sound absorption incorporating biophilic patterns through organic patterns.

Read more here.

If we in the construction sector are serious in delivering healthy buildings, then surely this approach must become commonplace on all projects – certainly those delivering to Well Build Standard, The Living Building Challenge or platinum LEED or BREEAM projects?  And of course should form a part of these standards itself, as a socially just approach.

I will be visiting Future Build in London in March, and look forward to seeing similar innovative approaches from construction organisations  (and by the way I am talking on the 5th)

Knowing the plastic numbers …

With the focus on plastic avoidance, reduction and recycling, do we really know the plastics that we use everyday and incorporate into our buildings, often without second thought to their impact on human and planetary health.

I am often asked by projects and offices what plastics are safe and or recyclable when looking to adopt responsible recycling or procurement approaches in reducing or removing plastics, or to address Red List compliance.

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Plastics are stamped with the now familiar ‘recycling’ chasing arrows triangle, encompassing  an identifying number.  However this does not necessarily mean the plastics are recyclable or indeed ‘safe’ to use in all circumstances. The numbers within the arrows, from 1 to 7, tell a different story, and are key to understanding specification, manufacture, use and disposal ofplastics.

But as even when recycled plastics only break down into smaller components, that as ‘micro-plastics’ cause greater environmental issues, the best plastic strategy maybe to avoid.

#1 – PET (Polyethylene Terephthalate)

Polyethylene terephthalate, also known as PETE or PET. Usually clear in color, the vast majority of disposable disposable beverage and food containers and bottles are made of #1 plastic. Another common place you’d find #1 is in your household cleaning product containers. This plastic is relatively safe, but it is important to keep it out of the heat or it could cause carcinogens (like the flame retardant antimony trioxide) to leach into your liquids. Hence the warning on water drinking bottles to keep out of sunlight. Plus, the porous nature of its surface allows bacteria and flavor to accumulate, so avoid reusing these bottles as makeshift containers.

Products made of #1 (PET) plastic can be recycled but not reused.

#2 – HDPE (High-Density Polyethylene)

HDPE plastic is the stiff plastic used to make milk jugs, detergent and oil bottles, toys, and some plastic bags. HDPE is the most commonly recycled plastic and is considered one of the safest forms of plastic. It is a relatively simple and cost-effective process to recycle HDPE plastic for secondary use.

Products made of HDPE are reusable and recyclable.

Red List: HDPE and LDPE are excluded from the Red List. However the Red List includes Chlorinated polyethylene and chlorosulfonated polyethlene (CSPE)

#3 – PVC (Polyvinyl Chloride)

PVC is a soft, flexible plastic used to make clear plastic food wrapping, cooking oil bottles, teething rings, children’s and pets’ toys, and blister packaging for myriad consumer products. It is commonly used as the sheathing material for computer cables, and to make plastic pipes and parts for plumbing. Because PVC is relatively impervious to sunlight and weather, it is used to make window frames, garden hoses, arbors, raised beds and trellises.

PVC, although tough in terms of strength, it is not considered safe for cooking or heating. PVC contains softening chemicals called phthalates that interfere with hormonal development.

PVC is dubbed the “poison plastic” because it contains numerous toxins which it can leach throughout its entire life cycle. PVC’s vinyl chloride monomer building block is a known human carcinogen. Almost all products using PVC require virgin material for their construction; less than 1% of PVC material is recycled.

PVC is a common, strong but lightweight plastic used in construction. It is made softer and more flexible by the addition of plasticizers. If no plasticizers are added, it is known as uPVC (unplasticized polyvinyl chloride) or rigid PVC.

Products made using PVC plastic are not recyclable.

PVC is a widely used plastic found in piping, electrical wire sheaths, and window frames.  It contains phthalates, which are also components of flexible vinyl products, sealants, and finishes.

  • There isn’t a great alternative to PVC wire sheaths.  Metal-sheathed wiring (“armored” cable) can be used, but it is harder to work with and much more expensive.
  • There are a few alternatives to PVC pipes.  Metal (copper, steel, or ductile iron) pipes, which can be used for some purposes, are heavier, susceptible to corrosion, and typically more expensive to buy and install.  Cross-linked polyethylene (PEX) and other related plastics are now being used to make flexible, convenient, and cheap pipes that do not contain PVC.  Unfortunately, PEX cannot be recycled and its health effects have not been definitively studied.  PEX degrades with sun exposure and may be more permeable to chemicals than other types of piping.
  • Wood, aluminum, and fiberglass are common alternatives to PVC window frames.  Wood requires additional maintenance, while aluminum frames should be used with some sort of thermal break to insulate the window and prevent condensation.  Prices vary, and the environmental impact of manufacturing should also be considered.
  • Avoid vinyl flooring, cords and hoses, shower curtains, artificial leather, pool liners, or paints made with phthalates.  There are many alternative plasticizers.

Red List: PVC and Phthalates are included on Red List

#4 – LDPE (Low-Density Polyethylene)

LDPE is often found in shrink wraps, dry cleaner garment bags, squeezable bottles, and the type of plastic bags used to package bread. The plastic grocery bags used in most stores today are made using LDPE plastic. Some clothing and furniture also uses this type of plastic.

Products made using LDPE plastic are reusable, but not always recyclable.

Red List: HDPE and LDPE are excluded from the Red List. However the Red List includes Chlorinated polyethylene and chlorosulfonated polyethlene (CSPE)

#5 – PP (Polypropylene)

Polypropylene plastic is tough and lightweight, and has excellent heat-resistance qualities. It serves as a barrier against moisture, grease and chemicals.  PP is also commonly used for disposable diapers, pails, plastic bottle tops, margarine and yogurt containers, potato chip bags, straws, packing tape and rope. Polypropylene is considered microwave-safe because it is heat resistant and therefore won’t get warped in the microwave. This does not mean it is healthy for you to consume foods which have been microwaved in it! It is always best to microwave in glass containers
PP is considered safe for reuse.

#6 – PS (Polystyrene)

Polystyrene is an inexpensive, lightweight and easily-formed plastic with a wide variety of uses. It is most often used to make disposable styrofoam drinking cups, take-out “clamshell” food containers, egg cartons, plastic picnic cutlery, foam packaging and those ubiquitous “peanut” foam chips used to fill shipping boxes to protect the contents. Polystyrene is also widely used to make rigid foam insulation and underlay sheeting for laminate flooring used in home construction.

Because polystyrene is structurally weak and ultra-lightweight, it breaks up easily and is dispersed readily throughout the natural environment. Beaches all over the world have bits of polystyrene lapping at the shores, and an untold number of marine species have ingested this plastic with immeasurable consequences to their health.

Polystyrene may leach styrene, a possible human carcinogen, into food products (especially when heated in a microwave). Chemicals present in polystyrene have been linked with human health and reproductive system dysfunction.

Recycling is not widely available for polystyrene products. Most curbside collection services will not accept polystyrene, which is why this material accounts for about 35% of US landfill material. While the technology for recycling polystyrene is available, the market for recycling is small. Awareness among consumers has grown, however, and polystyrene is being reused more often. While it is difficult to find a recycler for PS, some businesses like Mailboxes Etc. which provide shipping services are happy to receive foam packing chips for reuse.

Polystyrene should be avoided where possible.

#7 – Other (BPA, Polycarbonate and LEXAN)

The #7 category was designed as a catch-all for polycarbonate (PC) and “other” plastics, so reuse and recycling protocols are not standardized within this category. Of primary concern with #7 plastics, however, is the potential for chemical leaching into food or drink products packaged in polycarbonate containers made using BPA (Bisphenol A). BPA is a xenoestrogen, a known endocrine disruptor.

A new generation of compostable plastics, made from bio-based polymers like corn starch, is being developed to replace polycarbonates. These are also included in category #7, which can be confusing to the consumer. These compostable plastics have the initials “PLA” on the bottom near the recycling symbol. Some may also say “Compostable.”

#7 plastics are not for reuse, unless they have the PLA compostable coding.

Red List: Bisphenol A (BPA) used to manufacture polycarbonate (clear, hard) plastics and epoxy resins is included on the Red List

 Sources

Red List: https://living-future.org/declare/declare-about/red-list/

The ILFI Red List contains the worst in class materials prevalent in the building industry that may not be included in materials used in construction that seeks to meet the criteria of the Living Building Challenge (LBC).T

The commonly-used chemicals on the Red List are:

Polluting the environment
Bio-accumulating up the food chain until they reach toxic concentrations
Harming construction and factory workers

Plastics by the Numbers: EarthEasy – https://learn.eartheasy.com/articles/plastics-by-the-numbers/

GreenSpec http://www.greenspec.co.uk/building-design/toxic-chemistry-health-environment-pollution/

The Seven Types of Plastic and What they mean for your health. https://www.nontoxicrevolution.org/blog/7-types-of-plastic

Green Building Alliance https://www.go-gba.org/resources/green-building-methods/materials-red-list/

 

 

 

Regenerative Sustainability: Co-Benefits of the Built Environment.

A number of excellent reports and papers have passed through my reading list and feeds in the last week or so, that together represent a wonderful view on regenerative sustainability co-benefits.

No Longer have luxury

Health co-benefits from air pollution and mitigation costs of the Paris Agreement: a modelling study

The Lancet Planetary Health , Volume 2 , Issue 3. Although the co-benefits from addressing problems related to both climate change and air pollution have been recognised, there is not much evidence comparing the mitigation costs and economic benefits of air pollution reduction for alternative approaches to meeting greenhouse gas targets. We analysed the extent to which health co-benefits would compensate the mitigation cost of achieving the targets of the Paris climate agreement (2°C and 1·5°C) under different scenarios in which the emissions abatement effort is shared between countries in accordance with three established equity criteria.

New Harvard Study: Green Buildings Provide Nearly $6 Billion in Benefits to Health and Climate

Harvard University examined a subset of green-certified buildings over a 16-year period in six countries: the U.S., China, India, Brazil, Germany and Turkey. Known as HEALTHfx, the study found nearly $6 billion in combined health and climate benefits.

UTC Healthfx The Impact Infographic

Related see also http://forhealth.org

The Healthy Buildings Team created the 9 Foundations of a Healthy Building as a standardized, holistic approach to understanding how buildings impact the people inside them. In any indoor space – offices, homes, schools, airplanes – these foundations can be assessed via Health Performance Indicators, or HPIs. Derived from the business term Key Performance Indicators, HPIs are metrics that provide insight into how a building is performing.

 By tracking HPIs on all 9 Foundations of the built environment, we can discover how to optimize buildings for health. We call this “Buildingomics”: the totality of factors in the built environment that influence human health, well-being and productivity of people who work in those buildings.

COBE Co-Benefits of the Built Environment

CoBE (Cobenefits of the Built Environment) is a tool to determine the health and climate benefits related to reductions in energy use. Reducing a building’s energy consumption reduces amount of energy produced by power plants, resulting in fewer emissions of pollutants that contribute to climate change and cause premature mortality, hospitalization, and lost school or work days.

Doughnut Dialogues

Welcome to the Doughnut Dialogues, inspired by Kate Raworth’s book Doughnut Economics: seven ways to think like a 21st century economist. This looks a brilliant platform to debate ideas, share links and examples, and start new conversations relating to Doughnut Economics see https://discuss.doughnuteconomics.org

BAMB Passports

The electronic Materials Passports developed in BAMB aim to be a one stop shop for material information. Materials Passports developed in BAMB are sets of data describing defined characteristics of materials in products that give them value for recovery and reuse, aiming to

  • Increase the value or keep the value of materials, products and components over time
  • Create incentives for suppliers to produce healthy, sustainable and circular materials/building products
  • Support materials choices in Reversible Building Design projects
  • Make it easier for developers, managers and renovators to choose healthy, sustainable and circular building materials
  • Facilitate reversed logistics and take back of products, materials and components

The Economics of Biophilia 

Not a new document but is now being re-published in 6 instalments. From offices and schools to hospitals and hotels, the case is made for incorporating nature into the spaces we live and work.

Sustainaspeak: A Guide to Sustainable Design Terms

The complex and evolving language used in the sustainable design community can be very challenging, particularly to those new to environmentally friendly and resource-efficient design strategies that are needed today.

Still to review this in full, but looks a good compliment to the work from COST RESTORE Working Group One Language of Sustainability report (available early April)

 

UK Government 25 Year Environment Plan is … disappointing.

nature globeThe UK Governments 25 Year Environment Plan (A Green Future: Our 25 Year Plan to Improve the Environment) released yesterday should, on the face of it be a very significant document. Leaks and pre-issue comments from Gove in particular, hinted at great things in respect to addressing plastic, aligning health benefits of nature with healthcare and restoring nature in light of housing and infrastructure developments.

The Plan identifies six key areas:
Using and managing land sustainably (chapter 1).
Recovering nature and enhancing the beauty of landscapes (chapter 2).
Connecting people with the environment to improve health and wellbeing (chapter 3).
Increasing resource efficiency, and reducing pollution and waste (chapter 4).
Securing clean, productive and biologically diverse seas and oceans (chapter 5).
Protecting and improving the global environment (chapter 6).

And of note for the built environment,

‘Embed an ‘environmental net gain’ principle for development, including housing and infrastructure. (Chapter One)

High environmental standards for all new builds. New homes will be built in a way that reduces demands for water, energy and material resources, improves flood resilience, minimises overheating and encourages walking and cycling. Resilient buildings and infrastructure will more readily adapt to a changing climate.

And, to improve existing green infrastructure by encouraging more investment while making sure there is a presumption for sustainable development.

However what we have is low on ambition and nothing more than a plan to plan. Each action is peppered with “consider”, “explore”, “promote”, “help” etc … and to work with others if they would care to.

25 yr plan quote

The fact this is a 25 year plan, in 2018, it takes us through to 2043 – firmly into the next generation that will undoubtedly be severely compromised by what we do or don’t do today.  One only has to compare other initiatives with target dates within this timeframe to see how low on intent this plan is. Compare with the WorldGBC plans for zero carbon new buildings by 2030 and all buildings zero carbon by 2050, or the auto industry to move away from fossil fuels.

As commented by many, there is an ‘extraordinary omission’ in the plan: there is no mention at all of fracking. Given that the only sustained solution to the environmental and climate crisis is leaving fossil fuels in the ground, the continued support for extracting yet more through fracking cannot be justified in the light of the this report.

We are now acutely aware that  we do not have the luxury only to explore, to consider and to just reduce impacts … that is not sustainable. We require more direct leadership, commitment and action to do more good, to restore and regenerate the environment.

George Monbiot commented ‘ Those who wrote (the plan) are aware of the multiple crises we face. But, having laid out the depth and breadth of our predicaments, they propose to do almost nothing about them”

Stephanie Hilborne, Chief Executive of The Wildlife Trusts, “unless more leadership is shown, wildlife will continue to decline & with it our mental health as more people become isolated from benefits of contact with nature’

What we do have however, and should take action on, is further recognition that the environment  and connection with nature is severely affecting the health of the planet, of ourselves and of other species. Gove is trying to secure commitment to an Environment Act in the next Queen’s speech and we should help to secure this as there is not yet full government support, but there certainly needs to be more leadership, direct action and targets in this 25 year plan.

The Plan is available to download from here 

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.