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Home Toxins: Remnants from Antiquated Building Practice

By Shawn Tallet, Outreach Coordinator, Mesothelioma & Asbestos Awareness Center

The advent of sustainable building practices has resulted in the most environmentally-responsible efforts to date. Green building policies have been implemented in cities across the country, and the introduction of certifications like LEED and Passive House have made it clear that resource-efficient construction and technology are here to stay. While energy and resource efficiency are primary pillars of green construction, the commitment to occupant health and reducing environmental pollution are perhaps two of the most important factors in the process. New certifications like WELL and Fitwel recognize this and are being designed to focus on health and wellbeing in buildings. Due to the implementation of modern technology and sustainable efforts, most human carcinogens have been factored out almost entirely in building practices, including asbestos, lead, and formaldehyde. While these toxins have been used decreasingly, they can still pose a serious problem in demolition and retrofits, especially in underserved communities.

A Hazard to Health

Asbestos is well-known for its insidious effects on human health. Once lauded for its durability, strength, and fire-resistance, the material eventually fell out of favor with builders because of its carcinogenic effects. Although the mineral’s use in building products has been heavily regulated since the passage of the Toxic Substances Control Act (TSCA), any home built before 1980 runs the risk of containing asbestos. The material is commonly found in insulation (especially vermiculite), plaster joints and compounds, tile and flooring, and roofing. Asbestos poses an immediate danger when particulate matter containing loose airborne fibers is inhaled, which occurs when asbestos-containing materials begin to break down. The most imposing health threat caused by asbestos exposure is mesothelioma, a rare and aggressive cancer that affects the lining of the lungs, stomach, or heart. Life expectancy of patients is generally 12-21 months upon diagnosis, and the disease has no cure.

Paint on the Wall

In 1978, the government placed a ban on consumer usage of lead-based paint, due to the health effects observed in people exposed. During the Industrial Revolution and onward through the majority of the 20th century, lead was most commonly used as an additive in paint. Similar to asbestos, the heavy metal was added to paints because of its accelerated drying rate, durability, and ability to resist moisture. But lead poses a tremendous health risk, especially to children, including behavioral and developmental problems, reduced IQ, and even seizures or coma at very high levels of exposure.

Today, lead can most commonly be found in older homes. Poorly maintained houses with deteriorating and chipping paint pose a risk for lead exposure, as well as lead-contaminated dust. Testing for the element’s presence can be done using a swab test kit, or a professional inspector can take samples to have it analyzed.

A Colorless Chemical

Formaldehyde is a chemical commonly used in building materials such as pressed-wood products, glues and adhesives, and permanent-press fabrics. Characterized by its lack of color, high flammability and strong odor, formaldehyde has been declared a known human carcinogen by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. The effects formaldehyde has on the body vary, especially due to the amount of exposure a person receives. Formaldehyde is a volatile organic compound (VOC) and may cause irritation to the eyes, throat, and mucous membranes at lower levels of exposure. Substantial or chronic exposure to formaldehyde can result in throat, nose, and blood cancers, as well as fluid buildup in the lungs. Factory and construction workers run an especially high risk of exposure to the chemical. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has recently passed an emission standard for wood products containing formaldehyde, which is anticipated to diminish health risks associated with persistent contact with the chemical.

The Future: Responsible Innovation

Green building practice has put mindfulness of toxins at the forefront of planning and development, and is sure to offset the remnants of a polluted past for future generations. The trend toward not only energy efficiency, but occupant safety and environmental consciousness seen in WELL and Fitwell practices, has allowed designers, architects, and builders to pinpoint their client’s exact needs while keeping their buildings safe to inhabit. Through persistence and adherence to changing policy, green building practice will hopefully usher in a new status quo for the construction, life cycle, and demolition of structures, all while making toxins an afterthought and remaining conscious of poor building practices of the past. 

Disclaimer: the opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the opinions of CTGBC.

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