Builders Share Their Thoughts on Health and Hazards in Building Products

Written by Dana Saylor, National Programs Manager, Building Clean

The Building Clean project is interested in shaping research and educational materials that can help builders take a health-centered approach to understand building products, including what chemicals of concern are in building products and how to identify and purchase healthier options. A part of that goal has been to understand what education and training are currently available for building professionals on toxic materials in building products, their impacts on residents and installers, and healthier alternatives. By connecting with organizations who provide training to builders, we are developing a better understanding of the information being taught and where discussions on these issues could be expanded.

However, within this effort, it is also important to understand what issues surrounding hazardous chemicals in building products construction professionals consider to be of greatest interest and concern. Building Clean took a step towards doing that in our recent “Healthier Building Products and Practices in Construction” survey, which drew valuable feedback from respondents and is highlighted in the summary below.

“Healthier Building Products and Practices in Construction” Survey Summary

Who Participated

Respondents came from a variety of backgrounds ranging from architects to materials specifiers to carpenters, and almost all had a focus on green building and energy efficiency. 60% of respondents work in single-family, 26% in multifamily, and 43% in affordable housing. Several eastern and central states are represented here, including Washington D.C.

Of those who are seeking green building certifications, Energy Star was the most reported, followed by LEED, LBC, NGBS, and Earth Craft. Others mentioned were EPA Indoor airPLUS, Zero Energy Ready, WaterSense, and WELL.

All respondents were curious and concerned about hazardous chemicals in building products, with about a third stating they have received education or attended webinars related to this topic. Those who achieved professional certification hold HERS, LEED AP+, LFA, WELL, and LEED Green Associate credentials. Nearly half of the respondents have used online sources or databases to find healthier materials, including Pharos, HomeFree, Mindful Materials, Green Building Advisor, BuildingClean, SF Tool, Red2Green, UL Product Lens, and 4specs.com.

Topics of Interest

Overall, there was a high level of interest in all of the topics we listed, including which building products are most harmful to health, carry third-party certifications and ingredient transparencies, and which products/brands are healthier alternatives. There is also interest in getting a general overview of chemicals but keeping it framed to building products and brands.

Concerns About Products

Respondents were concerned about specific products, including PVC, resins, adhesives, caulks, paints, flooring, particle board countertops, treated lumber, glues in engineered products, foam board insulation, spray foam, and fiberglass. Other concerns mentioned include harmful dust from materials such as drywall, concrete, treated wood, and asbestos tile—issues that adversely impact workers and installers as they are typically only present during construction. VOCs were the only specific chemical or chemical group mentioned.

Cost was the most reported concern. One piece of insight provided was that “even clients who are aware of the concerns of healthier materials are concerned about the cost, ‘It would be great to have cost information to share to show people that the “mark up” is not always there.'” Although more needs to be done, Building Clean has done some research to show that efficient, healthier, and U.S.-made building products can be cost-competitive with their alternatives, which we highlight in the following “Buy Local, Buy Healthy and Save!” brochure and “Appliance Cost and Country of Assembly Survey.

Performance was also mentioned by one participant as a concern, as well as the legitimacy of classifying certain products as “healthier,” indicating they “would like to see certifications that truly meet green building standards.”

Buying Healthier Products

Of those who are in the position to buy healthier products, a majority indicated that they do so on a regular basis or sometimes. A few respondents indicated that they were unsure which products are healthier as well as where to purchase healthier materials. Accessibility and affordability were mentioned as deterrents for not purchasing them.

For builders of market-rate housing, when asked if the use of healthier building practices and materials has given them an edge in attracting business, about half of the respondents who answered this question said it has. For some, it is less clear as they have only just begun to market these ideas to clients and have yet to understand if it will lead to new business.

Conclusions

Overall, respondents agreed that more information and education are needed across the construction industry to understand hazardous chemicals in building products and identify healthier options. Pursuing or mandating green building certifications in construction projects is one way to increase the knowledge and use of healthier products among builders, but how do we get beyond that to where healthier products are the first choice or the only option? Outside the pursuit of green building certifications, how do we ensure that the products architects specify for a project are those being used? Additionally, including homeowners in the conversation is important, and educating them on potential hazards in building materials is also needed.

There is also the issue of classifying certain products as “healthier.” We use that term to simplify communications about products that are third-party certified to be free from hazardous chemicals known to have an impact on human health. However, some certified products still contain chemicals that may be harmful to human health, so the question remains as to whether those products should be labeled as healthier vs. less toxic. One respondent said that some educational presentations on healthier products are hosted by building materials suppliers, which made them skeptical.

Finally, there is the issue of cost. Building Clean’s work with affordable housing builders to source cost-competitive products that are efficient, healthier, and U.S.-made is helping to address this concern, but it is on a small scale. Upcoming product consultation work with additional partners will hopefully help us continue to show that products with these qualities are not always more expensive. However, financial costs should also be balanced against the cost of using less efficient products, contain hazardous chemicals, and are manufactured far away.

You can read the full BPA eJournal here.

The Building Performance Association (BPA) is a 501(c)6 industry association committed to redefining the industry by supporting policies that will improve and increase the expansion of home and building performance, energy efficiency businesses, and industries.

Overexposed and Underserved

Written by Jeff Hurley, State Initiatives Manager, Building Clean

Interest in the relationship between health and housing has grown in recent years. Researchers have begun to look at the many characteristics within the built environment that influence an individual’s physical and mental health and well-being. Enhancements in the quality of housing and access to affordable housing can improve health outcomes and decrease health care costs. But beyond discussions on neighborhood amenities, access to health care, and the “cost burden” on families is the often-overlooked impact that indoor chemical exposure has on occupant safety. Moreover, the overwhelming evidence detailing the disproportionate exposure of harmful chemicals that Black, brown, and low-income families have compared to the general population is even more concerning.

Communities of color and folks with a low socioeconomic position or less education—many of whom are already predisposed to structural frameworks that hinder upward mobility—are overwhelmingly at risk of facing higher exposure to indoor and outdoor pollutants. The increased cognizance of air pollution has not mitigated the disproportionate exposure, best highlighted by a study from the Ohio State University that collected data on exposure to industrial toxins for different racial and socioeconomic groups. Researchers identified that Black Americans were more exposed than other demographic groups. In addition, socioeconomic status did not shield Black Americans from these discrepancies.

Where you live—and the products that make up where you live—matter. Housing is a source of exposure to various air pollutants as a result of off-gassing from unhealthy or degrading building materials. Indoor environments can allow pollutants to accumulate, resulting in indoor levels many times higher than outdoor levels, increasing the risk of asthma and infectious and respiratory diseases. Many of the building products that we use in our homes are created with toxic chemicals that persist after installation and can exacerbate and/or cause negative health impacts, ranging from kidney damage and cancer to reproductive and developmental disorders. Flooring, insulation, paints, and sealants may include chemicals such as PFAS, volatile organic compounds, phthalates, lead, and carcinogens. Increased exposure to these toxins can lead to undesirable health outcomes that can stunt brain and nervous system development, lowering intelligence and reading capabilities.

And not only does where you live matter, but also the condition in which you live. Perhaps the primary association between social inequities and health disparities is the quality of housing. Individuals who live in areas with concentrated environmental, social, and health risks are exploited by the ramifications of unhealthy housing. Researchers from Boston University called this growing link between health and reduced income as the “twenty-first-century health-poverty trap.” The cycle of living in unhealthy neighborhoods and homes can lead to poor health, stagnating social and economic mobility, creating a lack of resources or opportunities to leave the unhealthy environment and improve health.

These inequities mirror similar discrepancies for nonwhite and low-income communities from outdoor air pollution. Everyone is exposed to toxins outdoors, but your exposure could be more significant depending on where you live. More often than not, this burden falls disproportionately on communities of color. What may not be as obvious is the deliberate siting of hazardous waste facilities in neighborhoods where people of color already live, continuing a tradition of racial discrimination through zoning policies and targeting the path of least resistance. Race, regardless of income, was the dominant factor in an individual’s proximity to industrial pollution.

In what unfortunately should not come as a surprise, the disparate manner in which COVID-19 has impacted Black Americans is likely associated with their increased exposure to toxic air pollution. An analysis done by the journal Environmental Justice found that “increased per-capita COVID-19 death rates among Louisiana parishes are associated with higher estimates of pollution burden and larger percentages of Black residents.” This aligns with a similar study from the SUNY College of Environmental Science and Forestry, which concluded that an increase in exposure to hazardous air pollutants—such as formaldehyde, asbestos, and mercury—is associated with a 9% increase in death among patients with COVID-19.

Solving these issues is not a simple exercise. While it can be challenging to implement, a holistic approach that combines the expertise of housing and health advocates with community leaders is often the best start. Policies that work in unison to improve affordable housing with an eye towards tenant health and reducing racial disparities are more likely to achieve longer-term results. For example, the use of green building standards for low-income housing renovations can achieve significant health improvements, and federally subsidized rent assistance has led to lower emergency visits for asthmatic children. As part of the BlueGreen Alliance Foundation’s (BGAF) ‘Buy Local, Buy Healthy’ initiative of the Building Clean program, BGAF staff has encouraged state agencies to strengthen housing requirements for affordable housing policies to include healthy building materials that safeguard against toxic chemicals.

Chemicals and air pollutants don’t discriminate, but generations of systemic inequalities—from redlining to zoning and discriminatory housing policies—have cultivated a foundation that directly and indirectly widens the gap between the ‘haves’ and the ‘have-nots.’ Housing and health policymakers must be mindful of the social and structural factors that have created overexposed and underserved communities.

As residents and building developers consider materials to use—they should consider what health risks are involved with a particular building product. A number of resources are available to evaluate what chemicals may be harmful to occupants and installers, which products contain these materials, and if there are less harmful chemicals that can be used or healthier products available. The BlueGreen Alliance Foundation’s Building Clean website contains detailed information on how to evaluate products for harmful chemicals such as Health Product Declaration and Declare, along with product certifications like Cradle to Cradle and the GREENGUARD certification.