Impact of building materials on human health

Do certain building materials contain toxicants that are harmful?
Monday, January 11, 2016
by Ben Campbell

The impact of the built environment on human health and wellness is becoming a more important topic in the industry. As the buildings industry attempts to meet new demands related to human health and wellness, an important concept that has emerged is the use of various building materials and finishes.

What is the concern? An emerging concern is whether a certain material contains toxicants – chemicals synthesized or concentrated by manufacturing that are harmful to human health at relatively low doses. Toxicants can assert their effects during the manufacture, use or disposal of a product. They may be carcinogenic, or otherwise impact the health of the respiratory, neurological, endocrine or other systems of the human body. Consider a typical office space: paint on the wall may emit volatile organic compounds (VOCs); particleboard may contain formaldehyde; flooring may contain phthalates; and furniture is often coated in flame retardant. Each has the possibility of containing toxicants. This is only the tip of the iceberg – it has been asserted that the vast majority of manufacturing ingredients are poorly understood for their health impacts.

Numerous studies have demonstrated that reducing exposure to toxicants has real, measurable health benefits. A recent study shows that minimized VOC emissions in an office environment can significantly improve cognition, which is positive news for an employer whose operating budget is almost entirely tied to employee costs and productivity. The healthcare system is similarly alleviated by measures such as eliminating formaldehyde, which has shown potential to reduce asthma symptoms by over half. Many studies claim that overall, these kinds of interventional measures are much more cost effective than clinical treatment of illness.

As an industry, we have grown more confident when speaking about the environmental impacts of the products we use. Data related to recycled content or regional materials, for example, have become commonplace. But the same cannot be said about data related to human health impacts. The industry now avoids some of the “worst offending” substances, like lead and asbestos, due to government regulation. Even for these products, there was a decades-long delay between the scientific identification of the health risks they posed and implementation of regulatory action. For the toxicants mentioned earlier, however, there are relatively few regulations to address their use.

What is a building professional to do? Fortunately, there are frameworks emerging to help building professionals sort through the data and contribute to a solution.

The LEED rating system, for example, has long rewarded building projects for choosing products with low VOCs and no urea formaldehyde. Until recently, however, the broader concept of toxicants has not been well addressed. The latest version LEED v4 introduces a new credit, “Material Ingredients”, which rewards projects for sourcing at least 20 products where the manufacturer has fully disclosed the ingredients it contains. This might seem trivial, but is in fact atypical practice. The most common formats for a manufacturer to disclose ingredients is through a Health Product Declaration (HPD), an online publication or database such as Pharos, or obtaining a third-party certification such as Cradle to Cradle. There are various websites with databases of products which fully disclose their ingredients, such as GreenWizard, Pharos and the Cradle to Cradle Certified Products Database.

Under the same new credit, a project pursuing LEED v4 can earn additional reward by choosing products that demonstrate a low hazard to human health. Other green building rating systems like the WELL Building Standard and Living Building Challenge offer similar reward mechanisms.

What do you need to know? We need to start treating materials in the same way as energy efficiency – something that impacts many different disciplines in a project, and which requires coordination, early planning and critical thinking to achieve desired results.

In the short term, project teams can leverage their product selection efforts to reward ingredient transparency and help mainstream this practice among manufacturers. The ultimate goal of transparency is for manufacturers to invest more effort in creating healthier products. In the long term, teams will need to arm themselves with knowledge to accurately evaluate a product’s benefits and risks based on the information disclosed by the manufacturer.

The positive news is that many manufacturers are already anticipating this trend and are offering more data and information about the ingredients and health impacts of their products.


Ben Campbell is a project manager with WSP Canada’s sustainable buildings team. Specializing in new and existing commercial buildings, his experience encompasses over 30 LEED projects, including LEED version 4.



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