Building or renovating your home will likely be one of the biggest investments you’ll ever make, yet so often, the focus is on what the home will look like, on choosing colours and textures, while very little (if any) consideration is given to the health and environmental impacts of each building material.
I first became aware of the link between the health of our homes and our own health after going through cancer. Through my own experience and extensive research, I realised unhealthy building materials are making us sick, and contributing to the destruction of our environment.
Having now studied Healthy Building Materials as part of my studies in Building Biology, and analysed every single material in my home, I’m astounded at how much we’ve lost our way with so many commonly used building materials, that release toxic chemical vapours into our homes and contribute to a wide range of health and environmental issues.
The push for energy efficient homes is a wonderful thing, however there is so much that isn’t taken into consideration in the classification of Green Buildings, often at the cost of human health.
A 2018 study across 40 universities by the Commonwealth Scientific Industrial Research Organisation (CSIRO) in Australia concluded:
“Greater attention to indoor Volatile Organic Compounds (VOCs) in new construction, renovated spaces, green buildings, and understudied environments such as schools is needed.”
The study found the highest ratios of formaldehyde, toluene, and xylene in a GREEN building.
Formaldehyde is classified as a Group 1 carcinogen to human’s agent (International Agency for Research on Cancer, 2012). Xylene can have adverse effects on the nervous system, eyes, nose, throat, gastrointestinal tract, musculoskeletal system; irritate skin, lungs and cause chest pain and shortness of breath (Kandyala, Raghavendra & Rajasekharan, 2010). Toluene is also harmful to the nervous system according to the US Environmental Protection Agency (2005).
In China, 90% of patients in the children’s oncology ward in Sichuan Provincial People’s Hospital in late 2019 were suffering from leukaemia or lymphoma blood cancers, more than 70% of whom came from homes that had recently been renovated.
Dr Zhou Chenyan, director of the paediatrics department believes that chemicals used in building and decorating materials, and specifically, formaldehyde, are “leading factors for leukaemia”. Each of these patients will require a few years of treatment, costing tens, to hundreds of thousands of dollars in medical expenses and lost earnings, and, tragically, only 70% will make a full recovery (South China Morning Post, 2019).
I will never forget walking through a friend’s newly renovated ‘healthy home’. I was shocked, because there was no new home smell. This was a good sign they’d made healthy choices.
Building or renovating is a really exciting opportunity to get things right at the outset, and avoid ill health, great expense, and frustration, down the track. It’s also an opportunity to re-establish your connection to the natural environment, as well as play your part in creating a more sustainable future for us all.
Here are 5 useful questions to ask when choosing healthy building materials
1. Will this material impact the air quality in the home?
Your choice of building materials will have the biggest influence on air quality in your home (as well as design to allow adequate ventilation).
Indoor Air is estimated to be between two to five times more polluted than outdoor air, according to the US Environmental Protection Agency. These are a few of the contributors to poor air quality in homes:
- Volatile Organic Compounds from carpets, building materials, paints, furniture, electronic equipment, bedding, cleaning and personal care products, are among the biggest contributors to poor indoor air quality. A lot of paints are marketed as ‘low VOC’, but this labelling doesn’t take semi-VOCs into account and it is not uncommon for low VOC paints to contain harmful antimicrobial agents like fungicide and triclosan.
- Moisture and mould are other significant contributors to poor air quality in homes. Choosing breathable materials and paints is really important. Modern homes are typically designed so that they are air-tight, but our homes need to be able to breathe just like we do, otherwise condensation and mould can result. The moisture content and thermal properties of each material will influence air quality too. Aluminium window frames, for example, have no thermal break, and are a significant contributor to condensation and mould related problems in new builds. While concrete has a high moisture content and can take months to cure, which typically isn’t allowed for in construction timeframes. This can contribute to high moisture levels and microbial growth.
- Radon gas: some materials sourced from the earth can be a source of radioactivity (granite benchtops, for example), depending on where they are sourced, and can emit radon gas into your home. Radon gas is the second leading cause of lung cancer (Lantz, Mendez, & Philbert, 2013).
- Dust, bacteria and other allergens: carpet can negatively impact air quality because it harbours these allergens.
2. Will this material impact household water quality?
The type of water pipes and tap fittings you choose will influence water quality in your home.
Polyvinyl Chloride, for example, which is commonly used for downpipes, leeches toxic chemicals into household water.
PVC contains bisphenol A (BPA), which has been found to be an endocrine disruptor (Seachrist, D. et al 2016), linked to testicular and breast cancers, early onset puberty in girls (Leonardi et al. 2017), polycystic ovarian syndrome (Rashidi et al 2017), diabetes (Hwang et al. 2018), and heart disease (Gao & Wang 2014).
Vinyl chloride is classified a Group 1 carcinogen to humans’ agent by the International Agency for Research on Cancer (2018). It can also leach dioxin, which is a potent carcinogen and is widely recognised in scientific literature as the most toxic chemical known to man (Marinkovic et al. 2010 a). It is also listed in the Environmental Working Group’s Dirty Dozen Endocrine Disruptors (2013) along with BPA.
3. Will this type of light bulb support, or be detrimental to your health?
The type of light bulbs you choose and where lights are placed, can either support, or be detrimental to your health. Artificial blue light from LED lights impacts your body’s ability to produce melatonin, and get a deep and restful sleep, which, as we all know, has a flow on effect to every other aspect of our life.
Governments in Australia, the UK and US are encouraging the adoption of LED lighting in our homes to reduce energy consumption and carbon emissions, without any consideration for the impact this is having on human health.
In 2016, Professor Stevens, of the American Medical Association, issued a warning about the health impacts of white LED street lights. In the statement, he said:
“The need for energy efficiency is serious, but so too is minimizing human risk from bad lighting, both due to glare and to circadian disruption.” (The Conversation, 2016).
Melatonin also plays an important role in childhood growth and building organs, tissues and muscle mass, and growth and mineralisation of bones (Picinato et al. 2008); and regulates excess oestrogen. Excess oestrogen is linked to breast cancer (Menendez-Menendez 2018). It’s crazy to think that the wrong type of lighting in your home can contribute to cancer, isn’t it?
While energy efficient lighting might be better for our environment, the tendency to light new homes with lots of LED light bulbs is not ideal from a health point of view.
4. Will this material impact the electro-climate of your home?
Electromagnetic fields (from electrical appliances, household wiring, power lines, power points, dimmer switches, meter boards, electric hot water systems), can contribute to a wide range of health issues – they interfere with the cues that keep our biological cycles properly timed; chronic stress and impaired disease resistance result (Becker & Selden, 1985).
Electropollution (as a result of EMFs) is continually disturbing our sympathetic nervous system, which controls our fight or flight response, which elevates cortisol, the stress hormone (Gittleman, 2010).
Metal is a conductor of electricity. Metal framing, steel reinforcements in concrete slabs, steel roofing, and aluminium sarking, for example, may exacerbate internal sources of EMF in the home.
5. Is this material sustainable?
Underpinning all of these considerations when choosing building materials for your home is sustainability. These are helpful questions to ask:
- Is it a naturally occurring material?
- Is it available locally?
- Will it contribute to the depletion of scarce resources? Bamboo, for example, is a rapidly growing renewable resource, and is much faster to grow than timber.
- How much energy is required to produce, transport, install, and recycle the material, from cradle to grave (this is known as embodied energy)?
- How will this material impact the environment at the end of its useful life? Can it be recycled? How much energy will be required to recycle or dispose of it? Will it leach toxins into the environment if it goes into landfill?
Energy and costs to run and maintain each material should be factored into your decision making too.
By choosing healthy building materials where it is practical for you to do so, and ensuring your home is well designed, you can reduce your environmental impact and give each member of your household the opportunity to thrive.
If you are building or renovating and would like to make healthier building material choices, but don’t have hundreds of hours to spare to do the research yourself, I would love to help you – find out more about how I can help, here.
Did you know…?
- The Building Code of Australia sets out construction standards primarily in relation to safety, building performance, and energy efficiency. But it doesn’t take into account the health or environmental impacts of thousands of building materials that have not been tested for their impact on human health.
- New homes were found to have 20 times the National Health & Medical Research Council’s maximum allowable limits of Volatile Organic Compounds (VOCs), meaning that “up to 500,000 Australians moving into around 120,000 new homes a year could be subjected to high levels of airborne toxics”, said Steve Brown of the CSIRO (2000).
- Home renovating is associated with increased risk of leukaemia (Whitehead et al. 2017).
- Newer homes were found to have higher concentrations of formaldehyde and other VOCs, and poorer ventilation due to building materials and design to improve energy efficiency, resulting in a lower removal rate of pollutants in newer homes (CSIRO, 2010).
- Moisture and mould are another significant contributor to poor air quality in homes. Choosing breathable materials and paints is really important. Modern homes are typically designed so that they are air-tight, but our homes need to be able to breathe just like we do, otherwise condensation and mould can result.
In this Masterclass, you will:
- Learn the 10 key criteria Zara uses when rating a healthy building material.
- Take an in-depth look at the 5 commonly used building materials and how Zara has rated them.
- Walk away feeling empowered to make better decisions about building materials when building or renovating your home.
This Masterclass is offered EXCLUSIVELY to the Earth Collective community for $20 – that’s a saving of $55! Click here to reserve your spot today.
How to connect with Zara
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