2. Government building codes and standards. The federal government sets very few safety standards for building products or indoor air quality. Of the more than 80,000 chemicals listed in the Toxic Substances Control Act, only nine are banned from use. State regulations, based on exposure science research, can help motivate manufacturers to create healthier building and consumer products. For example, California’s standards for formaldehyde emissions from composite wood products solidified a market demand to develop formaldehyde-free materials. Pending Massachusetts legislation would allow consumers to purchase furniture and consumer products that are free of chemical flame retardants, which have been scientifically linked to increased rates of cancer in firefighters but not to increased fire safety.
3. Building materials marketplace. Unlike food products, which must disclose their ingredients by US law, the construction industry isn’t required to disclose the chemical contents of building and consumer products. The movement toward transparency and the hazard evaluation of building materials has created market-based opportunities to develop new materials that meet the requirements of various green building standards and consumer demands. In the same way that large food retailers have moved into organic products, national home-improvement retailers have pledged to remove toxic chemicals from their shelves and to require flooring vendors to do the same with their product lines.
4. Design and construction. As health and exposure issues are coming to the fore in design, architects and designers need clear direction in making better choices. Although there are many red lists detailing chemicals to avoid, there is very little information about finding better alternatives, green chemistry solutions, and avoiding regrettable substitutions. Open communication between environmental health researchers and architects is critical to forming decisions that have long-lasting impact.
5. Building occupancy. Unwanted chemical exposures can occur even in the most diligently specified buildings. Emissions from materials as well as occupant-introduced products result in indoor exposure and associated health effects resulting from that exposure. Measuring that impact is complicated. Many chemicals of interest are associated with chronic health conditions and indirectly affect our health. We trust exposure scientists to infer the health impacts, based on data and varying exposure levels, and clearly communicate them with architects and builders.
For green buildings to be truly sustainable and prioritize health, we need to do better. Green building design needs to move beyond resource efficiencies, such as energy and water. The average American spends 90 percent of the time indoors. Design strategies need to consider how materials affect chemical exposures and occupant health. Exposure scientists are key; their research on indoor chemical exposures plays an important role in the transition to healthy buildings. We also need to encourage building owners to allow access for post-occupancy exposure testing. We need to listen to the science.
Researchers can study whether building codes and green certification programs affect exposures, test and prioritize chemical and material combinations, and share and translate the latest indoor environment science for designers. Mainstream green building standards and their supporting organizations need to continue to push for transparency and safer products in the marketplace. Isn’t it more logical to prevent disease in the first place, rather than to deal with the health consequences later? By connecting the A/E/C community with exposure scientists and product manufacturers, we can work together toward healthier buildings for everyone.