Toxic Materials in Buildings

Toxic Materials: What Are Buildings Made Of?

Many toxic materials lurk in our homes and buildings and they are a danger to our health and the planet. The Slow Space Movement advocates for buildings that are good, clean and fair. This is Part 1 of a two part series on toxic and clean materials. 

Mama, what are buildings made of?

clean materials

What do I want my children to imagine buildings are made of? I want to feed their virtuous imagination with a picture of bucolic forests and simple wood cabins. Photo by Owen Wassell.

If you have kids, you know how this conversation starts. “Mama, what are buildings made of?” The picture I paint is one of bucolic forests, simple wood cabins with stone foundations next to flowing streams. It’s the same kind of imagery I use when they ask where milk or strawberries come from. We want our food and building materials to come from such inherently good places, but the reality is much different. Sadly, most of our building materials come from chemical companies, such as Dow and DuPont.

toxic materials

Most of our building materials come from chemical companies: Westlake Chemicals, the largest PVC plant in the country, located in Lake Charles, Louisiana.

Toxic Materials In Buildings

In the 2002 environmental comedy “Blue Vinyl,” Judith Helfand discovers the toxic effects of vinyl after her parents decide to reclad their Long Island home in this harmful yet ubiquitous house-siding material.

Polyvinyl chloride and other chlorinated plastics produce dioxins during their production, burning and disposal. Dioxins are some of the most potent carcinogens known to humankind and also create reproductive, developmental, immune and endocrine disruptions.

To put it in very clear terms, Agent Orange, the chemical warfare agent used by the US in the Vietnam War, is composed of dioxins. Agent Orange was sprayed over large parts of the country, decimating crops and landscape, and maiming or killing four million people.

toxic materials pvc

PVC pipes are standard in residential construction. Photo: Wikimedia

75% of all PVC is used in the construction industry

75% of all PVC used is in the construction industry, and chlorinated plastics can be found in geomembranes, weather stripping, joint filler, water sealers, gaskets, adhesives, wire and cable jacketing, roof membranes and electrical connectors. PVC pipes are standard in residential construction, and few architects, builders or clients are willing to go to bat for an upgrade. Vinyl siding is also standard, and when Aamodt / Plumb was doing public housing work for the Department of Housing and Community Development here in Massachusetts, we were required to use vinyl specifically on all of our projects. Ultimately, we stopped doing that work, and the vinyl was one reason.

toxic materials vinyl siding burning

Burning vinyl, e.g., in a house fire, releases carcinogenic dioxins. Photo courtesy of East PDX News

Have you ever thought about what happens when a house with vinyl siding burns? I saw a dumpster fire the other day that was melting the vinyl siding right off the building next to it. It was also releasing carcinogenic dioxins into the neighborhood, but you couldn’t see those.

And the final point that Helfand makes in the movie is that you can’t get rid of PVC. The recycling process requires melting, releasing dioxins, and you can’t burn it for the same reason. If you put it in a landfill, it leaches into the groundwater. So, it’s better not to make it in the first place.

This all seems like it should be “Green Building 101.” It seems so obvious. But most people have no idea, or they don’t care. And maybe that is because our language around PVC as a product is pretty weak. In a recently published article by Perkins + Will, who are very strong advocates for clean building materials, they put PVC on their “Precautionary List,” and the Living Building Challenge and Cradle to Cradle Products Innovation Institute “recommend avoiding” PVC. No wonder no one is listening.

No, the government doesn’t have our back

Maybe we assume that government regulations and bodies like EPA regulate dangerous things. But really, they don’t. We live in a free-market world. Many hazardous substances are only regulated after a class-action lawsuit by hundreds or thousands of harmed people eventually makes its way to the Supreme Court. That’s after people (and the planet) are already sick. That’s too late. Think about Erin Brockovich, Three Mile Island, and Flint, Michigan.

We are on the leading edge of these stories and we can affect their outcomes. How do you choose your building materials? Do you get your information from the DuPont rep touting the latest innovation in building technology? Or do you use common sense?

toxic materials spray foam insulation

Remember that song “Things that make you go hmmm…”? The contractors applying spray foam insulation in your house are wearing hazmat suits! Photo courtesy of Icynene.

Let’s take spray foam insulation. Everybody loves it because it gives you a great R-value and air sealing at the same time to meet that stretch energy code. And every insulation contractor is doubling down on its marketing materials and making pricing more competitive. But when two guys show up in hazmat suits to spray this two-part chemical concoction doesn’t that make you wonder?

Let’s take spray foam insulation. Everybody loves it because it gives you a great R-value and air sealing at the same time… But when two guys show up in hazmat suits to spray this two-part chemical concoction doesn’t that make you wonder?

Remember that song, “Things That Make You Go Hmmm”? You don’t need to be a genius to figure out that this stuff is toxic. Oh, but the rep says that once it has cured it is completely inert. Really? Let’s  jump ahead 30 years and find out if he is right. And they don’t tell you about the 5–10% of cases where it doesn’t cure properly, and it off-gasses FOREVER. Oh, and you can’t get that stuff off. It really sticks.

toxic materials lead paint

But lead paint and asbestos were once the “latest and greatest” building products. Photo courtesy of Hormones Matter.

I am no material science expert, I am just sharing what I see. But lead paint and asbestos were once the “latest and greatest” building products too.

Lead paint that has been banned for decades is still causing developmental problems in children from what’s left over on older houses. How do the kids get exposed to the lead? They eat it! Silly kids will eat anything. My friends’ son used to eat gum off the sidewalk. He’s fine though. So when you are walking around on the expo floor, wondering how to tell clean building products from dirty ones without having to read a bunch of Material Safety Data Sheets, just ask yourself, “Would I eat it?” If the answer is no, then just keep on moving.

How do the kids get exposed to the lead? They eat it! Silly kids will eat anything.

And don’t be fooled by yummy flavors. Just because it tastes good does not mean it is good for you.

Let’s use the food analogy for a minute. I remember reading that to eat healthy, your pre-packaged foods should not have more than five ingredients.

This practice is from Michael Pollan’s book “Food Rules,” where he writes, “Avoid food products that contain more than five ingredients. The specific number you adopt is arbitrary, but the more ingredients in a packaged food, the more highly processed it probably is.” If there was an ingredients list for our buildings, it would be thousands of pages long. In fact, we already have something like that, and we call it a Spec Book. But it isn’t actually very helpful for knowing what is in the materials. Material Safety Data Sheets and Health Product Declarations help a little, but manufacturers aren’t required to reveal what is in their products. In fact, the ingredients are considered trade secrets.

If there was an ingredients list for our buildings, it would be thousands of pages long.

Stay tuned for Part 2: Clean Materials and Alternative Building Practices

 

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