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New Report Identifies Asthma-Related Chemical Hazards in Building Products

By David Sokol
December 19, 2013
HBN Filter
Image courtesy HBN

Isocyanates and phthalates may seem unpronounceable today, but like VOCs, the words will increasingly slip off the tongues of architects striving towards indoor environmental quality. The former are found in polyurethane and leads to asthma. The latter, also known as plasticizers, can impact children’s lung development and cause asthma onset. Both are found in building products.

HBN Report
Image courtesy HBN
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The design community’s awareness of asthma-related chemical hazards got a boost earlier this month, when the Washington, DC–based nonprofit Healthy Building Network (HBN) released “Full Disclosure Required: A Strategy to Prevent Asthma Through Building Product Selection.” HBN researchers Sarah Lott and Jim Vallette cross-referenced three authoritative lists of asthmagens against the ingredients of 1,300 products listed in the Pharos Building Product Library, of which 20 chemicals were deemed priorities due to exposure potential. Lott and Vallette also used the Pharos library—part of a larger online-disclosure database that HBN launched in 2009—to check for chemicals that indirectly cause asthma by disrupting organ maturation. Eight, all phthalates, earned priority status.

The 28 asthmagens and suspected asthmagens were found in foam insulation, paint and other coatings, adhesives, flooring, and other materials. Exposure is possible via skin contact, ingestion, or inhalation, from activities like installation and normal use.

“More people are getting asthma than ever, while efforts to reduce asthma attacks have never been greater,” HBN founder and executive director Bill Walsh says of initiating this research. “It is clear that we must look for new strategies to combat the rise in asthma rates.” The number of Americans suffering from asthma increased from to 21.7 million to 26 million between 2001 and 2009.

Walsh also notes that most knowledge of asthmagens pertains to occupational settings, so the report recommends more research into exposure to building product–based asthmagens, and alternatives to the chemicals. And because many VOCs are asthmagens, but few asthmagens are VOCs, the document recommends modifying certification standards for low-emitting building products to effectively detect the presence and emissions of asthmagens in products and during screening. Walsh says the market will demand these steps, as evidenced by LEED v4: “We cannot take action or make informed decisions with regard to asthmagens if we don’t know what our building products are made from. The new LEED disclosure credit rewards the use of products that provide this information, and its product optimization credits provide us with a mechanism through which we could eventually reward the avoidance of asthmagens in building products.”

As LEED v4 begins its rollout, specifiers of environmentally friendly building materials can expand their personal red lists in the meantime. “Full Disclosure” reveals that there are some building products that are no- or low-asthmagen, and it suggests keeping substitutions in mind, especially when serving vulnerable populations. To support designers’ efforts to this end, HBN has added a filter for priority asthmagens in the Pharos Building Product Library.

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