A recent report by the American Council on Science and Health, Global Climate Change & Human Health, finds that over the past fifteen years there has been a 30 to 50 percent reduction in environmental health and well-being as measured by independently derived indicators. This report is just one of scores of analyses documenting the inextricable link between human health and environmental quality. How our homes contribute to this decline is, deservedly, gaining attention. Moreover, understanding how our homes–individually and collectively–can contribute to reversing this decline are actions that all of us can be part of. Gaining perspective on the links between environmental health and our national stock of residences is key to achieving measurable impact on the most fundamental sustaining elements of life on this planet.
In the United States, single-family residential homes represent the largest volume of construction and thus have a tremendous opportunity to turn around some of the alarming trends associated with buildings, environmental quality, and human health. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has declared indoor air quality as one of the top five environmental risks to public health. How is this? According to the EPA, many common materials used in residential construction contribute to impaired indoor air quality and, specifically, trigger asthma. Some of those materials include engineered wood products, insulation, and carpet formulated with formaldehyde; plasticizers in vinyl products such as wallcoverings, flooring, and shower curtains; and “sink” materials such as carpet and drywall. Indeed, asthma has emerged as a national and global epidemic, with a 75 percent increase between 1980 and 1994, now representing more than 17 million people and an estimated 5,300 annual deaths in the United States, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Illustrating the critical nature of this concern, consider what’s in vinyl shower curtains, according to an article in EPA’s Inside IAQ (Spring/Summer 2001). Four out of the fourteen compounds identified in shower curtains—methanol, methylene chloride, toluene, and phenol—were classified as hazardous air pollutants by the 1990 Clean Air Act Amendments.
The point here is that commonly used materials conflict with healthy indoor environments, and the most telling information about this is often obscured or difficult to obtain. Would you purchase a vinyl shower curtain if you knew it could be a catalyst for an asthma attack? As long as manufacturers are given the green light to use hazardous chemicals, verifiable point-of-sale labeling that identifies health risks should be mandatory. This would go a long way to make consumers confident about their purchasing decisions without feeling as though they need to take an advanced chemistry class.
Just as important as knowing how our health is affected by indoor air quality is recognizing the upstream and downstream impacts associated with manufacturing and disposal. While the ramifications of these impacts are out of sight for many of us, they’re part of our consumer footprint and can affect the health of workers and quality of life in communities where factories and disposal facilities are located. Carcinogens, mutagens, endocrine disruptors, and persistent bioaccumulative toxins (PBTs) are toxic to every life form on the planet, yet they continue to be ingredients in common building products.
On a national scale, residential construction is a major contributor to global warming, representing about 20 percent of overall carbon dioxide releases. Similar percentages are associated with toxic releases and other hazardous pollutants.
BaselineGreen, an analytic tool developed by CMPBS in partnership with Sylvatica and BNIM Architects, hierarchically displays upstream emissions associated with greenhouse gases, criteria air pollutants, and toxic releases, and holds strategic importance as it draws attention to the specific materials that represent the biggest contributions in these targeted categories. Systematically evolving toward materials and products that eliminate or significantly reduce these hazards is an opportunity to begin to make a difference with every new construction, renovation, and remodeling project.
Gaining the perspective that BaselineGreen provides holds extraordinary importance in turning the tide on the environmental health performance of our national housing stock. Knowing basic information about how specific materials affect the quality of health and the environment through the life cycle is pivotal. And understanding the environmental health consequences of the material and products we purchase—singly or in huge quantities— instills a sense that we are indeed connected on a planetary level.
Decades ago, Dr. Benjamin Spock was vilified by the medical profession for telling parents to trust their common sense in raising children. “Don’t be afraid to trust your own common sense.... You know more than you think you do,” he proclaimed. Our collective common sense knows that materials that lead to continued planetary toxification should be phased out. Acting on this inherent wisdom will catalyze a much overdue transition toward healthier building materials and products that are designed to provide equal or better performance than conventional ones—with competitive pricing. With an unprecedented focus on green building, our collective voice can ensure that environmental health is an imperative dimension of that emerging discipline.
Gail Vittori is co-director of the Center for Maximum Potential Building Systems, a nonprofit sustainable planning and design firm based in Austin, Texas. The Center’s innovative and anticipatory design, policy, and education initiatives are currently focused on open building systems, green health care initiatives, resource-balanced master planning, and lifecycle design.