The Relationship of Human Health and Environmental Quality

Find out how human health and environmental quality are tied together in residential home construction and company manufacturing and disposal.

| November/December 2003

  • Learn about the connection between human health and environmental quality.
    Learn about the connection between human health and environmental quality.
    By The Mother Earth Living staff

  • Learn about the connection between human health and environmental quality.

Home construction and company manufacturing are factors in human health and environmental quality.

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.

Living Upstream from Manufacturing Companies

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.

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