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Study: ‘Green’ Building Found to Contain Hazardous Chemicals

Charles S. Liberis Sept. 18, 2017

If you're considering leasing, buying or developing a green building, you may be under the impression that an environmentally friendly building will have a healthy indoor environment. A recent study in the journal Environmental Institute may indicate the opposite.

“Most buildings aren't designed with people's health in mind,” said the study's lead author, an environmental exposure scientist at the Silent Spring Institute. “Yet, indoor air pollution can lead to a range of health problems.”

The study examined air and dust samples from a public housing project that had recently been redeveloped to meet green standards. The samples were taken both before and after the renovations and tested for around 100 chemicals known to be problematic for human health. Taking the samples both pre- and post-occupancy allowed the researchers to determine which chemicals were associated with the building itself, and which contaminants were brought in by residents.

The results were pretty surprising. Formaldehyde, which is known to cause cancer, was found in every single unit at levels exceeding EPA safety standards. Several other contaminants were also found at levels above the EPA's screening standards.

Associated with the building itself were the flame retardants TCIPP and TCDIPP, which may have been added to insulation. Additionally, benzophenone, benzophenone-3 and di-butyl phthalate were discovered, all of which are more commonly associated with personal care products.

“We certainly didn't expect to see that,” said the researcher. “It's possible these chemicals are being added to paints or floor finishes.”

Once residents moved in, the team found higher levels of triclosan, a controversial antimicrobial, and phthalates, which are found in soft plastics and many personal care products. They also found a number of chemicals that had been banned or phased out of use due to health concerns, which probably came from older furniture.

The results of this study should give pause to anyone involved in housing development, but especially those who truly wish their green buildings to support human health. The researchers suggest the findings could be used to develop strategies for dealing with “sick buildings” and to remediate buildings affected by hurricanes, which are often inundated by toxic sludge.

“We should use these opportunities to get things right the first time by using safer, and healthier, materials that won't make people sick,” the researcher said.